The Ghosts of Raleigh
Friday, October 21, 2022, 10am by visitRaleigh
A destination always brings out its best spooks and ghost stories during this week leading up to Halloween. With a haunted history like Wake County has, there are plenty of ghouls and goblins for us to talk about. That concept reminded us of a story, written by Ernest Dollar, executive director of the City of Raleigh Museum (COR Museum), and published in the Official Visitors Guide called "The Ghosts of Raleigh"—intended for people who love history and have vivid imaginations, a strong sense of empathy and a bit of a taste for the macabre.
Read on, if you dare.
Many people visit historical sites when they are in a new city. They might take a selfie, buy a postcard or note a few details to post on Facebook. But some people, those who love and appreciate history, have learned to linger—to make the experiences more meaningful by infusing the history of a place with their own imaginations.
For example, visit the rotunda of the North Carolina State Capitol and imagine this—during the Civil War, the women of the community gathered under the dome to roll bandages for the troops—their sons, brothers, husbands or fathers. Close your eyes and imagine the swish of their skirts as they moved around the room and listen for the low murmur of voices as they talked while they worked. Do that and the space comes alive with meaning.
Knowing the facts about an historic place is just the threshold, but understanding the context and the people who lived it makes it real. And if you can imagine the feelings of Raleigh residents who lived those moments as they happened, sometimes over 150 years ago, the experience can be downright goose bump-producing.
We have noted here just a few of our area’s most significant sites, and we have provided some details that we think are worth imagining. Walk through the doors, close your eyes and, for just a moment, step back in time to imagine what life must have been like for those who lived it.
Surveyed as one of the city’s main thoroughfares in 1792, the street where Raleigh comes to shop, eat and party was converted in the 1970s to a pedestrian mall, closing it to automobile traffic, but was restored in 2006, breathing new life into the old road. In the past, parades celebrating dignitaries (like the street’s namesake, the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1825) made their way down the street.
N.C. EXECUTIVE MANSION
The official residence of the Governor of North Carolina since 1883, the “people’s house” as it is called, was constructed of materials from across the state. Sandstone trim came from Anson County, marble from Cherokee County; its bricks were made from Wake County clay and molded by prisoners’ labor. Echo the sentiment of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who called it the “most beautiful governor’s residence interior in America.” Hear voices from the past when you see the sidewalk bricks with the inscribed names of men who made them.
Pictured above: Fayetteville St. before automobiles; the Joel Lane House, the N.C. Executive Mansion around the turn of the 20th century and artifacts on display today in the Pope House Museum.
JOEL LANE MUSEUM HOUSE
Built around 1769, the home has been faithfully restored to the time when Lane became “The Father of Raleigh.” Not only did Lane help lay the borders for Wake County, but also he sold 1,000 acres of land for the location of the state’s new capital city in 1792.
What must this structure have witnessed when it was built in 1868 as a hotel in the then-small town of Cary? Travelers on the N.C. Railroad would have marveled at the French Second Empire architectural style. In 1985, the dilapidated hotel was purchased by the Town of Cary, and complete restoration in the 1990s resulted in the creation of the Page-Walker Arts and History Center. (1868 was the same year President Andrew Johnson was impeached; he was born in Raleigh.)
MORRISVILLE HISTORY CENTER
Established in 1850, with the arrival of the N.C. Railroad, this sleepy town witnessed severe skirmishes during the end of the Civil War. The town exploded in the 1990s with the further development of Research Triangle Park and a Hindu temple. This incredible transformation is captured in the Morrisville History Center, located in the town hall. Imagine the struggle of the April 1865 skirmish that took place in downtown Morrisville.
The Pope House Museum is one of downtown Raleigh’s unique hidden gems. It is one of the few African American house museums in N.C. and the nation. Built in 1901 by one of N.C.’s first licensed African American doctors, Dr. Manassa T. Pope, the home takes visitors on a journey through his family life. Put yourself in Dr. Pope’s place when you look at his hard-earned diploma, written in Latin and signed by former Union Army chaplain and founder of Shaw University Henry Tupper.
DOROTHEA DIX PARK
If you feel a tug at your spirit when you visit Dorothea Dix Park, you could be connecting with the park’s history as the state’s main mental hospital. In 1848, Dorothea Dix stopped to campaign in Raleigh to improve conditions for the mentally ill. Due to her efforts a principal hospital building was completed in 1856. By 1974 the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus comprised 282 buildings on 2,343 acres with more than 2,700 patients.
Nineteen-year-old Nicolaos Dombalis sailed from Patras, Greece, on July 28, 1913, fleeing a country wrecked by decades of religious strife, war and genocide. He eventually arrived in Raleigh in early 1930 and opened a restaurant he called Mecca Luncheonette at the corner of Fayetteville and Hargett Sts. For $1, patrons could order a T-bone steak, a side salad, a Coke and an ice cream sundae. In 1937, Dombalis relocated to the current location at 13 E. Martin St. Today the Mecca is the oldest restaurant in downtown Raleigh serving traditional Southern fare and still honoring its 90-year-old history. Be sure to look for a portrait of the President on one of Mecca’s walls—FDR, that is.
• EDITOR'S NOTE: Ernest Dollar released a book earlier in 2022 called Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War's Final Campaign in North Carolina. You can get a copy on Amazon here.