Exploring the Ruins of Cole House at Eno River State Park

At the end of September, I went hiking at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina and took the Buckquarter Creek Trail to the northern extent of the park. Along the way I passed an old dilapidated house in the woods and did a little exploring, which proved to be some of the most fruitful that I’ve done in quite a while.

But before I show you the juiciest pictures, let me tell you about the history of the place.

The house is actually Cole House, one of the primary bastions of one of the leading families in Durham County in the 19th century. Their influence was so substantial that the name of Cole can still be found in numerous places around the Eno River to this very day, from Cole Mill Road to Cole Mill Trail to the McCown-Cole House, another notable house in the area.

The origins of the Cole family aren’t entirely clear, but from the research I’ve done it appears they came from Cornwall, in the southwest of England, and migrated sometime in the middle of the 18th century. The first of their number to enter the history books was Anthony Cole (pictured left), born in 1804, who would eventually come to be known as the patriarch of the family.

Anthony Cole and Susannah Browning

At the ripe old age of 17, Anthony married Susannah Browing (pictured right), and the two of them immediately started having children–14 in fact, which helped to ensure the continuing dominance of the family in Durham County. Around the time their first son, Thomas, was born on July 2nd, 1823, Anthony had a house constructed for the family near the confluence of the Eno River and Buckquarter Creek.

And it was this house that I found on the afternoon of September 22nd, 2019, as I crested the hill that marks the first leg of Buckquarter Creek Trail. Climbing up the steep incline with the summer sun bursting through the branches above my head, I was ready for a little exploring.

When I reached the intersection of Buckquarter Creek Trail and Holden Mill Trail, I found the ruins of the Cole House, veered off the main path, and skirted a handful of old cypress trees on my way towards my ultimate destination.

One of the first things to stand out about the Cole House is the presence of not one, but two chimneys–which during the early 19th century would’ve been a clear delineation of the wealth and status of the family who owned the house. Also notable is the fact that the Cole House has two stories, which though not terribly uncommon today, would’ve been another indication that this family was more than merely an agglomeration of sharecroppers.

In the back of the house, there are a number of other smaller houses, most likely including a springhouse, slaughterhouse, and outhouse. The last of these–which was the most common means of disposing of sewage before the advent of municipal water treatment–may have been the source of the family’s eventual ruin. For it was an outbreak of typhoid fever in the well water around Durham County that decimated a great many of their number and contributed to the Cole family’s eventual decline.

Walking around the back of the house, away from what may have been the source of so much suffering, I took a closer look at the room on the west side of the house. It was difficult to make out which room may have been here, but it’s fair to guess that it served as a kitchen at some point, from the presence of a fireplace and proximity to water, which would have been useful in the event of a fire.

On the east side of the house, there was another room, more darkly lit and obscured from an accumulation of rubble at the back door. This was probably the living room, judging from the proximity to the nearby road and the better lighting which it would have had in the morning hours, when business was most frequently conducted.

After finishing my circuit, I took a few more minutes to admire Cole House, still beautiful in its own dilapidated way after two centuries of use and neglect. It’s sad to think that so many historic houses like this are eventually left to rot, but it’s not surprising when you consider our culture’s obsession with novelty, which I covered in my earlier story about Cole Mill.

For my part, history will always have a special place in my heart, especially when it’s paired with the beauty of a natural landscape as exceptional as Eno River State Park.


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