Those who enjoy the rolling waters, winding trails, and conveniently located campsites of the Eno River State Park could soon have more of it to love.
Over the past year and a half, the Eno River Association has worked to acquire 226 acres of land near downtown Hillsborough from the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, a nonprofit with the mission to preserve examples of “classic American residential architecture” along with their surrounding landscapes and trails. If the purchase goes through, the NC Division of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Archaeological Conservancy would own and conserve the land for generations to come.
The transaction includes the Eno River Bend parcel and more than 200 acres of proposed Eno River State Park land.
Together, the properties contain 2.8 miles of river and tributary frontage; over four miles of walking trails; the Occoneechee Speedway; and downtown Hillsborough locations of the earliest known settlements along the Eno River, historical parcels listed on the National Registry of Historical Places with 14 known rare plant and animal species.
Founded in 1966, the Eno River Association is an accredited land trust and watershed nonprofit. According to its website, its mission is to acquire land and conservation easements to ensure the preservation of water quality, wildlife, and cultural resources of the Eno River basin in Orange County and northern Durham and to make the outdoors enjoyable and accessible for everyone.
Jessica Sheffield, executive director of the Eno River Association, says that this historic land sale is rare and exciting.
“This [project and property] is completely mission focused for us and is just a perfect match transferring this land to the state and the Archaeological Conservancy,” Sheffield says. “Those two new owners will ensure that the natural history and cultural features of the property remain forever protected and will continue to be open for the public use.”
A top priority for both the association and the trust is to ensure that the property, located around the trust’s Ayr Mount historic site, a Federal-era plantation house just outside of Hillsborough, will continue to be properly managed and remain a community resource.
“Ensuring the long-term stewardship of these unique properties was our primary objective for working with the Eno River Association,” says vice president of the trust Kevin Cherry. “With this transaction, the ecology of the area will be preserved, the speedway will remain accessible for low-impact recreation, and the archaeological sites will be protected and available for research and teaching.”
As part of the historic land sale, the preservation trust will donate 23 percent of the $2,028,480 land value. The Eno River Association’s goal is to raise the remaining funds over the next year through public and private sources and donors.
So far, the nonprofit has received a $100,000 gift from the Harkrader family to jump-start fundraising that it hopes to match by the year’s end.
Kim Livingston, director of conservation and stewardship, who is leading the project, says that the Eno River Association has also applied for funding from the NC Land and Water Fund, a state grant source, and that the NC Division of Parks and Recreation plans to apply for the Federal Land and Conservation Fund in the coming months.
Livingston says that projects of this scale take a while to accomplish; their grant sources often only have one cycle per year and they are never guaranteed. Still, a decision on the public grant sources could come by the end of 2022.
“If we are not awarded those public grants, we will go after those grants again in 2023 and also increase our private fundraising efforts to support the project,” Livingston says.
Natural, cultural, and historical significance
The protected land to be sold functions as a stream buffer and wildlife corridor for over 2.8 miles of river and tributaries and will continue to support wildlife and preserve clean water along the Eno River.
In addition, the property boasts 14 known National Heritage elements, including rare animals such as the Neuse River waterdog, the yellow lampmussel, and the mottled duskywing.
The Eno River Bend, a future archaeological conservancy property, spans 20 acres and is part of historic downtown Hillsborough. The parcel contains remains of four known early settlements that date back to AD 1000, including those that date back to AD 1690 on the Eno River from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation village.
Kelly Berliner, the eastern regional director for the Archaeological Conservancy, says that the archaeological sites located at this bend in the Eno River significantly inform our understanding of Native American life in the Piedmont region from AD 1000 until the early 1700s.
“[This was a] time period that was complicated as Native people reacted to and interacted with European trade goods and settlers coming into the area,” Berliner says.
The Archaeological Conservancy is working with the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation to ensure the sites are protected and guarantee Native American access to all of its preserves.
In addition to the early settlement remains, the 200-acre portion of the land transaction proposed for the Eno River Park expansion contains the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail—the only surviving dirty speedway from the NASCAR inaugural 1949 season—and will include the James M. Johnston State Dedicated Nature Preserve.
The NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail
The NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail and the Riverwalk run through the Eno River Bend property, allowing easy access for visitors and accessibility to downtown Hillsborough shops and restaurants.
This section of the parcel is already open for the public to use; the Eno River State Park saw more than a million visitors in both 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. Officials say the new acres of state park in downtown Hillsborough are expected to attract even more new visitors.
The connection of trails to downtown Hillsborough should boost the town’s revenue and help its plans for walkability, so people can enjoy the river, shops, and restaurants without having to drive.
The Eno River Association will host events later this month for people to learn more, including guided hikes along the Eno at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail on March 26. Visitors can choose from three hikes themed around the speedway, nature, or indigenous history and culture. In addition, the Eno River Association will hold a virtual info session April 5.
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