The Raleigh Naturalist

June 29, 2008

Lassiter Mill and Raleigh mill history

I remember the day in my high school years when they closed Lassiter Mill bridge. It was old time rickety but somehow made it to modern Raleigh – the 1970s- before being closed and then destroyed. I had conscientiously driven my 68 VW carefully over the twin tracks several times, fully aware I was testing out a soon-to-be piece of history. The iron on the right is part of the original bridge structure – iron and wood, and a thing of beauty it was. That bridge gave off an air of classic American architecture of a century past, and was fun to drive across as well, following old Lassiter Mill Road off of the new one.


The site was originally called the “Great Falls of Crabtree” and was used by successive mills starting about 1780, a decade before Raleigh’s creation. Cornelius Lassiter purchased it in 1908 and built two 40-horse turbine wheels to mill grain and lumber. It burned in 1959, but the family continued to make use of the property until current times.

Well-heeled homes now surround the entire site, but the area south of dam and lower pool, and downstream to (the new) Lassiter Mill Road, constitutes a small city park. There are picnic tables, a canoe put-in, and truly fine fishing – I have watched fly fisherman work below and above the dam many times. This is the spot where the city animal control folks bring misplaced snapping turtles for release – I’ve seen them wrestle some real monsters out of their truck. The fishing is also perfect for young ones, as my own can attest. Dorian’s first small-mouth bass came from just below the tailrace, and he had the enormous satisfaction, not only of helping to clean, cook, and eat it, but make his sister sick to her stomach as well. Below is his lucky fishing hole.

You can also put a boat in very easily just off the cul-de-sac, and paddle your way as far upstream toward Crabtree Valley as the downed trees and water levels will let you. The deep water above the dam is like a linear lake right through the backyards of million dollar homes. As the water get shallower, you start to see some really nice slate deposits on the banks and realize you have climbed out of East Raleigh’s muddy ditch sections of Crabtree and gotten into some cool Raleigh Belt geology. This reminds us that Lassiter Mill literally and precisely marks the Fall Line in central Raleigh. I’ll run pictures of that trip this summer.

This is the deep water above the dam. Dams like Lassiter Mill present a problem for migrating fish and the mussels dependent on them for reproduction (a long story we’ll get into sometime). Someday we may make an ecological choice to remove the dam. I will miss the easy canoe trip, but I understand the value of unencumbered stretches of water. Amazing to think of all the gristmills (and dams) that used to dot the Raleigh area – road names alone give you some idea – Lassiter, Edwards, Yates, Ligon, etc. A future gem of a post will explore the remains of the small mill still visible in Fallon Park. We used to live closer to nature – but we also exploited nature in ways we have given up.

The comments below represent well the amazing memories and feelings the Raleigh community has for this spot. those comments are a major feature of the newly published book based on this blog.

The Natural History of Raleigh

May 4, 2008

Metropolitan photos and chapters in our geologic history

Filed under: Book Reviews, Nature Lore, Raleigh History — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 2:20 pm

Historic Photos of Raleigh-Durham. Dusty Wescott and Kenneth E. Peters. 2007. Turner Publishing Company. Nashville, TN.


I was delighted to receive Raleigh Nature’s first ever review copy of a publication, and even more pleased to see such a sumptous coffee table book in my hands.  Well constructed and beautifully printed in black and white, the images and captions are a treasure of information, memories, and comparisions.  The museum staff who worked on the book did a wonderful job of selecting the images and writing captions to place them into context. The final product, part of a series from this publishing house, has some real oddities in its organization and framework, but these probably won’t bother you unless you are a native of Raleigh or Durham.  Historic Photos of Raleigh-Durham gathers fascinating images of both cities into a scrapbook that displays but doesn’t define the histories of these two quite different cities.  The organization of the book, unfortunately, follows the perspective of the publisher rather than the writer.


The split personality of the book emerges in the first pages.  The publisher, Todd Bottorff, states that “Raleigh-Durham is looking ahead and evaluating its future course.”  He encourages readers to use this book to help them reflect “as they go walking in Raleigh-Durham.” He seems to be using a preface template for the series and filling in the name he sees on the front: Raleigh-Durham.  The introduction by a local historian quickly apologizes for this perspective, blaming “media marketing, modern census figures, and a shared international airport” for the perception of two of the Triangle’s three cities as a single entity, and pointing out the fact that Raleigh and Durham are distinct and unique.


