West Point on the Eno

What do you get when you mix an old mill with a 19th century homestead, then toss in a photography museum and a sand sculpture for good measure?

West Point on the Eno.

Located along the Eno River in Durham, North Carolina—in an area once inhabited by Shocco and Eno Indians—this city park is an eclectic mix of past and present, of nature and culture.

I paid a visit earlier this month. A sign in the parking lot warned (1) there are snakes, (2) only the copperhead is poisonous, and (3) harming snakes in the park is strictly prohibited. …Good to know.

While I pondered a snake population significant enough to warrant a sign, I made my way (gingerly) toward the park’s historic buildings.

The McCown-Mangum House
My first stop was the McCown-Mangum House, which was built around 1850 and served as the homestead for two early Durhamite families. (Mangum Street in downtown Durham is named after the Mangums.)

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The old farmhouse, built in Greek revival style, contains original heart-of-pine boards, mantels, and woodwork. The piano, side table, and sofa through this doorway are authentic to the house and can be seen in an old photo in the parlour.

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The old tobacco barn at West Point on the Eno: Tobacco, cotton and watermelons were the farm’s major crops in its heyday.

Hugh Mangum Photography Museum
The property’s 19th century packhouse, where tobacco was stored before going to market, is now home to the Hugh Mangum Photography Museum.

Hugh Mangum was born in 1877, the eldest son of Presley and Sally Mangum. The family moved to the farm, previously owned by the McCowns, in 1893.

Hugh Mangum was both a musician and an artist. He played mandolin, accordion, and piano and created the many paintings and photographs currently on display in the farmhouse.

After studying art at Salem College and earning a degree in hypnotism, of all things, Mangum traveled around the countryside immortalizing young and old on glass negatives which he then turned into photographs.

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a glass negative

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photo from the glass negative

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Mangum established a darkroom in the packhouse to develop his photographs, mixing his chemicals and washing his prints in water from a nearby stream.

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The photos on display in the museum were printed from some 500 glass negatives found on the property in the 1970s.

West Point Mill
West Point Mill was one of thirty-two grist mills operating along the Eno River. It was accessible by roads in every direction and situated in an area that was thriving.

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West Point Mill operated from 1778-1942 and in its prime consisted of a general store, blacksmith shop, cotton gin, saw mill…and even a post office. Its name–West Point–was the result of being the most westerly point on the mail route.

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The mill collapsed after a severe storm in 1973, leaving only the foundation and some of the frame standing. The mill was reconstructed from photographs and furnished with machinery from former nearby mills. Today, West Point is a working example of days gone by, and the stone-ground meal and flour produced there are sold in the mill’s store.

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The attendant at the mill told me I’d find a “corn liquefier” on the second floor. I didn’t quite get the joke until I spotted this still, which was found in the woods of Durham County in the 1960s by Alcoholic Beverage Control and donated to the mill for display purposes.

The Grounds
Between the mill and the farmhouse, I spotted a quirky sight:

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The Festival on the Eno is held every 4th of July, at which time a sand sculpture is erected at West Point. This sculpture, still in great shape after a month in the elements, is entitled “Owlvis and the Owletts.”

Sally Mangum was reportedly a gifted cook and gardener. One of my favorite aspects of the park was the subtle nod to her abilities as seen in both the enclosed herb and flower garden as well as the plantings around the homestead.

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The begonias in the flower boxes were lovely and the coneflowers along the front path invited pollinators.

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A perennial in the garden, the photography museum (packhouse) in the background.

It was an enjoyable afternoon at West Point on the Eno—and I didn’t see a single snake. A part of me was disappointed. A very sssmall part.

For a more complete view of the park and its unique history, (it’s also a stop on the North Carolina Civil War Trails tour), consider a visit. Free guided tours are available. Hiking trails and access to the Eno River are also perks of the park.

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a colorful perennial near the packhouse

Sandy Creek: A City of Durham Park

With a forecast of 97 degrees on tap, I did what any sensible person would do—I headed for the great outdoors.

The thermometer was already (or only) registering 82 when I turned off of Pickett Road and onto Sandy Creek Drive. My destination: an abandoned wastewater treatment plant. (Perfectly sensible, right?) Rewind—or fast forward, to be exact. My destination: Sandy Creek Park.

A sign warned that there was “No Outlet” and I followed the road to the end. I found myself in a parking area facing the open expanse of a largely wooded and wild 103-acre park. I immediately liked what I saw.

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Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC (Saturday, 6/13/15)

Sandy Creek Park was once a wastewater treatment facility, built by Duke University in the early 1900s to serve West Campus and the Hospital. Around 1928, the facility was turned over to the City of Durham. The City operated the plant until its closure in the 1970s. In the 1990s, many of the buildings were razed and a park rose out of the rubble.

Since then, several organizations have partnered with Durham Parks & Recreation to make Sandy Creek Park what it is today. Organizations such as New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, Friends of Sandy Creek, Keep Durham Beautiful, and Alta Planning and Design of Durham. (Not to mention the park’s landscape designer, Kenneth Coulter.)

