Three weeks ago my wife Rebekah and I hit the trail, not the dusty trail but the paved two-mile trail in Hillsborough known as Riverwalk.
A short 20 years and $2 million after some local residents began talking about making this trail through town along the Eno River, it’s finally reality. And there’s no doubt it’s already a huge hit with everyone.
After traversing the river on a tin-roofed footbridge under the railway trestle downstream of Gold Park, the first people we encountered were two Frenchmen deep in conversation; I dared not interrupt for an interview.
Our first conversation of day a few yards down from the Francophones, was with a 5-year-old and her mother visiting from Roxboro, baby brother in tow. The little girl lazed, belly down in the afternoon sun on a big white rock at a bend in the trail. When I spoke, she turned, looked at me and simply asked, “Why did they build this?” Well isn’t it obvious little girl, for your pure enjoyment. While the father was off at his card game at the Toy Factory, mom and kids had discovered this new treasure in the heart of Hillsborough.
Continuing on, we met a family from Florida who’d found the path after their curiosity was piqued when they sighted a sign for Riverwalk. Another couple, newly moved to Hillsborough from New Jersey, were also among the smitten strolling in the dappled afternoon light. I caught a snatch of heated talk between a mother and grown son about the invasive plants referring to the big stands of Japanese stilt grass that are now all too familiar in our woodlands; notwithstanding that, the two were obviously having a fine time.
On a further exploration downstream two weeks later, everyone was smiling and full of praise for this project – a mother and two kids from Durham, a skater, a runner, a biking father and son, three generations of a family reuniting around a recent move here from California. Staff at Weaver Street Market said they have overheard shoppers talking of their walk to get groceries from west Hillsborough. It’s no wonder that Mark Donely, owner of the Eno Gallery, told me enthusiastically, “This modest investment will pay dividends to Hillsborough for generations to come.”
Two gentlemen, inveterate riverwalkers were hanging out at the bridge over the worn down remnant of Fish Dam Road fervidly discussing the fish kill one had observed during his daily perambulation just two days before under the trestle. They surmised a chemical spill from a train crossing the river was likely the cause and by now the evidence was dispersed and the fish “cleaned up.” No telling if any further investigation was scheduled but they had sure enough reported it. Cliff Younger, one of these two river-keepers-without-portfolio, added later how he’s been picking up litter along one quarter-mile stretch from the Cameron Street trail to the path east of River Park for years now, but it’s finally abated as the path has been paved and populated with a few strategically placed trash cans.
A rare thing
It is a rare thing indeed for those in the city planning profession to see a project like this come to fruition on their watch. So the pride that project planner for the town Stephanie Trueblood and her boss Margaret Hauth take in this one is well-deserved.
They with the town’s Board of Commissioners, manager and many others shepherded the River Walk through a long tortuous regulatory, permitting and financial process. It was a most unlikely triumph of timing, luck persistence, community will, citizen engagement and political support.
Margaret said modestly: “It’s nice when a plan comes together, everyone’s happy. We got lucky on one thing.”
The series of grant funding that financed the major share of this over 15 years is a testament to their bureaucratic creativity – including State Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, state Recreation, Trails and Parks funds, Water Quality funding, EPA Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds along with town matching funds and private funds. Unfortunately much of the state funding sources will no longer exist as the legislature has now funneled most of those monies into the General Fund.
The first Town Parks and Recreation Master Plan in the early 1990s had the River Park on the lawn behind the courthouse as its focus and the main idea for Riverwalk was to connect the dots that were River Park, the about-to-be-born Gold Park and Occoneechee Mountain. Next year, Hauth said, two downstream points of the privately owned Oconeechee Speedway and Poets Walk at Ayr Mount are to be added to the grand vision. Sadly two of the River Walk’s visionaries, Wendy Olsen and Charles Berger, are no longer with us, both ironically having been killed in separate car accidents some years ago. The big bridge at Kollock and Nash Streets by the parking deck is named in their memory.
So as you take the air along the Eno, admire the creative and unique signs that combine the natural, economic and cultural history of the river, think of those who trod the path long before it was paved and enjoy your public investment.
You can reach Blair Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.