Spelunking in The Caves of Chapel Hill

by Carol Ann McCormick
Curatrix of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU)


One of the challenges of cataloging herbarium specimens — algae, fungi, mosses, vascular plants, or fossils — is interpreting the information on the specimen’s label.  Sometimes the collector has terrible handwriting (pointing at you, Dr. William Chambers Coker), sometimes the collector just puts his/her initials and assumes that 100 years later I will know who H.R.T. is (pointing at you, Dr. Henry Roland Totten), and sometimes the locality information is difficult to interpret.  

Locality can seem easy at first, but when one thinks about trying to find a very particular place 50 or 100 years

Herbarium specimen label of Teaberry collected by William Chambers Coker in 1915 from “Bluffs of New Hope Creek, the Caves”

later, difficulties arise:  highways change number, streets are re-routed, a mountain is called by different names by residents on opposite sides of the peak, town boundaries move, and what may be a well-known local landmark now may be utterly unknown decades later.  Some nearby localities I have puzzled over include The Tin Can, Scott’s Hole, Sparrow’s Meadow, The Volcano, and The Caves. (1) 

Between 1915 and 1946 plants were collected at “The Caves” — sometimes “on New Hope Creek” was included on the label, narrowing down its location to Orange or Durham County.  Collectors included William Chambers Coker (1872-1953), Henry Roland Totten (1892-1974), Nell Henry (1906-1999), Laurie Stewart (who became Laurie Radford; 1910-2004), A.E. Radford (1918-2006), and George Andrew Christenberry (1915-2009).  The plants collected at “The Caves” included common species  such as “Blackhaw” Viburnum prunifolium; “Bashful Wakerobin” Trillium catesbaei; “Pawpaw” Asimina triloba; and “Deerberry” Vaccinium stamineum.  However more unusual species (“Early Saxifrage” Micranthes virginiensis; “Trailing Arbutus” Epigaea repens, and “Teaberry” Gaultheria procumbens) were documented there as well.

As far as I know there are no true caves in Orange County. Along creeks, I have seen steep valleys which are concave in shape, and rock formations forming rock shelters or grottoes. There are numerous surface mines throughout the County, including Piedmont Minerals Company Mine near Hillsborough which yields pyrophyllite and the American Stone Company near White Cross which yields gravel and crushed stone.  The Old Duke quarry and the New Duke quarry are along the Eno River between Efland and Hillsborough, but again, these are surface mines. “The [Old Duke] quarry site was first worked during the colonial period and the stone was used in home construction in and around colonial Hillsborough. Prior to 1925, the quarry was worked by Mayo Quarries but the exact dates of operation are unknown. In 1925, the property was purchased by Duke University and the stone was quarried and shipped by Southern Rail way to Durham, North Carolina, for use in the construction of the west campus of Duke University. The quarry has northeast-southwest trend and is approximately 600 feet long, 250 feet wide and in some locations over 80 feet deep… The New Duke quarry “is situated on the eastern flank of northeast-trending ridge and is located 2000 feet west of the Old Duke quarry and approximately 300 feet west of the Eno River. The quarry was opened in the latter part of 1965 for the purpose of obtaining building stone for use in the continuing construction of buildings on the west campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Paul Manning, director of Project Management for Duke’s Facilities Management Department, holds a piece of stone at Duke’s quarry outside of Hillsborough. Photo by Jared Lazarus, Duke Office of News & Communications. (4)

Efforts to quarry building stone from the Old Duke quarry had ceased because of the difficulty in obtaining usable stone safely from the old quarry site. The quarry, which presently occupies an area of approximately cleared acres, was first stripped of its shallow-weathered overburden and then benched into the north side of the hill. The floor of the present working area is approximately 20 to 25 feet below the crest of the ridge… Orange County contains numerous prospects and old mine sites that have in the past been prospected or worked for gold, copper, and iron. All of the abandoned mines and prospects are small but are interesting and some show good evidence of metallization.”(3) Many of these mines or prospects were trenches or short shafts.  “[The Bradsher gold prospect is a] small rectangular pit, approximately 20 feet long by 12 feet wide and feet deep which is now mostly filled with trash”, “[the Chapel Hill iron mine shows] remnants of two caved adits… along with one small open cut 25 feet long, 8 feet wide, 4 to 5 feet deep”,  and the “[Stebbins copper prospect is] two small rectangular prospect pits… One is approximately 18 feet by 17 feet and filled with water to within 5 feet of the surface.  The exact depth is unknown.  The other is a much smaller pit which is 3 feet wide by 5 feet long by 2 feet deep.”(3)

Given the lack of physical caves in Orange County, I thought, perhaps these plants were collected on property owned by the Caves, as in “I found this neat plant in the woods near Jane and Susan Caves’ house”, and since I know where they live I will just put “at the Caves” on the label.  I even went so far as to check a 1930s city directory for Chapel Hill, but found no one with the surname of “Cave” or “Caves” — but that did not rule out that these hypothetical troglodytes lived in rural Orange County or Durham County.  Neither of these two options led me any closer to a physical location for “the Caves” so I was resigned to just continue cataloging plants and perhaps some day a specimen label would contain just enough information to pinpoint it on a map.

