The Eno River Parklands Celebrate Silver Anniversary Milestone
Riverdave’s Journal
This essay appeared in the Spectator Weekly Magazine on July 1,1998

In 1998, the Eno River State Park celebrates its 25th anniversary.  At this year’s annual Fourth of July Festival for the Eno River, state park officials will have documents,  maps and artifacts relating to the twenty-five year history of the park on display at the McCown-Mangum House for all festival-goers to peruse.  In the Hugh Mangum Photography Museum, there will be a special collection of photography related to this preservation effort as well.

The Eno River parklands remain a stunning example of our state’s natural beauty, community activism and ongoing conservation ethic.  The silver anniversary prompts a careful and close-up reflection of how the park came to be as well as an examination of how the Eno River continues to challenge us to live as modern city dwellers, while protecting and drawing both wisdom and strength from the untamed natural areas which surround us.

Beginning as runoff from tobacco and corn fields in northern Orange County, the Eno River is part of a triad of rivers that arise in that county and then flows eastward through Durham County forming the northwestern headwaters of the Neuse River, our state’s second largest river.  Forty miles long, the Eno traverses the rolling hills of piedmont topography, first running due south for ten miles before bumping up against the Occaneechi monadnock at the town of Hillsborough.

The monadnock is the beginning of a long west to east ridge that sends the Eno waters eastward some thirty miles, with an average width of fifty feet, through gently dropping terrain.  The Eno passes within the borders of the city of Durham about five miles north of its downtown district, then continues east before it finally merges with its sister rivers, the Little and Flat Rivers, as all three flow into Falls Lake Reservoir which becomes the Neuse River north of Raleigh.

The Eno River drops vertically two hundred and fifty feet in its forty mile course, creating a delightful series of small rapids and gorges.  Three historic mill dam sights on the river also provide four miles of quiet backwater millpond habitat.  Steep forested slopes with north facing bluffs give visitors a feeling of insulation from fast-paced urban life, often not far over the crests of the bordering hills.  But once tucked into the Eno River valley, the paddler or hiker immediately experiences the sensation of wildness.

Rich forests and meadows abundant with wildlife surround the river.  Water quality is very good and supports at least sixty-one species of fish, an exceptionally high biodiversity for a river of this length.  In addition, there are twelve species of freshwater mussels, many of which are on state and federal endangered species lists;  seven species of turtles; fourteen species of snakes; fifteen species of amphibians; and a healthy variety of mammals including beaver, river otter, muskrat, woodchuck, weasel, mink, gray and red fox and white-tailed deer. Over one hundred species of trees grace the parklands with a delicate forest floor covering of herbaceous wildflowers.

The first human inhabitants to settle along the river were Native Americans.  Archaeological finds date the oldest remains so far discovered at two thousand B.C.E.  The native American group whose members currently reside in the Hillsborough area refer to themselves as the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi nation.  They are of Siouxan decent and have around four hundred registered members at present.

The Eno River is located along what was known as the Great Indian Trading Path.  Stretching from Niagara Falls to Mexico, the path was the principle route that the colonial traders eventually trod with their goods.  In North Carolina it has been succeeded by Interstate 85, which approximates its route fairly well.

In 1701 the Colonial English surveyor and administrator John Lawson entered the settlement of Achoneechy on the Eno near present day Hillsborough. His record is the first mention in colonial times of the river.  He found the town with its well established trade connections and fertile surrounding lands to be quite agreeable.

Fast-forward to the 1960s when the city of Durham was finding it necessary to increase its water supply.  There were three possibilities: further damming on Durham’s existing reservoir on the Flat River, or a new reservoir on the Little or Eno Rivers.  At that time a small band of concerned citizens, some of whom were property owners along the Eno River, formed a conservation group to encourage the Flat and Little River options and to protect the Eno permanently as a natural and historic area.

This informal group of hikers and paddlers began to voice opposition to local officials about land purchases being made by the local government along the Eno in preparation for the inundation and flooding of the valley for a reservoir.  The group was led by Margaret and Holger Nygard, landowners along the south bank of the river, who officially formed the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River valley on October 14, 1966.

