History of the Wetlands

The Walnut Creek wetlands are full of history and have been an important part of the Raleigh community for generations. Here are some of the stories of the people who have shaped the wetlands and been shaped by them.

Farm life

Long before the Walnut Creek greenway was constructed and even before Fuller Elementary School and Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church were built, a large section of the Walnut Creek wetlands was farmland that belonged to an African American family, the Youngs. Mrs. Eunice Young Joyner and Mrs. Lethia Young Daniels were children who grew up living on their family farm where they cared for and harvested many different crops. The two sisters remember helping out in the fields, and taking lunch breaks along Walnut Creek under the cool trees.

The Young family
The Young family with Uncle John Lightner (upper
left). Photo taken in 1936 on hill next to farm house
where Fuller Elementary School now stands.
Horse and cart
Walter Young and nephew with horse and
cart on the Young's family farm.
 

Bruce Lightner, a cousin of the Young sisters, and his family are deeply connected to the Walnut Creek area as well. His grandfather, father of former Raleigh Mayor Clarence Lightner, owned a large area of farmland along Walnut Creek years ago. Today Mr. Lightner remains involved in the Raleigh community, including working for social and economic justice.

To hear their stories, and other interviews about the history Walnut Creek wetlands, please visit the Walnut Creek Oral History Project website at http://www.soil.ncsu.edu/feature/wc_oral_history/index.html.

Brimley Brothers

The Brimley brothers
C.S. (left) and H.H. Brimley in the
museum shop in 1894. Photo courtesy
of NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

It is a little known fact that the Walnut Creek wetlands played an important part in forming the NC State Museum of Natural Sciences. The connection lies in the story of the Brimley brothers. Herbert Hutchinson (H. H.) and Clement Samuel (C. S.) Brimley came to Raleigh from Bedfordshire, England in 1880. They spent years collecting and studying samples of animal and plant life in the Raleigh area. Much of their collections came from the Walnut, Swift, and Crabtree Creek wetlands. There are accounts of them collecting in places in the Walnut Creek watershed such as Lake Johnson, Lake Raleigh, and the Walnut Creek lowlands. Both hunters and fishermen, they started their own taxidermy business. Their customers were mostly schools and educational institutions that needed materials.

Between 1884 and 1891 they published 76 articles on Raleigh Bird Life in The Ornithologist and Oologist. H.H. eventually became the curator of the North Carolina Museum of Natural History, and C.S. accepted a job in the Entomology Department in the NC Department of Agriculture. They were very accomplished naturalists, and both were recognized by the state.

The NC Museum of Natural History started as a geological collection in 1879. It later branched out, with the help of the Brimleys, adding various collections from the state, including many from the Walnut Creek watershed. The Brimleys helped with state exhibitions all over the country, and many of their specimen samples can still be found in the museum. After all their work studying and admiring nature in the Walnut Creek wetlands and elsewhere, the Brimleys would surely be proud to see the Walnut Creek Wetland Center being established so that others can continue to enjoy and learn about wetlands.

Breaking ground
Members of PEJ breaking ground for the new Walnut Creek
Wetland Center alongside Mayor Charles Meeker and City Parks
and Recreation Department staff members. July 16, 2008

Partners for Environmental Justice (PEJ)

In the Mid 1990's, members of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church and Trinity Episcopal Church of Fuquay-Varina joined to form Episcopalians for Environmental Justice (EEJ). The Rochester Heights neighborhood was built in the 1950s and populated by mostly African-American homeowners. In 1995 residents united out of concerns for the environmental injustices happening in the neighborhood. The houses in the neighborhood were repetitively flooded, due to nearby construction and the years of litter clogging the wetlands. The EEJ learned that Rochester Heights residents would be forced to pay $10 a month to the city for addressing the flooding problem, but residents in white neighborhoods experiencing flooding were not. On top of the flooding, residents living adjacent to the Walnut Creek Wetlands witnessed their constant pollution by the dumping of garbage, furniture, and appliances, which the residents had to clean up. As well as the trash, the wetlands were being damaged by the introduction of invasive species. Over time, the EEJ worked to secure funding for cleaning up and restoring the wetlands, and making it an educational and recreational center. So many people started volunteering and helping that the EEJ decided to change their name to Partners for Environmental Justice (PEJ). The vision for the Walnut Creek Wetland Center was formed by the members of the PEJ over the past 10 years and they are thrilled to see the center opening now.

[PEJ's] mission is to promote understanding and protection of an urban wetland, enhance community pride, and encourage economic development. The park is to provide an accessible quiet zone for communing with nature. The park is to preserve the natural beauty of the wetland, provide habitat for native species, and lift the spirits of those who visit through educational and recreational experiences.

~ Partners for Environmental Justice