13 min read

The Hidden History of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina

This episode explores the forgotten history of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is full of hidden cemeteries, ghostly gardens, and unexpected stories.
A drawing of a cemetery in the park / The hidden history of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina

When we go to "spend time in nature," we like to think that the parks that we visit are separate from the bustling cities that we live in. But in reality, parks are as human-made and full of history as any landmarked building. You just have to look a little more closely to uncover that history.

This episode explores the forgotten history of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is full of hidden cemeteries, ghostly gardens, and unexpected stories.

Highlights include:

  • the connection that Umstead State Park has to the evacuation of Dunkirk during WWII
  • the gardens that remain hidden in the woods even after houses have been torn down
  • cemeteries in the woods

P.S. I forgot to mention that there's a book about the park's history called Stories In Stone: Memories From A Bygone Farming Community In North Carolina by Tom Weber (2011) that I can't find for the life of me. If you have a lead on getting a copy of it, please let me know!

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Episode Script

DISCLAIMER: I'm providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn't been proofread, so please excuse typos. (Especially because I use dictation software for a lot of my script writing!) There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script—some of this transcript may feel a bit incomplete. Please treat the episode audio as the final product.

I talked about North Carolina a few times on the podcast. While I have never lived in North Carolina for more than a few months at a time, my wife and I spent much of 2020 living with my sister and her husband in Raleigh North Carolina. Because of this, I’ve spent a decent amount of time hiking around the area, because there’s just a beautiful array of different state parks and greenways in the area. So during 2020 I went on a number of hikes in Umstead State Park in Raleigh as well as some hikes in Eno River State Park in Durham, though I didn’t go to Eno River State Park as often, because it was just further away.

I want to go over their history as well as talk about some of the paranormal investigation type stuff I’ve done there and, in particular, I want to talk about my trip to Raleigh over Halloween weekend 2021. Because not only did I have some unusual experiences, mostly in Eno River State Park, especially in this one hidden cemetery there that is famous for having paranormal activity, but the trip itself just ended up getting a little bit weird. A lot of bad and weird stuff happened while we were there and when I think back to that time it feels like this bad pocket of bad vibes.

This episode, I’m gonna really focus more on the history of Umstead State Park and talk about what the park is like now. And then in the next episode I’ll probably just focus on Eno River State Park and its history and what it’s like now. And then in the third episode of the series I’m going to talk about the solo Estes sessions that I did in the park, the EVP sessions that I did there, an interesting interaction I had with someone who I met in the park, as well as just some of the weird stuff that happened during my last visit to North Carolina.

Now, a word to the wise: I have a tendency to go a little overboard sometimes with the series that I do and sometimes end up being a bit longer than I expect. So as always, take my general roadmap of where planning to go for this miniseries with a grain of salt.

So, first let’s talk about Umstead State Park.

William B. Umstead State Park

Umstead State Park is a 5,599-acre park located in between the cities of Raleigh, Cary, and Durham. It’s part of the East Coast Greenway, which is a trail system that goes between Maine and Florida. I’m pretty sure that I have hiked all of the hiking trails in the park; there are about 20 miles of those, the longest of which is the 7.2-mile-long Sycamore Trail. There are also about 13 miles of multiuse trails which can be used for biking, horseback riding, as well as hiking. If you find yourself in the triangle, I highly recommend that you check out this park. It’s seriously one of my favorite places to hike. And I’ll say the hikes are not difficult at all, but it’s worth remembering that the area is very hilly, so if you’re like me and you’re not used to hills, you might be slightly sore at least the first time you hike it.

So that’s the park today. Let’s look at its history. The park was established in 1937, and prior to that, people lived on that land, of course. I believe that the indigenous people who lived there were the Tuscarora, the Catawba, the Lumbee, and the Occaneechi. (https://native-land.ca/ ) there were some important trade trails, including the Occaneechi trail north of what is currently the park and the Pee Dee Trail south of there.

In 1774, colonizers started getting land grants for the area. The forests were cleared, and at first the farming went well there. But unfortunately the cultivation practices were not the best at the time, and they were doing one crop production, which screwed up the soil. That’s according to Wikipedia. I found a 1995 government report registering the park with the National Register of Historic Places that I’ll be referencing a lot that said that corn and cotton were the two main crops that were grown there until the 1880s. The report also said that the colonizers had “denuded” the area of trees because they cut down so many when building different buildings there. And the report said that because they got rid of the parts of the forest, that allowed a lot of erosion, and the erosion is what destroyed the soils and made the land unstable. Because the land had been so damaged, by the early 1900s, it was mostly just subsistence farming that was happening there. And people continued to over cut the trees that were there, and they would sell them, or use them for fuel, building materials, and cooking. (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0721.pdf )

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, farmers tried to grow cotton by the creek there, which is called Crabtree Creek, and it just wasn’t happening. At that point, the land was considered sub marginal, which means not suitable for farming. The government report also talked about how the farmers would live there were black and white, but basically everyone who lived on the land was really struggling. They had large families and tiny farms on bad land, it was just a bad situation.