Enough of these quibbles!  – for now.  This large glossy book is full of delicious treats. The “chapters”  consist of photos from several decades, with intriguing titles such as   “Tobacco Trust and Trolley Cars” (1900-1919) and  “Let Freedom Ring Along Tobacco  Road” (1940-1965). Single page introductions to these sections offer a smattering of trends from the era for each city.  The natural history of Raleigh gets its due. The Raleigh Light Infantry lined up on Morgan Street in front of the Capitol in 1875 shows young trees I think I recognize as today’s giants.  The oxcart in a Capitol view from the opposite side in the early 1880s shows large mature trees that are long gone.  A blizzard and a flood in 1899 are depicted in images that relate directly to nature in past Raleigh.  And natural history aside, any Raleigh native will enjoy looking at images like the newly opened Broughton High School, with Peace Street a dirt path and the Cameron Village area a deep forest.  This was in 1929, just before the Raleigh Civic Auditorium burned, and was quickly replaced by Memorial Auditorium.  This was during the Depression, of course, and though I knew my grandfather and many others were secure throughout the Depression because of the railroad, I didn’t know Raleigh’s civic building program fared so well.


Durham gets nearly equal coverage.  The images of the Duke homestead and rural -looking tobacco factories complement picturesque memories of early motorcycles and tree-sitting contests. Durham, which I was surprised to learn was not incorporated until 1869, is characterized as strongly influenced by tobacco and Duke University, but the book’s images also convey Durham’s blue collar and African American influences. Road-building between the two cities and early airports gets good representation.  But the photographs associated with a given theme are scattered throughout the book.  Raleigh and Durham images appear side by side.  Photographs of a single subject will appear pages apart.  If you are doing anything other than random browsing, the lack of order and cohesion in the content is disconcerting.  It is as if two local folks were hired to gather archival images and write captions, and then someone in say, Paducah, Kentucky, gathered them and laid out with only one idea – “look nice.”


The book looks quite nice indeed.  The arbitrary and sometimes truly odd juxtapositions can perhaps be provocative in a positive way.  I have never seen most of the images before.  I am glad to have the book, and recommend you buy it, if you have a strong interest in the area, or like nice coffee table books.  And perhaps we can learn from our unenlightened publisher:  The Triangle is an emerging mini-megapolis, whose borders are blending.  Raleigh and Durham will always have a strong separate identity, but the world is working out how to classify us.  RDU, RDC, Raleigh-Durham – these are all labels trying to capture who we are. This book gives us many wonderful images of who we were.

The authors of this book will be present at Borders on E. Six Forks on June 7, 2007


Exploring the Geological History of the Carolinas. A Field Guide to Favorite Places from Chimney Rock to Charleston.  Kevin G. Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson. 2007. UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC.


This is a magnificent resource for understanding the land in which we live.  I rank it with Michael Godfrey’s Field Guide to the Piedmont as an eminently readable popular introduction to a complex field of information.  The introductory chapters make geology seem important to you as a resident of the Piedmont. If you choose or need it, they can provide the basic geology concepts needed to appreciate the book.  Most of the book, however, is devoted to the geological context and significance of prominent and popular natural areas.  It is indeed a field guide in the best sense – a book to carry with you as you explore some of our finest natural areas.


The field trips offered are an outstanding selection.  My favorite spot on earth, Linville Gorge, is featured as an example of “spectacular geology” to match its scenery. The seventeen pound gold nugget that led to gold mining in North Carolina is connected to the fantastic geological tale of how pieces of Gondwana, the ancient super-continent, ended up in the Piedmont, with its gold-filled quartz veins intact.The dramatic 800 foot rise in seas and oceans evidenced by the Cliffs of the Neuse, is described in seamless harmony along with Tuscorora ceremonies, iron-clad warships and moonshining.  The essential focus, however, returns to the image of the cliffs, whose geological existence  will be brief, as the remnant of the greatest global warming event ever experienced by the planet.


Geology can be difficult for anyone, even a dedicated naturalist.  This book explains the concepts through immersion into the geological contexts of our favorite nature sites. It strongly connects the history with the observable features of the landscape.  The result is an education travel guide that gives you all the more reason to visit, explore and contemplate these beautiful spots.

