When I think of quarries, I generally think of big holes in the ground with levels upon levels of excavation that are devoid of life and inhospitable to anyone with an ounce of sense. What I don’t think of is a swimming hole in the middle of a state park that, despite two deaths in the past ten years, has nonetheless become one of the most popular summer hangouts in the area. Now that I’ve visited the Eno River Rock Quarry in Durham, North Carolina, I’ve begun to think of quarries in terms which highlight the simultaneous beauty and lethality surrounding so many of our culture’s byproducts.
When I arrived a few weeks ago at the parking lot for the Cabelands access at Eno River State Park (4950 Howe St., Durham, NC 27705), I got my first clue that this was going to be a memorable experience. Unlike most other parking lots at state parks in my area of central North Carolina, this one was full to bursting. There was literally nowhere to park at all; a sign at the entrance even proclaimed the fact. Turning my car around in frustration and muttering a few choice words, I was ready to leave in a huff. However the park ranger on duty noticed my reaction and called out to me. I had my windows open and responded, half-expecting to be told to move out of the way. Instead he told me there was room to park now since a few cars had just left. Pleasantly surprised at my turn of luck, I found a spot and started my hike on Cabe Lands Trail.
After a half mile, I came to a trail junction and took a left on Eno Quarry Trail. Along the way, there wasn’t much scenery apart from a forest of oak and pine. A black snake crossed my path, but I didn’t have my camera ready and wasn’t able to get a shot before he disappeared to my right. Otherwise there was little wildlife apart from the other groups of hikers, mostly composed of students from Duke University and neighboring colleges, who had decided to make a day of it.
After twenty minutes of solid hiking, I was beginning to think the quarry was little more than a rumor and a myth. Then I saw the first sign: a creek bisected the trail and had to be forded before I could reach the other side. Crossing the creek, I crested a small hill and got my first glimpse of the quarry itself.
Of course I’d seen pictures of the swimming hole on Instagram, since some of my followers live in the Durham area and go hiking nearby. The quarry was nonetheless much different than I expected, looking for all the world like nothing more than a peaceful lake in the middle of a state park, the handiwork of nature and wilderness. Yet I was aware that it had been a working rock quarry at one time, and from the signs around the site I could see that it was much deeper than a traditional lake, with no shoreline to speak of but instead an immediate sixty-foot dropoff from the surrounding land to the lake bottom. Still, all looked pleasant and peaceful on the surface.
After passing the quarry, I knew I wanted to explore further north and west along Laurel Bluffs Trail. I’d never hiked this section of Eno River State Park, so the allure of unexplored terrain was too much to resist. Continuing on the same trail past the northeast corner of the quarry, I noticed several piles of very large and imposing rock, which were part of the legacy of the old quarry from what I could tell. These rock piles were adjacent to the Eno River and bordered the floodplain, where the trail now led.
On the opposite edge of the floodplain, the land crested in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rows upon rows of pine trees that spread out in front of me were a definite change in scenery. Their appearance was uncanny primarily because of their grid-like layout, as if someone had planted all of these trees at once and laid them out just so as to be ideally spaced for a future harvest. On that basis I would guess the area is a pine plantation, which will probably be chopped down in whole or in part at some point in the not too distant future.
After passing the ostensible pine plantation — which was the first section of Laurel Bluff itself — I reached a grove of mountain laurels which encroached the trail on all sides, leaving barely enough room for two people to walk side by side. Presumably these were the laurels that had lent their name to the trail. To my surprise they reached a height of seven feet or so, thereby obscuring my sight and lending the impression that I was passing through some kind of vegetative labyrinth.
At last the laurels began to clear, and I saw a small gorge ahead where a creek crossed the path of the trail. Continuing past the bridge and another small creek, I reached the last portion of Laurel Bluff. There wasn’t much to see in this section of woods, but the sound of the Eno to the north was a persistent presence throughout.
At last I came out of the forest and was greeted by shoulder-high blackberry bushes and mixed vegetation, accompanied by the dull roar of traffic not far in the distance. Before long the trail passed under an overpass and led to the Pleasant Green access, where the trail ended.
Turning around, I retraced my steps over the mile and a half that had originally led me away from the quarry, all the while passing people in bathing suits with flotation devices who were making their exodus. At last I rounded a corner and saw the quarry again, now with the light of late afternoon bathing it in a golden glow. It seemed as if nothing bad could ever happen in such a place.
And yet — as I was to find out in my research for this article — there have been two deaths in the past ten years at the quarry. One took place in 2008 and the other in 2015. In the first instance, Ian Creath, an eighteen-year-old from a nearby university, drowned after attempting to retrieve a raft which had floated forty or fifty yards from shore. In the second instance, Lamont Burt, Jr., a seventeen-year-old who was planning to attend college in the fall of that year, drowned after jumping from the unofficial diving hotspot on the north shore of the quarry.
Of course, the reason for these drownings goes back to the origin of the quarry. Between 1960 and 1964, Interstate 85 was being constructed not far away. Because there was a need for gravel due to the ongoing construction, a site was chosen where a sixty-foot pit with precipitous dropoffs could be sunk into the ground to gain access to all that gravel. When construction of I-85 ended in 1964, there was presumably no clear idea of how to make the site safe again, so state officials decided on the course of action which created the Eno River Rock Quarry: they flooded the sixty-foot pit with water from the adjacent Eno River and let nature take over from there.
In the end, however, it’s not nature that’s to blame for the drownings which have happened here. It’s the culture of industrialism, which views nature as nothing more than a resource to be plundered and looted at will and which fueled the construction of I-85 so many years ago. Unfortunately that culture is still alive and well today, chomping at the bit for any and every opportunity to turn nature into a graveyard and the world into a concrete slaughterhouse. And that’s all the more reason for each of us to fight like hell to preserve every bit of the natural world that we can.
If we don’t, it may not be long before there’s nothing left of our world but a graveyard for our own, and every other, species.