What is Sandy Creek Park like today? I’m glad you asked.

In a nutshell, Sandy Creek Park is a thriving wetlands and pine uplands habitat complete with a two-mile walking trail system, butterfly garden, picnic area, restrooms, a creek (for which the park is named), and two small lakes.

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The Sandy Creek Park trail system is a combination of natural and paved surfaces. Pictured here is a part of the Sandy Creek Greenway trail. –Durham, NC

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Here’s the start of the 0.4 mile unpaved nature trail around one of the wetland ponds. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

The park is recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat because it offers the four basics: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. It’s also a registered ebirding site, which means that one can report bird sitings or see the sitings of others at eBird.org.

I didn’t venture too far down the trails this first visit. Nevertheless, there were plenty of flowers and critters to capture by camera. Placards along the way apprise visitors of the various wildlife and plant life around them. I won’t duplicate those efforts here, but suffice it to say that the signs were informative and would add to the overall experience for those with heightened curiosities. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorite things.

Friends of Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden
What a cute little garden this is—complete with all the right perennials to attract pollinators. I was partial to the coneflowers. (Translated: Be prepared to see a few coneflower pictures.)

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Coneflowers in the Butterfly Garden attract butterflies. (One fluttered away just as I snapped this picture.) A butterfly house adds both function and charm to the habitat. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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The Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden is a workplace for bees as well. –Durham, NC

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A butterfly (Duskywing?) on a coneflower in the Butterfly Garden at Sandy Creek Park. –Durham, NC

(Not-So) Out With the Old, In With the New
For some, it might seem kind of icky to tromp around a place where wastewater was processed. Personally, I found remnants of the treatment plant—two water tanks and a Pump House—important reminders of the past that added to the park’s charm.

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Vestiges of the bygone water treatment facility (“Vacuator” tank far left; Pump House on right) stand alongside new park features such as this inviting arbor swing. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Native Flora
Throughout the park, native wildflowers spring up deliberately as well as naturally. With scenery along the trails dominated by green leaves and shrubs, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter reds and yellows popping up here and there.

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Bee Balm plants, attractors of butterflies and bees, grow tall in front of the old treatment plant’s “Digester.” (Bee Balm is also in the nearby Butterfly Garden.)  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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Just past the creek, along the Sandy Creek Trail, I spotted these Black-Eyed Susans. Sure, Black-Eyed Susans are a commonplace wildflower, but did you know that there are several different varieties? For example, these Susans—with their big cylindrical eyes and dipping petals—are different than the ones in my own garden. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham NC

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Red Honeysuckle Alert! Nector-rich vines such as this one growing on the arbor swing beckon to the hummingbirds. Trumpet Creepers, which I also spotted along Sandy Creek, attract such local birds as the Ruby-throated hummingbird.  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Sandy Creek Wildlife
As I made my way toward the Sandy Creek Bridge, I came upon an older lady out for her morning walk.

“See that gray-looking tree over there?” She pointed beyond the wetlands toward the upland pines a good quarter of a mile away.

I nodded expectantly.

“It’s a big herons’ nest.” She stated this with the matter-of-fact confidence of a park veteran.

My untrained eyes saw nothing.

Having done her duty to nature and her fellow man, she left me to my neck craning. Fearing that I was missing out on something spectacular, I did the only thing I could think of: I zoomed in as far as my camera would go and snapped away. Once home, here’s what I saw:

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Great Blue Herons nesting in the pines at Sandy Creek Park. I count EIGHT! — Durham, NC

Next time, I’ll know where to look! …And you will too, should you visit the park. Also, it might be useful to carry along a pair of binoculars.

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A black Swallowtail in the brush by one of the lakes. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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At least three types of turtles make their homes on the waters of Sandy Creek Park. In one of the small lakes, I spotted four Yellow-bellied Sliders. (There were several other turtle logs, too!) — Durham, NC

Despite living in Durham for ten years, I didn’t know this park existed until recently when web searches for local birds repeatedly referred me to Sandy Creek. The number of birds sited at the park is astounding! And now that I’m out of my shell—play on previous picture intended—I hope to return and photograph some of them.


The City of Durham has more than 60 public parks. I’ve visited and written about three of them. The other two include Leigh Farm Park and Orchard Park.

Sunday in the South: The Hill House Edition

Hill_House_front3 On my way to church this morning, I passed a familiar site: a Spanish Colonial mansion perched atop a hill along South Duke Street in Durham, North Carolina. The white-stuccoed beauty is referred to locally as Hill House. Mistakenly, I thought it was so named because it sits on a hill. Actually, the house is named after its original owner, John Sprunt Hill.

On my way home, I stopped at Hill House to get a closer look. Despite a hospitable sign on the side door that read “Come on in!” the mansion, (which is a venue for meetings and events), was not really open to visitors at that Sunday hour, so my exploration was purely external.

