Old sewage plant has new life as a Durham park

jwise@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • If you go

    The Friends of Sandy Creek will hold a Fall Environmental Festival, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Sandy Creek Park, 3510 Sandy Creek Drive in Durham.

    • Exhibits on park history, geology, wildlife and plant life

    • “Early Bird” bird walk, 8 a.m.

    • Dedication ceremony for new park improvements, 11 a.m.

    • Information: on.fb.me/1gt94pp.

Time was, if you were coming into town by way of U.S. 15-501, right around the business-bypass split you’d be welcomed by a distinct aroma.

Sewage. The fragrance is long gone now, and what was once the New Hope Wastewater Treatment Plant has been transformed into an environmental asset called Sandy Creek Park.

“What is there now is a total turnaround. It's a lovely, congenial park,” said Reynolds Smith, of the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission.

“We’re pretty proud of it,” said John Goebel, of the Friends of Sandy Creek ( on.fb.me/1g0D0vg). Over the past year, he said, about 200 volunteers have put in almost 1,000 hours working on park improvements that they’re showcasing Saturday with an Environmental Festival.

Sandy Creek Park covers 102 acres between Pickett Road and 15-501, with the creek, trails, marshes, a pond, picnic shelter, butterfly garden, several preserved structures from the sewage-plant days and a plenitude of wildlife: herons, beavers, minks, deer, coyotes.

“We’ve even seen a black bear down there, passing through,” Goebel said.

Crayfish, too – such as one that raised its claws to defend its place on the trail when Goebel came upon it after one of last week’s heavy rains.

“They look so ferocious,” he said. “They live in the ground, away from the creek, surprisingly, and when it pours like that they come out.”

Sandy Creek has been open as a park for about nine years, said Beth Timson, assistant city parks and recreation director. The city had used the land for collecting debris from Hurricane Fran and a major ice storm, she said, then put it under a conservation easement to mitigate some environmental effects of building Martin Luther King Parkway.

“We’re just trying to preserve it in the wildest state we can,” Goebel said.

Besides its natural nature, the parks department’s 2012 “Historic Resources Master Plan” describes Sandy Creek Park as historic, “for urban and industrial development.” That development was a sewage plant, built in 1928 to handle waste from Duke University’s then-under construction West Campus and hospital.

Over the next decades, the town spread around the plant and the nearby Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, opened in 1952, became a major gateway to Durham. The plant ceased operation in the 1960s, but the smell remained. The site became known as “Old Stinky” and the “Stinker Marsh.”

“It was the first impression of Durham anyone received who traveled to Durham from Chapel Hill on the boulevard, a reeking cloud of sewer gas. And it smelled that way for years,” Smith said.

“What an irony to then encounter all the signage declaring Durham ‘The City of Medicine’ when the whole west end of town smelled like an outhouse.”

3 structures remain

A display at the park describes how the plant worked and identifies the three remaining structures: a “vacuator tank” 24 feet in diameter where solid waste separated from heavier material, a pump house and a holding tank for methane gas. The pond now covers the site of two biological filters. So far, the structures are only stained and paint-flaking relics but, according to Timson, ideas for future uses “have been many.”

The plant remained idle and abandoned, at the end of a 0.7-mile running road off Pickett Road just west of its bridge over the 15-501 Bypass. Eventually, the city considered selling the land to developers, but the late landscape architect Ken Coulter intervened, Goebel said.

“He saw the property and just felt like it had a lot of potential,” Goebel said. “He really lobbied hard, and his (design) firm did a very extensive master plan. He was hoping to have a few buildings down there and some formal environmental education for kids.”

That was in 1998, according to Goebel. Coulter Associates had already developed an open-space master plan for the New Hope Creek corridor ( bit.ly/1apCQGt), which recommended designating the plant property as “open space and recreational land.”

The city of Durham, Durham County, Chapel Hill and Orange County adopted the master plan in 1991 and ’92, and the New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee ( newhopecreek.org) is hosting Saturday’s festival along with the Friends of Sandy Creek.

The city installed restrooms and a pavilion when it opened the park. Volunteers have done most of all the other improvements, with help from county open-space grants: building trail benches and a porch swing with a view over a lawn and pond, planting trees and a butterfly garden, putting up a split-rail fence and adding a bridge with, at one end, a boulder engraved with a tribute to Coulter: “His monument is all around you.”

An observation deck overlooking a wetland is in progress. It won’t be done before the festival, “but there will be enough done for folks to have a good idea of what it will look like,” Goebel said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

Durham News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service