If you’ve been reading Mark All My Words for any length of time, you know there are a wealth of old mill sites along the Eno River. Most of these mill sites are impossible to discern, since their ruins have been washed away over the years. But some are still intact, and at least one of them is still working today, over 240 years after its original construction.
That mill is West Point Mill, and it’s located at West Point on the Eno, a city park in Durham, North Carolina. Combining nature and culture as seamlessly as it does, it was a perfect destination for me and one that I knew I would eventually visit.
So, on February 28th, 2020, I left my house and headed for Durham. After exiting I-85, I took Route 501 (which becomes North Roxboro Street) and passed a series of seemingly endless strip malls and medical plazas. There were so many, in fact, I began to think I had missed my turn. Then, just beyond a BB&T, I glanced to my left and noticed a secluded road leading into the woods, accompanied by a barely visible sign with the name of the park emblazoned on it. Quickly I realized this was the place and slid into the left-turn lane.
Once I had parked my car in the gravel parking lot, I got out and headed for West Point Mill. On the way, I spotted an old tobacco barn from the 1800s.
This was the location where green tobacco leaves were hung over wood-burning fires to cure and dry them in preparation for shipment.
In the surrounding area, I also found a variety of agricultural tools and implements, including an old wagon and several different ploughs.
When I finished looking at the barn, I continued on my way and soon came to another historic building.
Originally this was a tobacco packhouse — a place where tobacco was sorted, graded, and stored before shipment. Now, however, it’s been repurposed as the Hugh Mangum Museum of Photography, in memory of Hugh Mangum, a Durham photographer who did much of his early photographic work in the late 19th century in this very building. (Unfortunately, when I was there, it was closed for the season — from mid-December to late March — along with all the other historic buildings, so I wasn’t able to view the interior.)
A short distance from the Hugh Mangum Museum of Photography, I came to the McCown-Mangum House.
Built in the 1840s in the Greek revival style of architecture, this house was the place where photographer Hugh Mangum grew up, cultivating his photographic and artistic interest. Before Hugh Mangum lived in it, however, it was owned by John Cabe McCown, a previous owner of West Point Mill, under whose watchful eye the McCown-Mangum House was built.
Though I wasn’t able to enter the house due to the seasonal closure, I was nonetheless able to look around it. And when I got to the back, I found something I never expected.
Tucked away on the west side of the house, there was a little community food garden. In it, there were ten rows of vegetables, arranged in two perpendicular groups, with a variety of different food crops including lettuce, kale, broccoli, collard greens, rosemary, sage, thyme, carrots, and onions.
Honestly, it was so inviting, I was tempted to spend the rest of the afternoon there, preferably with salad bowl and a fork in hand. But instead I returned to my original itinerary and left the food garden, heading for West Point Mill.
After taking a slight detour to the west, I headed north along the gravel road that forms a circle around the McCown-Mangum House. Noticing a small creek, I watched its northward progress as I headed in the same direction. Eventually, it joined a millrace — a canal with water diverted from the river — and flowed under a small footbridge on its approach to West Point Mill, which is faintly visible in the distance.
As I approached from the south, the contours of the mill became clearer and the size grew more imposing until it felt like I was approaching a giant antique barn, with obligatory stone foundation, wooden walls, and rusty roof. Seeing it up close, it was easy to imagine the effect it must have had on people who encountered it for the first time in 1778, when it was originally constructed.
Next to the south side of West Point Mill, I noticed a small runner stone, which was used to grind grains into flour.
Turning around, I started circling the mill in a counter-clockwise direction and soon came to the east side — which looked completely different than the other sides because of the intense shade and dark wooden paneling.
Continuing counter-clockwise, I soon reached the north side of the mill and crossed a small embankment over the millrace. Finding myself on unstable ground — it honestly felt like a sand dune supported by bubble wrap — I looked south and caught my first decent glimpse of the water wheel, where the motion of the Eno River was converted into mechanical force for the operation of the mill.
After gingerly making my way off of the apparent sand dune, I walked west, turned around, and caught this glimpse of the west side of West Point Mill.
Seeing it from this angle, I was once again struck by its size and strength, which have seen it through 242 years, several floods, and a full-scale collapse in 1973 — after which it was rebuilt. Despite all this, the mill still stands as a testament to the engineering prowess of the original builders, who constructed it in 1778 under the watchful gaze of William Thetford and Charles Abercrombie, the mill’s first owners.
Turning around, I headed west once again. Before long, I reached the banks of the Eno River and found this lock, frequently used in both millraces and canals.
This structure controlled the water level of the millrace, even allowing it to be cut off altogether in the event that repairs needed to be made to the substrate or adjoining land.
After looking it over with fascination, I stepped onto it, walked to the edge, and looked out over the Eno River.
Standing there, I could almost taste the spray of the river as it cascaded over the mill dam. In the distance, I could see heavy construction equipment, apparently installing new water lines for the city of Durham.
And though it would be better for the Eno River if this mill dam — and all dams — didn’t exist, the harm done by it is far less than the harm done by hydroelectric dams, which are devastating to migratory fish and have contributed to the extinction of untold numbers of aquatic species.
So, while it’s true that nature would be better off without industry of any kind — whether at the level of the mill dam or the hydroelectric dam — there is nonetheless value in preserving modes of life that do less harm to the land while allowing human communities to exist in relative equilibrium.
And that, in combination with a rich history and beautiful landscape, is a great reason to preserve and protect places like West Point on the Eno.
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