One of North Carolina’s smallest counties, Lee County is just about 255 total square miles. The area has historically been one of the leading brick manufacturers in the U.S. due to its location between the Sandhills region and the clay-predominant Piedmont region. The leading crops in the area are tobacco and cotton–and I did stumble upon a gorgeous cotton field in full bloom. Lee County also holds the state’s highest concentration of oil and natural gas.
Deep River Camelback Truss Bridge
My day touring through Lee County started in Cumnock, right on the border of Lee and Chatham Counties, at the Deep River Camelback Truss Bridge and Deep River Park and Camelback Bridge Landing built around it (3485 R. Jordan Road). (From 421, exit at Cumnock Road and head southeast. Follow the road to the county line, then as you cross the new bridge, look to the left and you’ll see the truss bridge. At the next intersection, take a left onto Everett Dowdy Road, and an almost immediate left into the parking area for Deep River Park.)
The Deep River Camelback Truss Bridge, 160 feet long divided into 8 panels, is steel construction that rests on stone and concrete piers with a macadam road surface on a plank deck 40+ feet over the Deep River. (FYI, between Hurricane Florence [Sept. 2018] and Hurricane Michael [Oct. 2018] the region received so much rain that the Deep River swelled to cover the bridge and completely flood the park and surrounding area.)
While here, I met a group of people doing some cleanup around the park in prep for the upcoming 3rd annual Bigfoot Festival on November 2, 2019. A nearly full day of events are planned, including a retelling by locals who have seen a Bigfoot as well as Sasquatch experts and more. The group’s intent is to hold the festival at the park the first Saturday in November each year.
As the Deep River separates Lee and Chatham counties, the bridge is a connector between the two. On the Chatham County, park side, of the bridge, you’ll find a map of the area showing several historic sites and a flying-saucer-like structure, which was a Boy Scout project from several years ago. (Incidentally, there was a Boy Scout Eagle Project happening on the other side of the bridge on the day of my visit.) You’ll also note a plaque depicting a rabbit on the brick columns, and that’s where a little Chatham County history comes into play, even though I am in Lee County that day.
Way back in the late 19th century, cottontail rabbits flourished pervasively in the area. In fact, during a particular snowstorm on November 1, 1896, nine inches of snow covered the area, which drew the rabbits out in such numbers that young boys were able to chase and catch them with only their bare hands. Prized for their meat and skins, this abundant rabbit population soared Chatham County into the rabbit trade. In fact, numbers were so prolific that Our State Magazine reported 94,342 rabbits exported from Siler City by local Chathamites between 1910 and 1914. So, where were they being exported? New York City restaurants, it’s been told!
The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The section along the Deep River was the site of coal, iron, and copper mining and iron foundries throughout much of the 19th century. The bridge was originally constructed in 1901 as part of a multi-span bridge over the Cape Fear River at Lillington, about 30 miles southeast in Harnett County. After a span of that bridge collapsed in 1930, it was deconstructed to make way for a new bridge at the site, and one of the salvages spans was reconstructed at the current site to replace a covered wooden bridge that had burned at the site in 1929. This Truss Bridge #155, now owned by the Deep River Park Association, is one of only four camelback truss bridges left in NC.
Endor Iron Furnace
Travel back the way you came (right out of the parking lot and a right on Cumnock Road), then take your third left onto Cotten Road and a left onto Iron Furnace Road after the train tracks. Follow this road to the end, and you’ll see a gated path. Park here and hike about 10 minutes (You’ll cross over another set of railroad tracks.) to discover another hidden treasure in Lee County. This 35-foot stacked stone edifice was used to produce workable iron for the American Confederacy. Look carefully and you may still find bits of iron ore and pig iron dating back to the Civil War and Reconstruction era. The furnace was placed here to take advantage of the ore veins in the nearby Deep River. The furnace was used for about 10 years, and the remains still stand today. Read ahead in the Sanford section to learn about my discussion with a member of the fundraising team for the Endor Iron Furnace.
Ole Gilliam Park
This historic area along Highway 42 just outside of Sanford boasts a covered wooden bridge and an old mill, plus other buildings originally built by Stephen Henly in 1850. The mill ran until 1870 when he sold the mill complex to Alexander McIver. Howell, John, and Jessica Gilliam leased the mill for many years, then bought the mill and surrounding 500 acres from McIver in 1890. (I had found a cemetery earlier while passing between the Truss Bridge and the Endor Iron Furnace, where members of the McIver and Goldston (Goldston, NC) families and others were buried.) The Gilliams owned the mill until 1928 when it was washed away in a flood. The present mill you see today was reconstructed by Worth Pickard with a few other friends and family members on weekends and holidays in 1979 up the creek from the original site; it is a faithful reproduction of the original Gilliam Mill. All working parts were obtained from old mills throughout the Southeast. In 2000, proprietors Nancy and Worth Pickard donated the mill and 15 acres of land and existing buildings and relics to the Ole Gilliam Mill Park. Today, the park is run by a Board of Directors and is used for several events, including the Ole Mill Crank-Up, church groups, and motorcycle clubs as well as weddings, family reunions and those who wish to visit and walk through the park.
