Point of Beginning

A Capitol Idea

November 29, 2006
The view of the North Carolina State Capitol from Wilmington Street showcases the statue of Presidents Polk, Jackson and Johnson.


In 1744, nearly every promising community in North Carolina was vying to become the site of the state's capital. Among the cities contesting for the honor were New Bern, Edenton and Halifax. This fight continued for decades, forcing North Carolina's General Assembly to carry its records from town to town for its meetings. Often, when the records arrived at the selected meeting location, there was no quorum or the records did not arrive intact. Therefore, at the Convention of 1788 in Hillsborough, an exasperated legislature decided that a permanent seat of government must be agreed upon. This ultimately led to the creation of the city of Raleigh to serve as the state's capital. More than 200 years later, as part of renovations planned in Raleigh, members of the North Carolina Society of Surveyors (NCSS) were called upon to retrace the historic survey upon which the state's Capitol was founded.

David Haywood, CESI survey crew chief, locates an underground utility box on the Capitol's grounds behind the Henry Lawson Wyatt monument.

History of the State Capitol

On December 5, 1791, North Carolina's legislature passed a resolution that "it shall be left to the discretion of the General Assembly to ascertain the exact spot, provided always that it shall be within ten miles of the plantation whereon Isaac Hunter now resides, in the county of Wake." It is not known why the convention passed this resolution. Isaac Hunter was the owner of a tavern on the old Petersburg-Fayetteville stage road, which is four miles north of the site eventually selected for the State House. He may have been the friend of an assemblyman, or it may have been that his tavern was the only well-known landmark located in the middle of the state, which was a factor under consideration by the convention.

Nine commissioners were chosen to go to Wake County to select the exact site from at least 17 tracts of land offered for sale. The commissioners met at the home of Colonel Joel Lane, where they stayed for more than a fortnight enjoying his hospitality. During the first eight days of their stay, they journeyed to visit the various parcels of land. When they convened in Lane's home to decide on a location, they were not in agreement and had to cast votes twice before choosing to purchase one thousand acres of land from their host himself for 1,378 pounds (approximately $115,000 in today's dollars).

In 1792, William Christmas, a senator from Franklin County, was hired to survey the property. He was paid four shillings for each lot he surveyed (roughly $16.70 today). He worked for four days to cut out 276 one-acre lots. The grand axial center was six acres called Union Square, the site of the future State House. Edenton, Morgan, Salisbury and Wilmington Streets, which bordered Union Square, were set at 66 feet in width. Fayetteville, Halifax, New Bern and Hillsborough Streets, which radiated out from Union Square, were set at 99 feet in width.

This monument at the Capitol commemorates Zebulon Baird Vance, who was the governor of North Carolina during the Civil War.
The original State House, a simple, two-story brick structure, was built between 1792 and 1796. The building was modified in 1822 by the addition of a third floor, a new dome, the east and west wings, false porticos and stucco. This building was destroyed in June 1831 by a disastrous fire, which also destroyed a marble statue of George Washington that stood in the center of the rotunda.

After the fire of 1831, the General Assembly was determined to replace the building with one as indestructible as possible. It was therefore decided that it should be built of granite. A railroad was built to the quarry southeast of town to transport the granite. Completed January 1, 1833, the railroad ran for a mile and a quarter and the cars were pulled by a horse "guaranteed not to run away." It wasn't much, but it was North Carolina's first railroad and people came from miles around to see and ride the rail. The new Capitol, completed in 1840, housed all of North Carolina's state government until the 1880s. The Supreme Court and State Library moved to a new building in 1888, and the General Assembly moved to the State Legislative Building in 1963. Today the governor and lieutenant governor, along with their immediate staff, occupy offices on the first floor of the Capitol.

Carl Young works as the instrument person during the worst snowstorm in North Carolina in a decade.

A Plan for Renovation

Over the years, many improvements have been made to the area surrounding the Capitol building, and more have been planned for the future. In 1926-1928, the grounds were modernized with a more park-like atmosphere by the addition of serpentine walks and diversified plantings. Thirteen statues and monuments have been added to the grounds of the Capitol. Currrently, the State Capitol Historic Society, with the assistance of the landscape architectural firm of Little and Little, Raleigh, N.C., has plans to restore the Capitol grounds, especially the southern grounds facing Morgan Street where the George Washington statue is located. This bronze statue is one of six cast from a mold of Houdon's "Washington," which stands in Virginia's Capitol in Richmond. It was intended to replace the statue destroyed by fire in 1831. Unveiled on July 4, 1857, it was the first statue placed on the grounds.