From its inception, the association undertook seven years of public education and campaigning to bring local governments and the regional planning commission to a final acceptance of its views.  An annual Eno River calendar was produced and distributed locally and statewide to draw attention to their cause. Countless letters and mailings were sent to officials and influential people in the community in support of protecting the river. Public hikes and related activities became a regular part of their agenda.  Courting of political candidates and voter education was key.  Membership solicitation and upkeep caused the ranks of informed supporters to grow.

A major breakthrough came in 1972 when a joint strategy was forged with the Nature Conservancy’s Washington office, for the Eno River Association to begin to secure its own property for a future Eno River State Park. An initial gift of ninety acres along the river set in motion the process of actually building a park.  One June 15, 1973, Governor James Holshouser formally announced the creation of the Eno River State Park.  On October 31, 1973, the Durham City Council agreed that Durham’s next reservoir would be on the Little River. There would be no flooding of the Eno River Valley.

The Eno River Association immediately began the task of completing a master plan for the new park.  Its most important vehicle for the task became the holding of an annual river festival at West Point on the Eno over the Fourth of July holiday.  Begun in 1980, it has evolved into a three day event of local musicians and craftsmen along with over fifteen hundred volunteers and a paid staff of four. Net profits from the event have been instrumental in the purchase of new parklands, often being matched by further government grants and funding.  Along with the calendar, the festival serves as a way to keep the cause of protecting the river constantly before the public.

Beginning in 1990, guided river trips in inflatable kayaks have become a regular feature of life along the Eno. Since then more than seventeen thousand paddlers have taken part in these “wafting” expeditions at West Point on the Eno Park, an area which is managed by the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Durham.  Wafting the Eno River has become a favorite activity for local residents of the Triangle area who proudly wish to share the beauty of the region with their visiting guests from out of town.

Despite the death in 1995 of the movement’s gifted and energetic organizer and leader, Margaret Nygard, the Eno River Association continues to forge ahead in its role as expander and protector of the parklands.  When coupled with contiguous sections downstream, managed by the City of Durham and the Army Corps of Engineers, the parklands may someday realize the goal of establishing thirty miles of protected river and green space in a fast growing urban area of Piedmont North Carolina. Along with the New River State Park in our mountain region and the Lumber River State Park in the Sandhills-Coastal plain region, the Piedmont’s Eno River State Park will provide a third example of our state’s diverse river habitats for future generations.

The biggest challenge the Eno River Association faces in the coming years is to more than double its current master plan for the parklands.  At present, twenty-six hundred acres of the thirty-two hundred acre master plan have been acquired.  With a rapidly growing population in the Triangle area, the need becomes urgent for protected green space to grow accordingly.  There are negotiations already under way with landowners to increase dramatically the parkland’s acreage far beyond the current master plan.

Most of these new acquisitions will be in Orange County and there is a need to shift the focus of river preservation efforts from Durham to Orange County, with Hillsborough as the center. A buffered river park along the Eno in Hillsborough and eastern Orange County can only further enhance the value of one of North Carolina’s most historic and beautiful towns.  A survey and study of the upper ten miles of headwater is in the works as well.

There is a challenge before the Eno River Association to increase its membership and support from Wake County residents, who often overlook that the Eno River is the single largest water carrier into Falls Lake and thus a very important part of their watershed. The many miles of forest-buffered river in Orange and Durham Counties insure much cleaner water for users downstream in Raleigh. The protection of the Eno is truly a Triangle-wide conservation project.

There is also a pressing need to protect what we have already protected.  One of the biggest challenges the Eno River Association faces is to prevent the Department of Transportation’s proposed outer loop project from becoming “Eno Drive.”  The 1989 State Highway Trust Fund legislates the building of this outer loop. There is considerable hope among the river’s advocates that this piece of legislation can be amended so that our state’s premier Piedmont river park will not be violated by a parallel motorway bringing petroleum runoff into the Eno’s feeder streams, causing sulfurous engine exhaust to drift through its forests, injecting vehicle rumble into its quiet natural solitude, and creating unsightly interchange development projects.  
Photo by Melody Woolford: Riverdave's grandson Hudson is happy the Eno River is protected