Hill House was built in 1912 by Boston architects, Kendall & Taylor. The two had just completed work on the nearby Watts Hospital, an effort that was funded by ‘tobacco tycoon’ George Watts, Hill’s father-in-law. Hill House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

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Baroque accents adorn the Hill House, a Spanish revival style mansion in Durham, NC.

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The side view of historic Hill House is as attractive (if not more so) than the front. (Durham, NC)

Owner John Sprunt Hill attended the University of North Carolina (UNC). He was a teacher in the state before going on to attend law school, first at UNC then transferring to New York City’s Columbia Law School. Hill lived in New York for several years, during which time he served in the U.S. Army (Spanish-American War), opened a law practice, and married Watt’s daughter, Annie Louise. After the birth of their first child, Hill and his wife returned to Durham in 1903, where Hill and his father-in law, Watts, forged a powerful business partnership (mostly banking, insurance, and real estate) that generally withstood the Great Depression.

As a lawyer, banker and philanthropist, Hill’s contributions to Durham, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina at large are significant and many. He helped to establish farmer-based state credit unions and served on the state highway commission. He contributed to the City of Durham’s purchase of Durham Athletic Park, which was home to the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. Additionally, Hill donated generously to UNC’s campus expansion and contributed funds to the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library at UNC. Hill also built the Carolina Inn in 1924, later donating the property to UNC in 1935. He was a state Senator from 1933-1938.

Hill died in 1961, at which time Hill House became part of the Annie Watts Hill Foundation, which was established in memory of Hill’s wife who died in 1940. The Foundation exists to support female civic organizations, and Hill House serves as a meeting place to cultivate female volunteerism and leadership in the community.

Today, the weather was perfect for a stroll around the property. Despite being in downtown Durham, with commercial buildings in plain view, there was a quiet peacefulness–and a sense of timelessness– about the place. Despite its representation of wealth and prestige and worldly accomplishment, I caught a few simple, natural pleasures through the lens of my camera.

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A mockingbird perches on the roof of Hill House. (Durham, NC)

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Along the red-tiled roofline of Hill House, a song sparrow sits on a grassy rain gutter. (Durham, NC)

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No elaborate gardens surround Hill House today, but I did spot a stray angel’s trumpet thriving at the rear of the historic mansion. (Durham, NC)

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A sun-dappled pergola rests on a knoll at Hill House. Can you spot the squirrel? (Durham, NC)

Adjacent to Hill House is Orchard Park, a City of Durham public recreation spot. The grounds of Orchard Park once sustained life at Hill House. Among other things, it’s where the horses were stabled, and where fruit and vegetables were grown.

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The grounds known today as Orchard Park played a key role in day-to-day life at Hill House during its heyday. Today, Orchard Park is a community garden and playground.

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In Orchard Park today, remnants of Hill House’s greenhouse remain, with park benches added for reflection and relaxation. (Durham, NC)

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The foundation of the greenhouse, once used to grow the flowers and plants for Hill House, still remains in Orchard Park and serves as a labyrinth. (Durham, NC)

As I was driving away, I found myself humming a tune by Shenandoah that I hadn’t thought of in years.

Just another Sunday in the south.

Lake Wheeler Park

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If you’re looking for a place to go boating or fishing in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, then look no further than Lake Wheeler Park.

One of the city of Raleigh’s beloved recreation destinations, Lake Wheeler Park is located south of downtown just past North Carolina State University’s agricultural field labs, and it’s easily accessible from I-40. The park consists of Lake Wheeler, several picnic shelters, a park office with concessions, a volleyball court, a fishing pond (called Simpkins Pond), a small playground, public restrooms, and an outdoor fitness circuit with exercise stations. (A nominal use fee is associated with several of these amenities.)

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A sun deck, complete with lush foliage, overlooks the lake and is connected to the park office, concession stand, and restroom areas. — Lake Wheeler Park (Raleigh, NC)

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The old-fashioned rocking chairs overlooking Lake Wheeler on the sun deck near the park office and concession area invite relaxation and leisure. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC

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Fishing on Lake Wheeler is restricted to the two piers or from fishing boats. Boats can be rented from the park, or personal boats can be put in at the boat launching area by the park office. (Raleigh, NC)

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Petal boats, jon boats, kajaks, rowboats, and Sunfish sailboats (like the one pictured here) can be rented by the hour (half hour for pedal boats) or by the day. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC

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A graylag goose along the sandy shore of Lake Wheeler. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC

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Fishing on foot is permitted along the shoreline of Simpkins Pond (pictured here). A fishing license is required for bank fishing. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC

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Lake Wheeler Park is primarily a fishing, boating, and picnicking spot. While there are trails, they lead to the various “fishing holes” and piers—they don’t connect to one another or make a loop.

After visiting quite a few of Raleigh’s parks, (Nash SquarePullen ParkLake Lynn, Fred Fletcher Park, Mordecai Historic ParkLake Johnson, Durant Nature Preserve, and now Lake Wheeler), I’ve discovered that each one is unique and has its own special charms.