In 1903 William C. Coker, a professor of botany at the university, proposed turning a large area on the east edge of campus into an arboretum. The five-acre space once housed university president David Lowry Swain's cattle. By the time Coker started work, it was described as an "uninviting crayfish bog." Coker supervised the draining of the area, the laying of walkways, and the planting of hundreds of different species. Some of the plants in the arboretum had a practical use early in its history. Working with a former student, Coker developed a "drug garden" that contained plants used for medicinal purposes. Intended to serve as a sort of outdoor classroom for the study of native plants, Coker later added many East Asian trees and shrubs. Housing more than 400 different plants, it is known for its ornamental trees and flowers and a large wisteria arbor that runs along Cameron Avenue.
One of the more notable events in the history of the arboretum came in the 1930s when a student named Kemp Nye, inspired by the popular Tarzan movies then in the theaters, bet another student that he could cross the entire arboretum by swinging on trees. As onlookers watched, Nye succeeded in making it all the way across without touching the ground. The narrow, unlit walkways and secluded gardens in the arboretum were often rumored as the sites of romantic liaisons between students, but for many the arboretum was a place to be avoided. In 1965 a UNC—Chapel Hill student was murdered in the middle of the day in the arboretum. In the 1970s, after several sexual assaults were reported, the perception that the arboretum was unsafe was reinforced and students were told to avoid the area after dark. Some students and administrators urged that lights be added to the arboretum walkways, but they remain unlit. The arboretum is currently managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden.
Date Established: 1903
Date Range: 1903 – Present