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History of Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh, North Carolina, was the namesake of Sir Walter Raleigh, who sponsored a settlement of about 115 people on Roanoke Island, in 1587 — a pioneer village in the New World that came to be known as the “Lost Colony.”

When it was named the county seat of Wake county as well as the state capital in 1792, Raleigh did not exist as a city or town, but was a more-centrally located area for better protection against the British and for better access by the rest of the state. The first capital, New Bern, was located on the Carolina coast. The new town was built 12 miles south of a once-popular hangout for state legislators called Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, and the state capital was officially moved there, in 1794.

Noteworthy in Raleigh’s history is Andrew Johnson, born in a log cabin there in 1808. In 1826, Johnson left Raleigh and moved to eastern Tennessee, where he opened a tailor shop and married the following year. In 1865, Vice-President Johnson was sworn in as president shortly after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Growth and setbacks

Raleigh’s growth was slow despite surviving destruction during the Civil War. Its original size changed little from its origins, until streetcar lines were installed in the 1920s. Today it is known as the “City of Oaks,” and is part of the Raleigh-Durham metro area, the most-densely populated area of the state.

Growth in the city began to take off when the Research Triangle Park opened in 1959. It is anchored by RTI International, the nation’s second-largest independent nonprofit research organization. Near the "Triangle" cities, Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, the park ushered in an era of extensive, high-tech growth for the area.

Among the natural disasters Raleigh has endured, Hurricane Fran, a Category 3 storm, hit the city in 1996. (Altogether, it inflicted $3 billion in damage to the eastern seaboard and killed 26 persons).

Notable transportation facilities

Major growth occurred within the area when a 24-mile loop of I-440, also known as the Raleigh Beltline or the Cliff Benson Beltline, first opened in 1984. The freeway circumnavigates downtown Raleigh, enabling easier access to other cities within the Triangle, as well as allowing through traffic to avoid the downtown area. The loop brought together various portions of existing expressways, such as I-40, US 1, and US 64, and new construction mainly on the city's south side.*

When it was built, the Beltline was the only U.S. interstate highway without compass directions (e.g. east/west), using an “inner” (clockwise) loop and “outer” (counterclockwise) loop as designations. As knowledge of its baffling signage became notorious, compass designations were assigned.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport is located northwest of Raleigh on I-40, between the two cities. While the airport was under constructon in 1942, it was commandeered by the U.S. military for wartime purposes. By May 1943, the Raleigh-Durham Army Air Base contained barracks, office buildings, and three airstrips. In the year following the war, the military returned more than 1,200 acres of the base to the cities from which they came. Raleigh-Durham International Airport began regular civilian commercial flights, provided by Capital Airlines, in 1947.

Institutions of higher learning

Raleigh is home to North Carolina State University, a public land-grant institution with a student enrollment of 30,000, and the state's largest university. It was founded in March 1887, by an act of the North Carolina General Assembly to provide education in agriculture and engineering.

Also included on Raleigh’s roster of colleges and universities are Meredith College, Shaw University, and Peace College, where women have been studying liberal arts since its establishment in 1857.

The second-oldest women's college in North Carolina, behind Salem College in Winston-Salem, Peace College was acquired by the First Presbyterian Church of Raleigh in 1962 after its former owner, the Synod of North Carolina, was forced to close its doors. St. Augustine's College, founded in 1867 to educate former slaves, has evolved from an African-American-based student body to one that is multicultural and multinational.

Museums and other cultural offerings

Raleigh boasts several interesting museums and venues for the performing arts. Included is the North Carolina Museum of History, which contains the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Sports fans will find such interesting pieces of sports history as Richard Petty’s stock car and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem Globetrotters basketball uniform. Among others that call Raleigh home is the North Carolina Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which is the largest museum of its kind in the southeast United States.

Cultural activities can be enjoyed at the massive Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. This complex comprises the Fletcher Opera Theater, Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, and the Meymandi Concert Hall.

Raleigh Memorial Auditorium seats about 2,300 for such events as music concerts, dance, comedy, and Broadway productions. The Fletcher Opera Theater is a 600-seat facility that provides a more-intimate venue for dance, music, and theatrical productions, with the farthest seat in the balcony just 68 feet from the stage.


The Carolina Hurricanes, a professional ice hockey team, is the only remaining major-league sports franchise in Raleigh. Tensions over Raleigh’s inability to attract and keep a professional sports team were eased somewhat upon the completion of the RBC Center. The arena's name is from one of its principal owners, the Royal Bank of Canada and its subsidiary, Centura Bank.

Formerly known as the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, the RBC seats more than 19,700 people for basketball and more than 18,500 for ice hockey. Increased seating capacity is part of a package that might lure an NBA franchise to the city.

College sports are popular, given the large number of universities in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. A tense rivalry exists between the North Carolina State Wolfpack and such fellow Atlantic Coast Conference teams as the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (Chapel Hill), Duke University Blue Devils (Durham), and Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Winston-Salem), thanks to one another's proximity along about 100 miles of I-40.

See also Coast Highway 101 in Oregon.