In 1934, federal and state agencies bought the land, since it was sort of useless when it came to farming at that point, and the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration built the park. You know these were programs during the Great Depression to give people jobs while also building infrastructure. If you live in the United States, probably no matter where you live, you’ll notice a lot of public works that were built in the 1930s it was through these programs.

In 1950, 1000 acres, so like 1/5 of the park was designated a separate park for black people called Reedy Creek State Park. From what I read, it sounds like prior to that, the park was at least somewhat integrated? (https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2019/02/08/african-americans-and-state-parks ) I read about some cabins that were designated for black campers were built in the late 1930s and early 1940s. (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0721.pdf) I think there may have been that one camp called Camp Whispering Pines where black people were allowed to camp, but it’s kind of unclear to me about who was allowed to hike on the trails prior to 1950. But in 1950, there was Crabtree Creek which divided the park into the two different areas, and while the creek could be crossed really easily, to read from SouthbySoutheast.blog: “Writing about improvements to the parks in 1950, the Raleigh News & Observer provided a perverse note of reassurance to white parents that a large forested buffer would separate the white and African American youth camps, stating that the two camps would be more than a mile apart at the Crabtree Creek dividing line.” Umstead was actually only one of two state Park’s in North Carolina that were designated for black people to use, and then a third one was opened in 1961. (https://southbysoutheast.blog/2020/07/04/odd-times-at-the-odd-fellows-tract-part-ii/ )

But in 1966, the park for white people, the Crabtree Creek area, which had been renamed for former Gov. William B. Umstead, and the Reedy Creek Park were combined and opened for everyone. So the whole park was just called William B. Umstead State Park.

Nowadays, if you go to the park, it’s still obvious that it once was a segregated park, because there are the two entrances on either side of the park and you can’t drive from one entrance to the other. There are roads throughout the park, especially on the Crabtree Creek side where you can drive to different parts of the park, but you can’t actually drive from one side to the other.

So while you’re in the park, you can still see remnants of the farmers who used to live on that land. You might be walking along a trail and you look off to the side and you see the foundation of a house or some sort of building. You can also see chimneys, as well.

Ghost Gardens

I’ve read that if you’re there at the right time of year, you can look out into the woods and see these patches of tulips or daffodils. In that would indicate where people’s front yards were. Because even though their homes are gone, it’s not like they dug up the bulbs from these perennials, so they keep coming up year after year, even almost 100 years later. I just love that idea of the sort of ghost gardens. I think there’s something so beautiful about how these remnants of nature have held on even after these human habitations have disappeared and the human crops have disappeared. There are still these tulips. I haven’t been there during the right time of year, I think to see them. If you are there during that time of year, definitely keep an eye out for that as you hike. Apparently oak trees also indicate where someone’s front yard might have been as well.

Also, apparently there are some other plants that indicate where people used to live. The report that I’m recording from a bunch in this says that off the Graylyn Trail, there used to be some homes: “Before the CCC destroyed them, there were as many as eight houses on either side of the road. With the exception of the King family cemetery, wisteria vines and mimosa trees mark the locations of some of the homestead sites.” (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0721.pdf p. 27)

Dynamite Sheds

There are apparently also two explosives magazines that had been built there for holding dynamite. I’ve seen is called dynamite sheds in government reports. They were built by the CCC in 1936, so they would’ve housed dynamite that they used in constructing the park. The walls were more than 2 ½ feet thick and the roofs were made out of cement. They’re hidden in the woods, and that made out of brick with a flat roof, no windows, thick walls, and a missing door so you can just look in. One is located off of the Sycamore trail, I’m not sure where the other one is. I haven’t noticed these, not that I can remember. (https://www.wral.com/abandoned-mills-homes-graves-hidden-in-woods-at-umstead-park-date-back-to-1800s/19029798/ )

The Company Mill

There is also a millstone off of one of the Company Mill Trail, which was from the mill that was on that land. I believe that a park historian found the millstone in the creek in 1994. (https://sites.google.com/view/takeahike/nc/state-parks-and-forests/william-b-umstead-state-park?pli=1 ) You can also still see part of the dam that was there.

The original Company Mill was a large 2 ½ story building made from stone brick and wood and it was built on a high stone basement. And people would travel from miles around to go to the mill and get their grains ground. People would also hang out and gossip there as well. The 1850 census said that the mill produced 1,166 barrels of flour, and I’m assuming that’s an annual number, but I don’t actually know. The mill was still operating up until the 1920s. Initially, when the park was being built, they considered making the area that had been dammed up a boating area. But then there was a big flood which apparently destroyed most of the rest of the mill.