The State Capitol Historic Society requested assistance from the North Carolina Society of Surveyors (NCSS) to prepare a boundary and topographic survey of Union Square to provide the base mapping necessary for the renovations it plans to make. With the assistance of Melissa Beard, executive director of NCSS, and Gary Thompson of the North Carolina Geodetic Survey, Concord Engineering and Surveying Inc. (CESI), a multi-service firm with offices in Concord and Willow Springs, N.C., agreed to provide this service to the State Capitol Historical Society pro bono.

Darrell Helms, CESI survey crew chief, sketches in locations on the Morgan Street side of the Capitol.

Retracing Union Square

The survey began in mid-February 2004. Immediately, one of the worst North Carolina snowstorms of the decade occurred, with 4-6 inches of accumulation. CESI field crews bravely struggled through the storm and completed the locations and boundary fieldwork in two weeks. A base map was prepared of the planimetric features and topography of the site. CESI located the trees, shrubs, sidewalks, visible indications of non-gravity utilities and gravity utilities. In order to complete the topographic locations, SoDeep Inc., a subsurface utility engineering firm from Raleigh, N.C., marked positions of underground utilities. SoDeep's team spent several weeks and many hours tracing the non-gravity utilities. After this was completed, a CESI crew was sent to locate all the colorful lines indicating the location of various utilities, which were then added to the drawing. SoDeep reviewed this for accuracy of the connections of the utilities. CESI staff then made the final corrections to the topographic portion of the map.

For the boundary portion of the survey, a crew sent on a field search was unable to locate any monumentation from the 1792 survey by William Christmas. Additionally, as the majority of the surrounding blocks are used by the state for public buildings, few private retracement surveys were available. However, several surveys exist from the 1960s performed by John Lawrence, a well-respected surveyor in the Raleigh area. The corners found from these surveys indicated that the centerlines of the four surrounding streets agree with the William Christmas 1792 plat. Using corners from Lawrence's plats to determine the boundary on the west, north and south of Union Square, the eastern boundary was established by the location of the centerline of Wilmington Street. This solution fit the position of the 1-foot granite wall, which surrounds Union Square within 0.1 to 0.2 feet.

Haywood locates the veterans' memorial on the Edenton Street side of the Capitol.
The final product involved the creation of more than one map due to the density of information collected. These included: a boundary map showing the planimetric features; a topographic map with the planimetric features, gravity utilities, and contours; and a utility map showing the planimetric features and non-gravity utilities.

In addition, Daryl Huffman of Duncan Parnell Inc., a dealership in Charlotte, N.C., donated the use of a Leica Geosystems (San Ramon, Calif.) HDS3000 laser scanner and scanned the southern portion of the Capitol including the statue of George Washington, which is the main focus of the current renovation plan of the State Capitol Historic Society. Subsequently, his scan was tied to CESI's control to provide the renovation designers with the opportunity to view their plan in 3D.

Although this survey was challenging and demanding, those who worked on it found the history they learned about North Carolina's Capitol to be an invaluable reward. CESI's employees felt privileged to have represented NCSS in this endeavor. According to Raymond Beck, North Carolina's State Capitol Historian, "The survey of Union Square so kindly provided to the State Capitol Foundation by Concord Engineering and its affiliates is likely the most extensive and the most complete survey of Union Square in its 212-year history." To perpetuate this retracement for future generation, plans are currently being developed for a ceremony to accompany the setting of special monuments at the corners of the Capitol grounds.

Sidebar: Establishing Raleigh's Latitude and Longitude

In April 1853, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey installed granite geodetic survey stones and established the latitude and longitude of Raleigh as 35 degrees 46 minutes and 46.67 seconds north and 78 degrees 38 minutes and 19.44 seconds west. In order to perform these observations, a telegraphic longitudinal connection had to be made between Washington, D. C., Raleigh, N.C., and Charleston, S.C. The work was apparently difficult as documents indicate: "Several conditions had to be met before work could proceed"¦. First, the weather had to be favorable at both points"¦second, the telegraph line had to be available"¦third, the telegraph operator had to be in condition to work." And in a quote from notes taken at the time, "No further observations can be made because of the condition the operator is in." The last note leaves one to wonder. However, observations with modern equipment have shown the latitude and longitude of the survey stones to be: 35 degrees 46 minutes and 46.67 seconds north and 78 degrees 38 minutes and 19.44 seconds west. Whatever "condition" the 1853 operator was in apparently did not have a negative impact on accuracy.

Source: North Carolina's Capital Raleigh by Elizabeth Culbertson Waugh. Published by The Junior League of Raleigh Inc. and the Raleigh Historic Sites Commission Inc., 1967.