On a hot July day in 2018, my husband, Mark, and I decided to wander the trails of Duke Forest along New Hope Creek.  We started our ramble in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest off Erwin Road, and eventually made our way to the relatively new Hollow Rock Nature Park. “The Hollow Rock area has a long and colorful history of use. With its rich bottomland soils and clean streams the Hollow Rock area supported abundant wildlife and was well suited to agricultural uses. Native Americans traversed this area and established a substantial community. Europeans also settled and gradually the trading paths became roads, including present-day Erwin Road. During the 19th century the Patterson family established a prominent mill near this crossroads, and by the turn of the 20th century the Hollow Rock store had become a popular gathering place. Although the last store building was demolished in the early 1990s, the area retains a strong sense of place, due in part to the forest management program by Duke University and to the strong community presence from surrounding residents. The name “Hollow Rock” comes from an unusual sandstone rock outcrop located along the bank of New Hope Creek, north of the Erwin Road crossing and north of the planning area. The rock has been carved out over time by flow of the river. A popular Duke Forest trail brings many visitors to this site, especially in late spring when the rhododendron is in bloom. South of Erwin Road, another interesting rock outcrop—the “Hanging Rock”—extends out from the bank over New Hope Creek. The land for the Hollow Rock Access Area was acquired in a series of transactions from 2001-08. Funding for land acquisition came from the State of North Carolina, Durham County, Orange County, Town of Chapel Hill, City of Durham, Triangle Land Conservancy, and Erwin Area Neighborhood Group (EANG), which raised private funds for purchasing land. Duke University was also an important partner, as were other private landowners who conserved portions of their land along New Hope Creek.”  (2)

Shiny green foliage of Galax urceolata, “Galax”

As we walked along New Hope Creek in Duke Forest we admired the large sandstone rocks along the opposite bank of New Hope Creek.  Mark stopped and pulled out his binoculars to examine a plant with shiny leaves atop one of the sandstone boulders.  “Is that Galax?” he asked.  It was too far away for me to be sure, but he was determined to find out, so doffed his footwear, waded through the shallow water, and clambered up the rocks to pluck a single leaf from what was, indeed a clump of Galax urceolata.  We’ve seen Galax at Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area in Hillsborough but it is certainly not a plant I see commonly elsewhere in our area.  

“The Rosetta Stone”: label information on this specimen of Galax collected by H. R. Totten in 1915 provided enough information to locate “The Caves”

On our way home we decided to stop by the Herbarium to enjoy some air conditioning and to consult the Galax specimens in the cases. There Mark found the “Rosetta Stone” —  a specimen of Galax collected by H. R. Totten on May 2, 1915:  “Rocks” on New Hope Creek, above Patterson’s Mill ” with the key pieces of information added, in William Chambers Coker’s hand, “= Hollow Rocks = The Caves” and “Orange Co.

Eureka! I could finally locate the specimens to an area, albeit a rather large area, along New Hope Creek in Orange County, northwest of Erwin Road.  It is unfortunate that the side of New Hope Creek with the large sandstone boulders is not part of Duke Forest nor part of Hollow Rock Nature Preserve, so the plants that live on the steep slopes are not protected in any way other than the goodwill (or benign neglect) of the landowners. 

Delicate white flowers of Galax urceolata, “Galax”

Besides finding more populations of Galax at The Caves, I would also like to re-find the population(s) of Teaberry / Wintergreen, Gaulteria procumbens.  It was collected there multiple times:  in 1915 by G. W. Johnson (in May) and by William Chambers Coker (in July); in 1920 by H. R. Totten; and most recently, in 1942 by Henry J. Oosting (this specimen is in the Duke Herbarium).  Keep your eyes open as you hike along New Hope Creek — and let me know if you see it!  As it is a rare plant for Orange County instead of collecting a physical specimen, I would make a photographic voucher for the Herbarium and include on the label the latitude and longitude of the place where the plant was found so that future Herbarium curators are left without a doubt as to where the plant was documented. 




Keen geographers will note there are plenty of steep slopes well upstream of “The Caves” / “Hollow Rock”.  The places I’d like to check most for interesting plants are the steep, north-facing slopes on the south side of New Hope Creek, all the way to Whitfield Road — fortunately most of this area is part of Duke Forest.

Happy Trails and Good Spelunking to you!

Portion of the USGS Chapel Hill quad showing “The Caves” (red arrows) along New Hope Creek NW of the Erwin Road bridge in Orange County
Portion of USGS topographic map showing “The Caves” (red arrows) and steep slopes of New Hope Creek in Duke Forest.



 1.  I have asked Dr. Peter White, NCBG Director Emeritus, to write up his latest findings on “Scott’s Hole” for an upcoming Herbarium column, and I will excavate my notes on “The Volcano” for yet another column on local geography and the plants thereof.

2.  Hollow Rock Master Plan Committee.  2009.  Hollow Rock Access Area to the New Hope Preserve:  Proposed Master Plan.  https://www.dconc.gov/home/showdocument?id=13567  accessed on 14 November 2020  

3.  Allen, Eldon P. and William F. Wilson.  1968.  Geology and mineral resources of Orange County, North Carolina.  North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development, Division of Mineral Resources, Bulletin 81.

4.  Schramm, Stephen.  2018.  Duke stone:  From quarry to campus.  Duke Today 18 June 2018.  https://today.duke.edu/2018/06/duke-stone-quarry-campus.    accessed 19 November 2020.