Cemeteries

Now, perhaps even more relevant to our interests here, there are three cemeteries hidden in the woods of this park. Those include the Young Family Cemetery, the King Family Cemetery, and the Warren Family Cemetery.

The Young Family Cemetery

The Young Family Cemetery is right off the trail head of the Loblolly trail, which starts at the right side of the Reedy Creek parking lot. You basically walk 1/10 of a mile on the Loblolly trail and then the cemetery will be on your right. It has a rusty fence around it, and it is not in good shape. The people buried there seem to have died in the 19th and early 20th century. (https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2444292/young-family-cemetery )

the Warren Family Cemetery

The Warren Family Cemetery is sort of in the middle of the park. It’s off one of the bridle trails, like one of the multiuse trails. It’s a sort of long hike into the park, but you’ll find it on the north side of the Reedy Creek trail. Right near it, there’s a bulletin board that has info about the history of the family and there are some cool pictures and stuff there. At least 17 people are buried there. One really interesting thing about the cemetery is that the graves are surrounded by rocks. So like there’s the tombstone and then there’s just rocks that someone has placed in a circle on top of each of the graves. I’ve rarely seen that. I don’t know if that’s a southern thing, or North Carolina thing, or just an older thing. But whatever the reason, it’s really interesting looking. These graves are mostly from the 19th and early 20th century. (https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2282271/warren-family-cemetery )

the King Family Cemetery

Then there’s the King Family Cemetery. It is on the east side of the Graylyn multiuse trail. There are about 13 tombstones as well as a couple grave markers. The graves in there are mostly from the 20th century, starting from 1902 or so. There are a handful of graves from the 1920s and 30s and 50s up until the 80s and 90s. And there is even one grave from 2012. My understanding is that members of the family can still be buried in the cemeteries, even though technically it’s park land now. (https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2259286/king-family-cemetery )

The Page Family Cemetery

Also, while I was doing the research for this episode, I stumbled across a Page Family Cemetery which is apparently also in Umstead State Park. I was really surprised to see this, because I have researched these cemeteries so many times over the last few years, and I've searched find a grave so many times for the different cemeteries, and I’ve never seen any mention of this cemetery. Like I said, I thought that I had hiked all of the trails in the park, though it sounds like this is off the multiuse trail, and it’s possible that there’s some parts of the multiuse trails that I haven’t walked on, I suppose. But according to find a grave, to get to the Page Family Cemetery, you go in for Reedy Creek Rd. and follow it until it intersects with another trail at mid gate, and in the cemetery is on the right about hundred yards away from the Reedy Creek Trail. The steel chains surrounding it and that there eight graves in there. It sounds like at least some of the burials are from the 19th century. (https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2708410/page-family-cemetery )

Other possible cemeteries

Also, while I was reading about the cemeteries, I saw mention of a Smith Cemetery in a topographical map that I couldn’t really read. I’m not sure that’s just another name for one of the four cemeteries that I know about, or if there’s a separate cemetery called the Smith cemetery. I’ll include a link in the show notes to the map, for anyone who wants to try to decipher that. The report described the cemetery as “Smith Cemetery; typical small, rural, family cemetery with plain granite gravestones interspersed among pine trees. Of the some ten gravestones, about half are damaged.” Elsewhere in the report, it says that the cemetery is occupied by Learys and Smiths and it says that it dates from the early 20th century. (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0721.pdf map p. 53, description p. 59)

I also found a mention of a White Family Cemetery off of Sycamore Trail. The report just says, “Along the footpath, the hiker can discern CCC land reclamation improvements: reforested hillsides, and check dams; early 20th century human occupied areas; the White family cemetery and a stone chimney ruins;” (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0721.pdf p. 5)

Fun facts

One of the most interesting things that I found out while I was researching this was that apparently in August 1941, for two weeks, the camp that had been abandoned by the CCC, ended up posting 169 British Navy Seaman and two officers. The ship they had been on, the HMS Astoria, was in an undisclosed American port so that they could fix damage that it had sustained during the evacuation of Dunkirk, so this was just a place where they could hang out for couple weeks while they waited for their ship to be fixed.

Also, during World War II, not many people visited the park. That’s because at the time, people were mostly taking private cars or buses to the park, but gas rationing prevented people from doing that sort of thing. So because attendance was so low, the state actually let several army regiments from Camp Butner train troops inside the park during July and August 1943. Almost 7000 soldiers and 500 vehicles trained in the park. And apparently was a very helpful place for them to train, because it had all these hills and wilderness, but there is also a decent number of buildings because there were cabins for camping and stuff so that was the main thing that the park was used for then. Really weird an interesting piece of World War II history there. (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0721.pdf p. 44-45)

additional sources: