by Mark Miles
At the beginning of October, I took my first hike around one of the most remarkable and historic locations in Durham, North Carolina. I had no idea before visiting exactly what I would find, and I very nearly missed my hike because of the virtually nonexistent parking–which consists of a few spots on the side of a gravel road running through what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Despite the abysmal parking, the land surrounding the Pump Station Trail at Eno River State Park–which crisscrosses the old dam for the City of Durham–is a testament to the power of water and its crucial role in society. It’s also the perfect place for an adventure you’ll never forget.
After parking along the side of the road, I got out and started looking for the trail itself. It wasn’t readily apparent, but after a little searching I found the trailhead and started my adventure. The first quarter-mile of the Pump Station Trail was fairly nondescript, passing through a forest of oak, pine, and maple in every direction. To my left there was a steep embankment that led to the edge of a small creek, but otherwise there was no indication of what lay ahead.
After traipsing along the trail for ten minutes or so, taking photos whenever the opportunity presented itself, I started getting the idea that the Pump Station Trail might be something remarkable. The first indication of this was a crumbling brick-and-mortar structure to my right that appeared out of nowhere. It was about ten feet tall and stood fifteen feet or so from the trail. I took a couple quick photos and continued on my way, soon finding a sign that warned of “dangers associated with falls.” I duly took note and proceeded with caution.
The next indication of the remarkable nature of the Pump Station Trail shortly revealed itself. Following a side-trail that veered to the north, I saw the ruins of an old building–which I would later find out was the pump house for the dam–looming in front of me. The land rose on the left and descended to the right, allowing two clear entries to the decaying building. I took the left branch of the trail first and found myself gaping over the edge of a wall from a height of fifteen feet. There were weird and indecipherable mechanical structures inside it that simply begged for closer inspection, which led me to take a closer look.
Backtracking from the high place where I found myself, I walked through the doorway to the pump house. The air was cool and musty, and there was the definite impression that this building had held a great deal of water at some point in the past. The bluish stone that made up the majority of the structure was quite beautiful in its own way and gave the place a faintly otherworldly mystique.
The first weird mechanical structure in the pump house to catch my attention was a giant screw standing three feet out of the ground. I’m not an engineer, so I’m not in a position to say what this was, but it was quite fascinating and invited a host of questions about how the pump house worked when it was still in operation.
The second weird mechanical structure to catch my attention was a very large pipe, a foot and a half in diameter, that stood not far from the giant screw. There was an accumulation of dirt, leaves, and other debris that clogged its mouth, but it was clear to see that at one point it had been a major conduit for the transfer of water from the dam.
Coming out of the pump house, I caught a glimpse of it from another angle which gives a better idea of the size of the structure. The height is roughly fifteen feet and gives pause for thought when you realize that the part of the pump house that still survives is merely the foundation of the original structure. The building itself, which stood on top of what you see here, extended another ten or fifteen feet upwards to make for an imposing edifice.
After inspecting the pump house, I continued to the east and found a series of connected chambers standing about eight feet tall which I would later find out formed the filter room, where the real action took place. To the best of my knowledge, this is where the water would have undergone coagulation, flocculation, and sedimentation. Through this series of interrelated processes, a chemical is introduced into the water which causes debris and organic matter to clump; the water is then allowed to stand for some length of time in order for the debris to form “flocs” or clumps; then a rake-like device is passed through the water to remove those clumps of debris. Presumably all of this would have taken place within the filter room pictured above, though there may have been differences in the process when the old dam was constructed in 1887.
Around the filter room, there were rolling embankments of a clearly man-made origin, which enhanced the sense of otherworldly mystique that I had encountered in the pump house. The sunlight bursting through the branches of the surrounding forest provided the perfect accent to the scene, and it was easy to forget that this site had once been heavily mechanized and much more obtrusive to the surrounding forest. But nature has a way of reclaiming things when left to her own devices.
Circling around the filter room and the pump house, I came back to where I had diverged from the Pump Station Trail. Following the trail again, I shortly came to a dry creekbed which extended to the south for some distance. I got the feeling there was something noteworthy in that direction, but I had no idea just how noteworthy it would be.
Drawing closer to whatever it was as I continued to hike southward down the dry creekbed, I started to get the feeling I was entering a movie set for Lord of the Rings. Ahead of me I could see stone-and-mortar walls of a genuinely colossal scale, through which meandered the creekbed which had somehow regained the water which was missing earlier.
Coming closer to the walls of what turned out to be an old and defunct dam, I started to feel as if I was merely an ant surveying the work of giants. These walls were absolutely immense, reaching skyward for a solid forty feet before cresting in a massive embankment that looked like a steep hill in the surrounding terrain. I stood and marveled at the sight for several minutes, taking photos from every possible angle and wondering for the life of me how people without computers and forklifts could ever have built such a thing.
Deciding that I had to get a view from the top of the embankment, I progressed westward until I found a stretch of ground that wasn’t quite as steep and proceeded to climb it very gingerly. Upon reaching the top, I started following the clearly identifiable line of stone and mortar that ran eastward back toward the walls of the old dam. This was trickier than I expected due to the steep incline of the surrounding terrain, and I began to realize why there was a sign warning of “dangers associated with falls.” Coming as close to the edge of the forty-foot dropoff as I could, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed back the way I came.
Rejoining the Pump Station Trail, I resumed my hike in a westward direction and soon found myself in the middle of a lovely fern grove, which could easily have come out of The Hobbit. The sun in the distance illuminated the area with a calming radiance and helped to settle my spirits after the excitement of climbing to the edge of a sheer forty-foot dropoff.
Following the full circuit of the Pump Station Trail, I covered another mile before finding myself back where I started. This was when I realized I hadn’t gotten a good photo of a fascinating structure near the dam which had caught my attention from the moment I saw it.
Retracing my steps back to the walls of the old dam, I found what I was looking for: a stone tower of some sort that rose about twelve feet over the surrounding terrain. It was positioned in proximity to the walls of the old dam and seemed to have been built to overlook the spillway.
Passing to the south of the tower, I found this very interesting crenellation in it. I still don’t know what purpose this tower served, but it seems to have been designed to stand in the middle of the surrounding reservoir and to allow access to the lower levels of the body of water. Perhaps it was a monitoring station or a well or a gigantic vent pipe for allowing air pressure to interact with a subterranean pipeline. Whatever it was, it was endlessly fascinating and gave much food for thought.
Walking back to my car, I found myself reflecting on the beauty and scale of the ruins of the old dam. Beyond that, I found myself thinking how the reason for the construction of such an elaborate and awe-inspiring feat of engineering was something as simple as water. For it’s water that powers our way of life, whether we realize it or not. It’s water that provides nourishment, electricity, cleansing, irrigation, recreation, and beauty to all of our lives. It’s water that provides the basis for human society, without which none of us would be alive at this very moment. And it’s water that deserves our respect, our admiration, and our unceasing effort to protect it at all costs.
“Eno River Park Map,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed Aug. 31st, 2017.
“January — Pump Station,” Eno River Association, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.
Kueber, Gary, “Durham Water Company — Eno River Pumping Station,” Open Durham, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.
Schwantes, Jay P., “Pump Station Area,” Eno Trails, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.
“Water Treatment Process,” Durham, North Carolina, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.