Abandoned quarry is a hidden jewel in Winston-Salem

By Jeff Laughlin

The view from high above the Vulcan Rock Quarry does it no justice. You cannot tell the depth of the water, cannot see the freshwater fish and jellyfish, the swirls in the volcanic rocks.

Still, from this height, the tops of now drowned trees poked through the water and the size of the landmark is breathtaking.

“Water started to fill the quarry in 1939,” said Lomark Barren.

He has worked for the Winston-Salem Parks and Recreation Department for 25 years, and he knew all about the quarry. He fixed the fences when people broke in to swim. He drove people down to see it, too.

“We used to be able to drive further in, but the water got too high,” he said.

“We probably saw six feet in the past two years,” Royston says. Barren estimated around three feet in the five years before that. He measured the rise with a yardstick tied to a tree near a now underwater landing.

The high water concerned the department since they plan to make the quarry a public park. Park Superintendent William Royston submitted the first draft of the Vulcan Quarry Master Property Master Plan on Feb. 12 to the Winston- Salem City Council’s General Government Committee. The plan remains unfunded.

Beyond funding, there are several kinks in the plan.

One such problem is finding a way to disperse the fresh water without it returning to the quarry. Several large, black runs of rock indicated where groundwater flowed into the quarry. When the quarry still operated, blasting ruptured veins in hard rocks and added more water. The quarry will never stop filling.

“Summer is the only slow fill season,” Royston said. “But even in drought, the quarry still rises.”

Filling added to a number of other concerns. Royston estimated 20 acres of invasive species that need to be destroyed, including kudzu and privet plants. Creative measures need to be taken to preserve the quarry’s ecology. Royston discussed several inventive ways to rid the area of kudzu, including helium treatment.

Geological studies need to be done to measure the safety of the area. Falling rocks and preservation of nature must be queried. Money must be raised, in a tough time, to build the park.

For all the work that must be done, the master plan focuses intently on fun. The plan includes an amphitheater, a large entranceway with walking room, zip line tours, ropes courses, two disc golf courses, additional greenway space and family picnic areas. With those measures, the park would span 180 acres. If that much land were used, this would be the fourth-largest park in the city.

Large bass swam through rooted trees, visible from atop the surrounding rocks.

“They feed all through here. I’d say the average size is about this big.” Royston said, measuring with his fingers. “About nine or ten inches, on average.”

Barren thought the average bass size might even be bigger. He said the biggest carp he saw was a foot or more. The men also saw large catfish and bream swimming the quarry.

“When it’s clear out, you can see the bass swim in huge schools together,” Barren said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As predatory animals, bass are not known to swim in schools, but they did at Vulcan; one of many natural oddities the area offered.

“If you come out here again, do yourself a favor and wear anti-reflective glasses,” Royston recommended. “Once you take the reflection off of the water, you can see it all.”

Tiny jellyfish often floated near the surface, most visible on cloudless days. At the council meeting, Royston noted that scientists found the jellyfish were freshwater specific.

Barren ruminated, “Ducks get seeds in their quills and transport all kinds of stuff. Then they bathe in the quarry and that’s how you end up with all this.”

According to National Geographic, the jellies are usually no bigger than a quarter and are not dangerous to humans.

This sounded tantalizing, but Barren warned against opening the quarry to fishing. “We don’t want to introduce any outside elements to the area,” he said.

Though the fish were large and plentiful, he said, it made more sense to leave them be. Barren said chemicals from lures or sprays could harm the water or disrupt the fish’s behavior.

That said, the quarry water’s untainted, bluish hue remains the best attraction. Though the master plan does not include swimming inside the quarry, it has already attracted an unknown amount of midnight tourism. When asked, Royston and Barren both snickered at the idea of knowing how many people sneak in.

“We stand at the top and watch people try to hide,” Royston said. “And the people that live around here know ways in that we’ll never know.”

People cut the chain-link fence in order to avoid the barbed wire. Just driving around the quarry, Barren found two spots that needed fixing. Keeping people from breaking into the area has become more of a problem.

More than one council member has remarked about the quarry’s reputation as a college hangout with lighthearted intent, but the problem remains. During the committee meeting, Royston expressed interest in a rail line circling the quarry to give people a good view and as a barrier to keep people from falling in.

The quarry helped build Winston- Salem.

When still functioning in the 1950s, Vulcan Materials distributed concrete for most of the buildings and roads in Winston-Salem. Since then, the quarry has accumulated water, and serves little purpose to the public. Winston- Salem did not own the land until recently, when Vulcan donated the quarry in 1998. Councilwoman Molly Leight donated another 18 acres earlier this month, something the council commended her on after the master plan was introduced.

Longtime parks and recreation worker Rick Young remembered when he and his buddies would play in the quarry.

“It was virtually untouched until the last couple of years,” Young said.

As the popularity of the land escalates, so too does the need for a plan to open the area for sightseeing.

Otherwise, the “hidden gem” city officials kept referring to will stay hidden.