Just a few miles from Tom Magnuson’s home, a trench 12 feet deep and 10 feet wide cuts through a patch of woods.
Hundreds of years ago, this road would have bustled with wagons and oxen, Native Americans, laborers, tradesmen and slaves – all looking to cross the Eno River at the same place year after year.
The old road is one of dozens that Magnuson has charted across the state and beyond – largely forgotten paths that he prizes for their insights into a time and place that is scarcely recorded in written history.
Magnuson, 70, left a high-tech career to chart old roads full-time, founding the nonprofit Trading Paths Association to study North Carolina history through the lens of transportation.
Never miss a local story.
His work has shed light on life in the Piedmont, particularly before it was settled by Europeans in the 1700s – a time Magnuson describes as a lawless mixing of Native Americans, early European travelers and escaped slaves.
“If you look at the way people move, everybody moves in the same ways, and as a result you have this great common denominator,” he says. “A poor man was just as scared as a rich man crossing that river.”
In numerous public hikes and personal studies, he has built a formidable expertise, charting the entire route of a well-traveled trading path that ran from Virginia to Georgia. Along the way, he has found abandoned towns, mills, churches and other sites.
In recent years, he’s taken his studies on the road, doing presentations across the state as a speaker with the N.C. Humanities Council, which brings him to schools and civic groups with an interest in local history. He just started writing a book describing his work with the association.
Magnuson’s work inspired Bob Radcliffe to start his own nonprofit group, the Ben Franklin Society, devoted to identifying mills and other sites in Franklin County. He says Magnuson’s everyman approach to history draws people into what can be a dry topic.
“He’s an engaging character,” says Radcliffe, whose organization recently honored Magnuson as an emeritus member. “He’s not stodgy, but he’s very serious about what he’s doing, and he’s put a lot of time and effort into making it work.”
Seeing the signs
Magnuson’s road studies, in some ways, started in his childhood. He grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where he spent long days playing outside.
When he was about 10, he found a few oak beams set side by side. He eventually learned the patch was on the old road into town, and surmised the beams helped cover a spot where rainwater collected.
But roadways took a back seat to a variety of other pursuits. He worked as a truck driver while he was in high school and joined the U.S. Marine Corps after a brief stint in college.
He went on to be the first in his family to earn a college degree, which he says he did despite the protests of his parents, who thought he was too rough and tumble – “a bit of a thug,” he calls it – for higher education.
He studied engineering at first, but eventually switched to history, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees focused on military history from San Jose State University in California.
He was also working throughout his studies, first for an integrated circuits manufacturer and then as a logistics program manager for the U.S. Navy.
He was looking for the next challenge when one of his graduate professors suggested Duke as a good place to earn his doctorate. He moved his young family to North Carolina, though he never completed the degree.
It was at the Person County farm where they lived that his interest returned to roadways. His was swimming with his 5-year-old at an old mill site when he noticed what appeared to be a road near the dam.
He figured it was an ideal place to cross the river since the water level would have been fairly consistent, and it occurred to him how difficult it must have been to travel across the Piedmont, with its many rivers that are too shallow for boat travel.
“I suddenly realized that in the Piedmont, the rivers are the barriers,” he said. “They’re not avenues like they are in other places.”
His history studies told him that where you have barriers, you also see choke points where people of all types gathered – central places that can be key to military victories and carry important historical information.
He thought he could use river crossings to find old roads across the state, and the towns and homesteads along them. He wrote out a business proposal to that effect, but he couldn’t get funding for it.
He worked as a consultant with the Marine Corps and in computer-based training for most of the 1980s. Eventually, he became a partner in a startup company, negotiating contracts for a group of programmers during the early years of the Internet.
The magic of mapping
In 1995, heart problems prompted him to reconsider his career. Getting out to explore the old roads might help him live longer than staring at a computer all day, even if it wasn’t as lucrative.
Fifteen years after his first attempt, Magnuson started a nonprofit group focused on finding trade routes. He used revenue from grants and private customers, including landowners and developers.
He says the career change allowed him to follow the advice he gives his own children, as well as the students he has taught at various schools and colleges over the years.
“I tell them if there’s something you can’t not do, that’s your calling,” he says. “Find a way to make it pay.”
He applied his high-tech skills to the task and shared his expertise in digital mapping with others, including Radcliffe. He also involved the public, taking large groups on hikes to search for historic sites.
His first public hike centered on retracing the steps of John Lawson, whose account of walking across the South is a rare account of Native American life in pre-Colonial times.
He used old maps and historic accounts to predict where he might find roads, and hypothesized that towns would be spaced about 15 miles apart – the distance a pack animal could cover in a day.
“That’s the basic pace of movement (in the Piedmont) until the internal combustion engine,” he says.
Over time, he’s learned to discern tell-tale signs of roads from a creases cut into the earth by wagon wheels to the hard-packed Native American footpaths found a few feet below the top of a ridge, so their silhouettes could not be seen.
Stephen Davis, a research archaeologist at UNC-Chapel Hill who was an early board member of the association, says Magnuson’s work has had tangible benefits.
“He’s providing a vehicle for people to connect to the historic resources in the area,” Davis says. “It has a positive effect.”
Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at email@example.com or find Tar Heel of the Week on Facebook.