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The Camelback Bridge in 2012, courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the last – and largest remnants – of times gone by in central North Carolina literally straddles the line between Lee and Chatham counties.

The Camelback Bridge has connected the Cumnock and Gulf across the Deep River since the 1930s. Its history in the region goes back further, though – it was built in Lillington in 1901 to span the northern and southern banks of the Cape Fear River, and only moved to its current location after collapsing in 1930 and being salvaged for use elsewhere. It replaced a wooden bridge which had served the same purpose in the Cumnock area but had burned down at some point prior.

Deep River Park is located just northwest of where Cumnock Road crosses the Deep River.

It’s no longer open to vehicle traffic – cars cross a two-lane concrete bridge just to the east – although pedestrians are welcome to cross it on foot.

“I can remember going over the bridge as a kid,” said Lee County resident Dickie Harrison. “Back then it was a one way bridge with a light at each end. You had to wait until the light turned green to go across.”

Today, Harrison is active with the Deep River Park Association, a nonprofit which helped preserve the bridge and built and now maintains a park area that surrounds each of its ends. Harrison became involved with the nonprofit via his connection to Margaret Jordan Ellis, who has been described as the primary force in saving the bridge and establishing the park.

“(Ellis) ran the organization kind of by dictatorship,” joked Harrison, who worked with her for a number of years. “She was just a wonderful person – a woman in the know who didn’t take no for an answer.”

From Wikipedia

Ellis, who died in 2015, helped establish the park in the late 1980s and was ready to object strongly when the state announced plans to take down the bridge in 1992. Her efforts apparently resulted in not only the bridge’s preservation, but also its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

On paper, the Deep River Park Association is an official nonprofit organization, sanctioned by the state of North Carolina to raise money for the purpose of preserving the bridge and the park surrounding it. In practice, it’s a small group of dedicated volunteers who’ve been responsible for the endless task of maintaining a century old piece of history and the land surrounding it. Harrison said the work is worth the trouble because of the park’s special meaning to the surrounding region.

“It’s amazing how many events we have at this park,” he said. “There have been baptisms, and weddings, church events, ice cream socials, bands playing on the bridge. There’s just so much history – everybody’s caught a fish there, everybody’s been swimming there.”

But the work – and the need for money – is also real.

“This morning I spent an hour and 45 minutes just picking up trash,” Harrison explained. “There are flower beds to maintain, there’s gravel, we have to resurface the bridge, do repairs, paint. There’s clearing the trails. If a tree falls on the bridge, we remove it. There are fire ants and wasps. The number one problem on the Lee County side is the bamboo.”

Harrison said there was a time when money was more plentiful (“there have been years when one or both of the counties would fund us a small amount for the upkeep,” he said), but volunteers were lacking. Today, it’s the opposite – the Deep River Park Association’s volunteers are active and committed, but money is lacking.

That’s why the organization will host its annual plate sale from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday. For $8, you get a plate of chicken tenders with slaw, beans, bread, dessert, and a drink. You can drive through an area on the Chatham County side of the park and eat on the bridge, or the organization will deliver orders of 10 or more plates. You can place an order in advance by calling Phil Oldham at (919) 214-4178 or Lucinda Sechrest at (919) 801-7316.

And if you can’t buy a plate Friday, you may still donate to the Deep River Park Association by sending a check to 2149 Greenwood Road, Sanford, NC, 27330. Inquire by email at deeprivernc@gmail.com.

The Camelback Bridge today, photographed from the Chatham County side.
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