History

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The Town of Chapel Hill is a community where a diversity of ideas, people, and opportunities converge. It is a place where its citizens feel a vitality and pride that stem from Chapel Hill's history, traditions, and unique characteristics. Nicknamed the "Southern Part of Heaven," Chapel Hill was named after New Hope Chapel which stood upon a hill at the crossing of two primary roads (where The Carolina Inn currently stands). Town lots were auctioned in 1793 when work began on the first University building, although it was 1795 before any residents occupied permanent homes.

The Town's first charter had no mention of a Mayor, but by 1871, H.B. Guthrie, magistrate of police, was being called by that title. Though not a Mayor by today's definition, Guthrie was hired by the Commissioners to "keep the peace" and preside at meetings of the board. An 1879 charter amendment formally established a mayoral position and invested it with police power, but it was not until 1895 that the modern Mayor/Council structure began to evolve. A charter amendment increased the size of the governing board to include a Mayor elected by the citizens; the first Mayor so elected was John H. Watson on May 5, 1895.

By 1899, the Commissioners were calling themselves the Board of Aldermen, but the Mayor/Board form of government continued until the summer of 1922 when the first Town Manager, Eddie Knox, was hired. It was not until July 1979 that the Town's governing board came to be called the Town Council.

The history of the Town is inextricably linked to the University. The Town was, in fact, created to serve the University. When the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees chose the area around New Hope Chapel as the site for the first State university in 1793, they also named a committee to lay out a town adjacent to the site.

The original map of the Town, drawn in 1798, shows 24 two-acre lots and six four-acre lots wrapping around the northern, western, and eastern fringes of the campus. These 30 parcels, sold at public auction to the highest bidder, were squared off along six streets including a proposed 290-foot-wide "Grand Avenue" running out of the campus through what is now Henderson Street and the Cobb Terrace area.

By 1859, the Town covered 820 acres forming a rectangle bounded roughly by Sunset Drive, Penick Lane, Tenney Circle and Gimghoul Road. The Town retained these boundaries for almost a century with the first modern annexation taking place in 1950, bringing in the Northside school (currently known as the Orange County Multi-Purpose Center on Caldwell Street Ext.) and 275 acres known locally as the Strowd Hill area. Annexation since then has proceeded at a steady pace, and the Town now encompasses about 21 square miles.

The population of 57,233 is diverse, consisting of University faculty and staff, students, business people, and retirees from all over the world, not to mention the native Chapel Hillians. The Town's transformation from a small, relatively rural, turn-of-the-century village to a thriving, cosmopolitan University city has occurred since 1940, largely in concert with corresponding growth and change in the University. In response to the demands of the rapidly growing population, Town government has undergone a thrust toward modern business professionalism to meet the higher levels of service needed. Between 1968-1978 the services of Parks and Recreation, Planning, Personnel, Transportation and the Public Library were added to Town government.

While recognizing that the Town has moved beyond its sole identity with the University, this association will always remain essential to the identity of Chapel Hill—not only as a prime employer, but as the focus of Town activities that range from learning and the free exchange of ideas, to the wide variety of athletic and cultural programs it sponsors.

Present day reminders of Chapel Hill's history are cherished by its citizens and admired by its visitors; quiet winding streets, wooded homesites, stone walls, and small shops surrounding the University add to the charm, mystique, and "small-town" atmosphere. Much of the character of Chapel Hill is due to its great natural beauty including steep wooded slopes, small streams, and tree-covered vistas. The integration of these protected natural environments with the cosmopolitan and institutional setting of the University reflect the spirit of diversity and community which is Chapel Hill.

Books on Chapel Hill

  • A Backward Glance: Facts of Life in Chapel Hill by the Chapel Hill Bicentennial Commission
  • Chapel Hill 200 Years: Close to Magic by the Chapel Hill Bicentennial Commission
  • Chapel Hill: A Pictorial History by Steven Stolpen
  • Chapel Hill: An Illustrated History by James Vickers 
  • These Old Stone Walls by Philips Russell
  • The Southern Part of Heaven by William M. Prince

History of Your Town Government (pdf)

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