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Durham, North Carolina - History, Attractions, Things to See & Do

Updated on October 20, 2007
Cameron Indoor Stadium - Home of the 3-time NCAA Champion Duke Blue Devils
Cameron Indoor Stadium - Home of the 3-time NCAA Champion Duke Blue Devils

Durham is the fourth-largest city in North Carolina and the county seat of Durham County. It originated in 1853 during the search to establish a railroad depot between Hillsborough and Raleigh for the North Carolina Railroad. The wood-burning steam locomotives used during this period had to make frequent stops to refuel. Depots that supplied water and wood could not be more than 25-30 miles apart.

A country physician named Bartlett S. Durham lived and practiced n the area. He donated land to the railroad, which named the new depot Durham Station. Before the arrival of the railroad, the area was primarily agricultural, with a few businesses catering to travelers along the Hillsborough Road. This road, which was eventually followed by US Route 70, was the main east-west route in the state from colonial times until the construction of the interstate highways.

Before Europeans arrived, two Indian tribes - the Eno and the Occaneechi, related to the Sioux - lived and farmed here. Durham is believed to be the site of an ancient village named Adshusheer. The Great Indian Trading Path can be traced through Durham. Native Americans helped to form Durham by establishing sites for settlements, routes for transportation, and patterns of natural resource use that were environmentally friendly.

Durham grew slowly until the years following the Civil War. Much of the growth was related to the establishment of a thriving tobacco industry. Confederate and Union soldiers were encamped at Bennett Place, just outside town, during surrender proceedings. During the extended encampment, they sampled the area's Brightleaf Tobacco, which had a milder flavor than other tobacco varieties. After returning to their homes, many orders were mailed to request more of the Durham tobacco.

The prosperity of the Bull Durham Tobacco Company and Washington Duke's Duke & Sons Tobacco Company resulted in the rapid growth of the city of Durham. Although the tobacco industry initially dominated the city's economy, it was soon rivalled by the establishment of several textile mills.

Durham's growth stalled during the mid-20th century. Textile mills began to close in the 1930s. Competition from other tobacco companies and a decrease in smoking after the 1960s reduced revenues to Durham's tobacco industry. Although the region benefited from the establishment of Research Triangle Park in 1958, Durham did not experience the same growth in housing development as did nearby Raleigh and Cary. The movement of people to the suburbs also contributed to the decline of Durham's downtown as a economic and retail center.

Durham's growth began to rekindle during the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of multiple housing developments in the southern part of the city nearest Research Triangle Park, and the beginning of downtown revitalization. Now, nearly 140 major research and development companies, including IBM, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Underwriters Laboratories, and agencies such as the EPA, employ more than 45,000 people in the area. The Durham area, along with nearby Raleigh and Chapel Hill, comprise what is know as The Triangle area.

Area Colleges & Universities:

The area around Durham is rich in educational opportunities. In addition to the schools listed below, it is a short commute to North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

  • Duke University
  • North Carolina Central University
  • Durham Technical Community College

Attractions / Points of Interest:

  • American Tobacco Trail
  • Bennett Place
  • Brightleaf Square
  • Carolina Theatre
  • Duke University
  • Horton Grove
  • North Carolina Museum of Life and Science
  • Sarah P. Duke Gardens
  • Stagville Plantation
  • West Point Mill


Durham's most famous professional sports team is the Durham Bulls baseball team, which competes in the International League as an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devils Rays. A movie involving the franchise, Bull Durham, was produced in 1988.

Duke University offers 26 NCAA Division I sporting teams and was a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Duke has won 3 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championships and is currently third in men's NCAA Final Four Appearances with 14.

North Carolina Central University offers NCAA Division I sporting teams competing in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).

Interesting Fact:

The origin of Durham's nickname, the "Bull City," has nothing to do with cattle. John Green of the Blackwell Tobacco Company named his product "Bull" Durham Tobacco after Colman's Mustard, which used a bull in its logo. Green mistakenly thought it was produced in Durham, England. Bull Durham became the most famous trademark in the world. It initiated such popular phrases as "bullpen" (from a Bull Durham advertisement behind the Yankees' dugout, ) and "shooting the bull" (probably from chewing tobacco).


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