The county seat of Sanford was named for C.O. Sanford, a railroad civil engineer who was instrumental in the building of rail lines through the area, which eventually grew to be the city of Sanford. Jonesboro was another major town in the area, and the two eventually joined to form one community: Sanford. For decades, Lee County was the only courthouse in the U.S. with an RFD address. The courthouse had been placed directly between the two towns, but Sanford had grown so much that it merged with Sanford to become one town. The area of Jonesboro was renamed Jonesboro Heights. You will still see remnants of Jonesboro throughout the area.
The city became an important source of coal, brownstone, and brick–even a key provider throughout the U.S. In 1959, Sanford produced 10% of the total bricks in the U.S. and was named “Brick Capital USA.” The area still has a large brick production today. The city also had a seven-season Class D professional minor league baseball team, The Sanford Spinners, from 1940-42 and 1946-50. They played home games at Temple Park, and the Spinners won the regular season pennant three times!
Modern history recalls a large tornado tearing through the Sanford area on April 16, 2011, demolishing a Lowe’s Hardware, a warehouse, and multiple homes and buildings before moving into Wake County. On October 21, 2014, Sanford established a formal sister city relationship with Yixing, China. And the Maine-to-Florida U.S. Bicycle Route 1 passes through downtown Sanford and Lee County.
While in Sanford, I visited a few more gems.
- City of Sanford Mural Art Trails: includes a growing collection of 9+ murals throughout the city
- Temple : built int 1925 and hosted vaudeville shows in the 1930s. It was closed from 1965-1980, but has since reopened, hosting concerts, musicals, dramas, and comedies on Thursdays through Sundays.
- Sanford Town Hall Building
- The Chocolate Cellar: across from Depot Park. This shop is tucked away below street level, but just follow your nose. The delectable smell of chocolate will lead you straight there! Discover a wide array of extravagantly infused truffles, gourmet chocolates, and assorted candies and gifts (many made on site) as well as a wine tasting room for a Chocolate and Wine Flight experience!
Depot Park and Historic Railroad House
Located at 106 and 110 Charlotte Avenue, respectively, the two spots make a lovely place to visit. The Railroad House is the oldest house in downtown Sanford, dating to 1872. The house contains a museum featuring local memorabilia and interesting history of the area. You can tour the house for free on our own or request a guided tour by the Railroad House Historical Association of the house and other local historical sites. Outside the house, and part of Depot Park, you will find a 1911 Baldwin 2-8-0 locomotive, which is preserved on site. Beside the locomotive, you’ll find two whimsical metal statues of a ticket collecter and passengers as well as various markers throughout. (Museum hours are Saturday and Sunday 1-4pm, and other times by request.)
While visiting the Railroad House, I spoke with a woman who is on the fundraising team for the Endor Iron Furnace. She reports that $300,000 of the needed $1 million has thus far been raised to fully restore, stabilize, and preserve the structure. Planning and Phase 1 activities are in process to eventually build a public park around the centerpiece structure. It is not known at this time how the group will raise the remaining $700,000 for the project. (According to a brochure, tours of the Endor Iron Furnace are available upon request.)
Big Bloomer’s Flower Farm
When you’re in the Sanford area, be sure to stop by this gem: Big Bloomer’s Flower Farm. Even if it’s off season or you’re just passing through, you can peruse through the green houses, enjoy the garden statuary, check out the biggest agave plant I’ve ever seen, and take your photo in The Big Chair!
The town of Broadway, NC, became know as “The Town of Candles” in the late 1960s because the water tower was covered in lights and businesses turned on a single white candle in each window. The tradition spread throughout the town and surrounding areas. Broadway was settled in 1870 and was incorporated in 1907. The town’s name came from a broad level opening in the region’s vast pine forest. During the early 21st century, many local Broadway citizens visited New York City and saw a Broadway show. So, Broadway in New York came to Broadway, NC. A show was put on at the local elementary school with TV and stage actress Sandy Duncan leading the way.
While in Broadway, I discovered a Town Clock, Veterans Memorial, and the cutest Little Free Library (beside the Veterans Memorial).
Old Carbonton Dam
My final stop for the day was scheduled to be the Old Carbonton Dam. But lacking any sort of address, and despite driving to and fro, I was unable to find this hidden treasure. If you discover it for yourself, message me and let me know how you got there.
Happy discovering Lee County!