Exploring the Old Durham Pump Station at Eno River State Park

Nancy Rhodes Creek passing through Old Durham Dam

A legacy is something we all strive for, sooner or later.

Of course some people are more aware of this than others. Due to health issues beyond my control, I would consider myself one of those people. After all, there’s nothing like a taste of mortality to make you think about the mark you’ll leave on the world when you’re gone — which is really all a legacy is.

Perhaps for that reason I’m immensely attracted to ruins, which are the most tangible expressions of legacy that humans can leave behind. I guess some part of me would like to think that my legacy — whatever that may be — will be of equal beauty and magnificence to those ruins that have been gracefully subsumed by nature after their builders have long since departed this world.

Lately I’ve been reminded of this by a hike I took to the ruins of the Durham Pump Station at Eno River State Park — which, despite the association “pump” has for many American English speakers, actually has nothing to do with gasoline or petroleum. (Rather it’s a reference to water pumping and treatment, meaning that “pump station” in this case is synonymous with “water treatment plant.”)

Historic view of Water Pumping Station in Durham, NC

Built and managed by A. H. Rowland of Boston in 1887, the Durham Pump Station was immediately plagued with difficulties. Repeated fires in the years of 1894-5 demonstrated all too clearly the inadequacy of the system and resulted in the replacement of A. H. Rowland by John C. Michie, who was in turn replaced by John D. Hardy in 1898. Not much changed, however, and in 1916 the City of Durham bought the station outright.

Soon thereafter, in 1927, the Durham Pump Station was decommissioned, ending its first life as a functional water-pumping station and beginning its second life as a dramatic ruin.

Map of Pump Station Trail at Eno River State Park

Arriving at the Pump Station Access (4023 Rivermont Road, Durham, NC 27712) on the afternoon of December 6th, 2019, I got out of my car and headed for the trail. The day was cool and drizzly, with an abundance of clouds and occasional outbursts of rain, especially toward the end of my hike. But despite this, I felt a sense of excitement that I always get when I visit this particular stretch of Eno River State Park.

Hiking east along Rivermont Road, I soon came to a bridge over Nancy Rhodes Creek, which runs north to the ruins of the Durham Pump Station. Stopping on the bridge, I took some video of Nancy Rhodes Creek, which I’ve incorporated into a short preview below.

Joining Pump Station Trail, I turned to my left and started hiking north. Pines, oaks, and beeches lined the trail and sometimes even sprouted from the middle of it, giving this section of Eno River State Park a greater feeling of wilderness, despite the presence of the most conspicuous ruins in the entire park.

With excitement percolating in the back of my mind, I reached the first sign of the Durham Pump Station.

Old abandoned shaft spillway

This shaft spillway (also called a “morning glory” spillway) is a way of siphoning off water from a dam when maximum capacity is reached. Imagine a gigantic bathtub drain with a mouth several feet (or even dozens of feet) wide, letting water cascade down into a pipe that releases the water at a safer location further downstream.

After admiring the spillway, I climbed down the treacherously steep riverbank of Nancy Rhodes Creek, hopped onto a stone in the middle of the water, turned south, and took the following photo.

Nancy Rhodes Creek in winter

Then I turned as carefully as possible in the opposite direction to see the view toward the north. When I did, I was nearly speechless. Although I’d hiked this trail before, I’d never come down to this exact location, due to its precarity in the middle of the water. But I was glad I did in this case, because the view of the Old Durham Dam was positively breathtaking.

Old Durham Dam in winter

After carefully hopping out of Nancy Rhodes Creek and up the riverbank, I hiked past the spillway and rejoined the Pump Station Trail. Continuing north, I spotted another of the many ruins of the Durham Pump Station, which may have been either an oil house or steam plant, depending upon which source you refer to.

Brick ruins

Proceeding north, I veered off the trail and found more ruins, which as far as I can tell were part of the filter house. This was where water from the reservoir was transferred before being treated and pumped out to residents of Durham for $6.00 per year.

Making my way around the filter house, I found an entry, made of brick and overgrown with moss, that allowed access to the site.

Mossy brick of old building

After looking around and trying to get the best possible angles for photos, I realized there was simply no way to do justice without a walk-through. So, after planning my steps and improvising a script, I went back and took a short video.

Climbing out of the filter house, I made my way to the northwest, where I found the ruins of the pump house. This was where water was diverted from the reservoir and where the majority of the pumping power originated. As such, it’s the most imposing ruin still standing, apart from the Old Durham Dam.

Old abandoned pump house

Walking into the pump house, I made my way gingerly through crumbling brick and mortar and the odd sapling, including one notable sycamore growing straight out of the middle of the floor.

One of the most striking things about the pump house is the color of the granite, which is an exquisite shade of aquamarine blue. If you haven’t seen it in person, you may be inclined to think that I’m just exaggerating. But in the following photo, which I took in the main chamber of the pump house, you can see what I mean.

Blue-green granite at pump house

And it’s not only the color of this pump house that’s striking; it’s the temperature too, which is noticeably cooler than the surrounding terrain, even in late fall.

Climbing out of the pump house, I walked about ten feet north, where the Eno River runs past. Balancing on stone ballast adjacent to the old pump house, I looked east and took the following photo.

Eno River from Pump Station Trail

Continuing on my hike, I followed the remainder of the Pump Station Trail back to my car.

As I did, I wondered what the original builders of the Durham Pump Station would think if they were still alive. Of course I can’t speak for them, but I’d like to think they would be happy to see that at least some of it is still standing — a legacy to their hard work and ingenuity. In the process, it’s also grown old gracefully, serving as an inspiration to future generations to be better caretakers of our rivers, our land, and our planet.

And that’s the kind of legacy we can all strive for.

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