Tar Heel Trace - Coastal Scenic Drives
The Tar Heel Trace byway winds through North Carolina’s Coastal Plain from Wilson to Williamston and takes its name from the pine tar industry that once thrived in this portion of the state. “Tar Heel” is the nickname given to the state’s residents by British Lt. Gen. Lord William Cornwallis’ troops after they emerged from the nearby Tar River with tar stuck to their boots. Another story says the ground alongside many of the state’s river fronts was covered with tar that spilled from rafts bringing the product to market.
Pine trees are found in great quantities across North Carolina, particularly in the coastal plain. Early residents found that it was simple to cut these trees and pile the light or fat wood into piles and cover them with soil after setting them on fire. The piles, called tar kilns, were then left to smolder causing the pine resin to run out as a dark tar. Tar was used extensively in the shipping industry. The tar was distilled into turpentine and was used to waterproof rope and wood in the form of either pitch or tar.
The byway’s western terminus is the U.S. 301/N.C. 42 interchange east of Wilson in Wilson County. From here, travel east along N.C. 42. Wilson was formed in 1849 when the towns of Hickory Grove and Toisnot Depot merged in 1849 as a result of the construction of a new rail line. The new town was named for Louis D. Wilson, a state senator and early advocate of the public school movement. Wilson was killed during the Mexican War of 1846-48.
The byway begins in the midst of the Toisnot Swamp, some of which has been filled for development. Travel nine miles from the byway’s beginning to the Wilson/Edgecombe County line. Pass through the communities of Wilbanks and Bridgesville, both of which were established at the turn of the century. Shortly after crossing the county line, turn right onto N.C. 124.
Follow N.C. 124 for 3.5 miles to the town of Macclesfield. Incorporated in 1901, Macclesfield was named for the town in England from which the ancestors of the town’s founder had come. Leaving town, cross Bynum Mill Creek and continue east for 5.5 miles crossing U.S. 258 before reaching the intersection of N.C. 124 and N.C. 42.
Turn right onto N.C. 42 and follow two miles to Old Sparta, established in 1830 and incorporated in 1876. Cross the Tar River immediately after passing through Old Sparta. Legend has it that the river was named for the tar produced in the counties through which it flowed, while others suggest that the river’s name is derived from a American Indian word.
Continue on N.C. 42 for almost six miles passing by vast farms to the town of Conetoe, (pronounced Cuh-knee-ta), incorporated in 1887 and named for the nearby Conetoe Creek. Continue on N.C. 42, cross U.S. 64, and travel eight miles to the Edgecombe/Martin County line. Many of the vast fields the byway passes produce soybeans and peanuts.
Continue another 2.5 miles to the N.C. 42/142 intersection with N.C. 11. Go straight at the stop sign to follow N.C. 142 for 2.5 miles to the community of Hassell. Hassell, settled in 1878, was known as Dogville Crossroads until 1903. Continue on N.C. 142 through Hassell 3.5 miles to the intersection of N.C. 142 and N.C. 125. From Hassell to Williamston, the road crosses land drained by the Conoho Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River located to the north.
Turn right at the stop sign onto N.C. 125 and continue for nine miles to the Williamston city limits in Martin County, where the route ends. Along this portion of the route, notice the numerous peanut sheds and silos. Peanuts are this region’s main crop.
Williamston, named in honor of Col. William Williams who fought in the Revolutionary War, is located on the Roanoke River and is the Martin County seat. Settled in 1779, the town originally was called Skewarky for the plantation on which it was built. From Williamston, it is 14 miles to Windsor on U.S. 17 North.
Length: 53 miles
Driving Time: 1 hours
Counties: Wilson, Edgecombe, Martin
courtesy of NC Department of Transportation
added: September 15, 2009
updated: September 25, 2009
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