Triangle History: Milburnie Dam a place awash
By TREVA JONES, Staff Writer
Preservationists mourn the loss of
many historic sites in Wake County,
which have disintegrated from disuse
and disappeared into time. But along
the Neuse River, one notable place is
not likely to vanish.
There's been too much water over
Milburnie Dam does more than
provide a bucolic backdrop for
canoeists, fishermen and strollers from
the adjoining Hedingham subdivision.
It's a working dam and has been, off
and on, for about 100 years.
Today it powers a small
hydroelectric plant, the only one of its
kind in Wake County, which produces
a little over 3 million kilowatt hours of
electricity every year. That's enough to
serve about 250 homes, all from the
force of water rushing over the
16-foot-high rock and masonry dam
onto three turbine-powered generators
The dam, built sometime between
1897 and 1903, is not the first to span
the Neuse there. It replaced an earlier,
According to Wake historian Elizabeth Reid Murray, Milburnie Mills made paper
there starting in 1855. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, it was producing
520,000 pounds of paper a year.
"There is folklore and fact," said Howard F. Twiggs, a Raleigh lawyer who, with
his sister, Carolyn Twiggs Fox of Winston-Salem, owns the dam and several acres
"My dad told me it was used to make Confederate money," said Twiggs, who
has had a lifelong love of the dam.
The paper mill was destroyed during Union occupation. An antebellum post
office at Milburnie village was started and stopped several times before the end of
About 1900, Californian E.C. Hillyer bought the property and built the rock and
masonry dam to replace the timber dam.
He first leased it to a manufacturing company. Later he built a hydroelectric plant
and used the power for Raleigh Ice and Electric Company. That power ran Raleigh's
Carolina Power & Light Co. bought the land and the plant in 1916 and
dismantled the plant two years later. Twiggs' father, Raleigh cotton broker Samuel
Warren Twiggs, bought the property about 1929. In the mid-1930s, he built and
operated a gristmill there.
Twiggs spent much of his youth on the river, playing around the dam, watching
farmers bring their corn and wheat for grinding and enjoying the aroma of the warm,
freshly ground meal. The mill produced "Milburnie Mill Meal," which competed for a
time with Lassiter's Mill cornmeal.
People were allowed to fish below the dam for 25 cents a day. A nearby
African-American church regularly held its full-immersion baptisms in the river. Other
groups had social events there.
And in the days when blacks and whites rarely mixed socially, the dam was a
leveler. Twiggs said people of both races used the area for fishing and recreation,
and the kids played together.
The mill operated until about 1943 or 1944, and the property remained vacant
from 1948 until 1980. People ignored dozens of "No Trespassing" and "Private
Property" signs, even ripping away gates meant to keep them out.
The place earned the nickname "Raleigh Beach" and became a lovers' lane in
addition to a popular place for college kids and others to hang out, swim and booze.
Several people drowned when they went swimming in the treacherous waters
below the dam. And to this day, Twiggs is haunted by the deaths of a young Raleigh
pair there in 1972. Patricia Grimes, the women's editor of The Raleigh Times, and
Peter Williams, a real estate agent, finished a day of biking and hiking with a trip to
Raleigh Beach. A man fooling around in the area with a borrowed rifle gunned them
In the late 1970s, Twiggs leased property to a Pennsylvania company, which
invested about $2 million to build the hydroelectric plant. It went become operational
in 1984. But the company went out of business, and H and H Properties of
Gibsonville bought the plant.
A law passed in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis requires CP&L to buy
whatever juice the small plant produces.
What does the future hold for the dam and the little power plant?
Development keeps coming, and parts of a Raleigh city park planned along both
sides of the river should be in place by next summer. The Twiggs family sold some
acres over the years, but Twiggs plans to hold on to the last 16 acres, including the
dam and water rights.
As for the hydroelectric plant: "We plan to continue to strive in every way to
keep the plant running because of the benefits it offers," said plant co-owner Tim
Henderson, a proponent of cleanly produced power that doesn't require burning coal
or use of nuclear fuel.
All that is needed to keep it going, he said, is a fair price for the power it
produces -- and for the Neuse River to keep right on rolling along.