January 18, 2008

Yates Mill Ponderings

Filed under: Greenways & Parks, Nature Lore, Raleigh History, Raleigh mills, Southwest Raleigh — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 2:03 am

The park at Yates Mill Pond is in the purview of this blog – just over a mile from the beltline – but partakes of rural Raleigh and Raleigh history in a profound way that few other sites in that purview do.  The watershed, the mill history, the flood history, the facility and its wonderful homage to all of the previous: here is a nature experience with, truly, something for everyone.  The new center has marvelous open beam vaulted ceilings  and huge window walls that look out on the pond – you feel like you’re in a Biltmore hunting lodge. There is a large set of multi-media displays that give a rich sense of the mill’s multi-family, multi-disaster history.  Back outside, the fishing deck is usually in use, but there are lots of private corners of the pond to explore.

 Walk past the fishing deck and you have a choice of directions to begin a large loop: to the right you can explore a the wet meadow valley around a ridge from the main pond.This trail winds around by NCSU research farmland and then up the ridge to the Penny Road side of the facility.  Currently hurricane damage has closed the connecting segment, so that you are diverted back across the fishing deck to return to the center.

update 6-09 – all 3 trails are open

If you go left after the fishing deck, you are following a trail right beside the pond with twenty specimens of trees, labeled with numbers to go with a brochure available in the center.  There is lots of wildlife, such as the skink seen below. A great place we will return to soon!

Below, from a historical image is my drawing in The Natural History of Raleigh.
Yates Mill Pond






December 16, 2007

Raleigh Geography

Filed under: Crabtree Creek, Geographic Areas, Raleigh History, waterways — Tags: , , , , — raleighnaturalist @ 2:19 am

Raleigh in 1872

Google Map of Raleigh

Topo Map of My Childhood

Google Image of Buckeye Trail

   Raleigh is, of course, an invented city.   Planned in advance at a tavern somewhere between Litchford and Falls of the Neuse, drawn in regular squares, purchased from Joel Lane for about $3 an acre, 400 acres of the one thousand purchased were divided and sold in lots to the prominent families who expected to inhabit it, with five large squares reserved for community purposes.  It is reminiscient of D.C. in its ordered squares and patterns of street names, but nevertheless a fairly typical large Southern town in many respects, with a seasoning of “cow-path roads” to leaven those squares.  The early city expanded its boundaries in 1857, avoided destruction in 1865, and then then expanded again in 1907 with some of the South’s first “suburbs,” – serviced by trolley lines!  Hayes Barton, named for the deer-filled English homeland of Sir Walter, was a prime example.  Raleigh’s growth went straight north for many decades after that, but has recently expanded in lots of directions -though not evenly.  Rural scenes can still be had with just a few minutes driving going south or especially east.


   Crabtree Creek dominates Raleigh geography, just as it does this blog.  It drains a huge swath of land across Wake County.  Its head waters are in west Cary and it empties into the Neuse at Anderson Point just off US 64 East.  In between, it makes a slow northward curve that defined the Beltline right of way with useless lowlands, then slopes southward to its union with the Neuse.  If Crabtree stayed full, it would be a river itself, and it often outdoes the Neuse in flow after heavy rains.  But ours is a low flow water system with periodic normal droughts.  Crabtree often barely moves through the huge ditches it has carved into the sediments of lowland Raleigh.  When it roars, it scours these floodplains with a muddy concoction of tree trunks, lumber and flotsam that can dress the landscape in astonishing sights.  Thus the cheap right-of-way.  But no more!  Stores on huge slabs of fill dirt, townhouses on stilts, rich slopeside houses with mandatory first floor basements – Raleigh has embraced the floodplains.  And Crabtree has been ditched and channeled, dammed and diverted to save the shopping center.  Walnut Creek’s much smaller but intricate watershed drains the southern half of the city.  And Swift Creek below that flows through and forms some of the most fascinating wildlife areas in the Triangle.


   Water is what maps an area.  We get ours from Falls Lake, due north, and return the treated waste water to the Neuse southeast of here. Crabtree and Walnut Creek wrap around the high ground of downtown and North Hills like bow legs, reaching the river just a couple of miles apart.  Our waterways have gained the dual importance of riparian buffer and wildlife habitat, and the parks and greenways map right on to the waterways with few exceptions. A map of wildlife inside the beltline might as well be a map of the creeks.  So that is where this blog will tend to find itself – streamside.


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