Under a Chapel Hill driveway, the university of the past emerges

08/25/2014 7:32 PM

08/26/2014 5:26 AM

A driveway repaving project at a Chapel Hill home has led archaeologists to a two-century-old landmark where U.S. presidents dined and a scandalous North-South romance raged just after the Civil War.

The driveway project, outside the home of UNC system President Tom Ross, revealed the charred foundation of what is known as the “Second President’s House,” erected around 1812 and destroyed by fire in 1886.

It is now the site of a hasty excavation, where UNC-Chapel Hill archaeologists and students are scraping, photographing and digging what was once the home of UNC presidents Joseph Caldwell and David Swain in the 1800s. The researchers have already found nails, bits of drinking glasses and bottles, and a piece of a blue-edged dinner plate.

The researchers, hampered by a downpour late last week, have a few days to uncover and photograph whatever they can before the driveway work resumes. So they’re being a little less painstaking than usual, employing a shop vac and other modern tools to get to the bottom of what was the home’s cellar and dining room. That could be1 foot or 6 feet, said Brett Riggs, an archaeologist with UNC-CH’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology.

“We’re going to go down to the floor,” Riggs said. “We just don’t how deep that’s going to be.”

The basement is likely to be a treasure trove of artifacts, because the house collapsed when it burned on Christmas Eve 128 years ago.

The home was built by Caldwell, the university’s first president, who moved there when he married a widow with three children. Needing more space, apparently, the president persuaded the university to sell him the property.

Elite visitors, Union suitor

Caldwell wrote to his brother in 1812, saying he had spent $2,000 on the new two-story house, which had a footprint measuring 40 feet by 24 feet.

He held classes at the home, and students lived there as tenants on occasion. Caldwell was known to be an astronomy buff and had pillars on the property for the purposes of stargazing.

Later, the home was occupied by Swain, a power broker who entertained the political elite of the day.

“Swain, having been a former governor, was also very well politically connected,” Riggs said. “People wanted to come and rub shoulders and get tips. There were all kinds of folks who came through.”

Three U.S. presidents visited the home – James Polk, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Archaeologists found a 1907 university history by Kemp Battle that described a summer soiree honoring Buchanan in the front yard: “Long rows of luscious eatables were ranged on long tables, but no wines nor other alcoholic stimulants in any form. Blooming young ladies were efficient volunteer waitresses.”

Perhaps the most colorful chapter involved Swain’s daughter, Ellie, who was courted by a former Union general, Smith Atkins, whose federal forces occupied Chapel Hill after the war.

“He’d send the regimental band over to serenade her. They’d come over every night and they’d be in the back yard,” Riggs said, pointing to a spot where a water cooler was placed at the edge of the dig Monday.

Several histories recount the scandalous relationship, which apparently caused great bitterness among the Chapel Hill villagers, some of whom spat on the wedding invitation, according to a published account by a neighbor, Cornelia Phillips Spencer.

On Monday, Riggs and a couple of students rushed to photograph the site whenever clouds floated by, reducing the shadow on the rocks and bricks. Then, down on hands and knees, they scraped the surface with trowels and removed dirt little by little with dustpans.

Tom Bythell, the university arborist, came by the site about a week ago as construction workers had ripped up the asphalt of the old driveway. Rocks poking up looked to be in a straight line, nothing that could be naturally occurring.

‘This is it’

He got in touch with Riggs and other UNC-CH archaeologists, who had previously excavated a nearby well house, now behind the historic Spencer Love house. They had always known the “Second President’s House” was somewhere close. They just didn’t know the exact spot.

That day last week, Riggs and Bythell looked around, examining postage-stamp pieces of property.

“He started to sweat. Excitement,” Bythell said of Riggs. “He said, ‘This is it.”

Teams have been furiously digging ever since, battling mud, heat and rains. For the students, it’s a chance to learn outside the classroom, discovering a small part of university history. They’ve also encountered evidence of other civilization, including 1,000-year old Native American projectile points.

Within days, the site will be covered by a brick driveway, hidden again for generations.

David Cranford, a UNC doctoral anthropology student from Wake Forest, has helped excavate an Indian site in South Carolina and an ancient site in Peru this summer. And now Chapel Hill.

“It’s neat to get to work on campus,” he said.

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