Green Springs water park: The last of the old-time swimming holes

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George Wetherington has some stories to tell. Some are about God, some are about war, and some are about endless struggles against authority. Many are wild and impossible to confirm. But each one, eventually, leads back to one place — Green Springs water park.

The first story Wetherington needs you to hear, the one that explains so much of what came after, is about broken young men left behind on a battlefield in Korea, and one who wasn’t.

“When I was drafted they sent me to Fort Meade, Maryland. My granddaddy died in March of ’52, so I went back home to the funeral and then went right straight back, and why I was home the feeling got on me so strong that I was being sent to die there in Korea; I was never coming back. And I went to all the little places I played as a kid, I thought I would never see it no more.”

When he returned from the war, Wetherington said the feeling of dislocation returned, only more intensely.

“When I got home just about dark a guy picked me up at the bus station and took me home. When I left there the feeling come back, that I wasn’t supposed to be back, and I was all to pieces and I asked the Lord what was I supposed to be doing and ..it took me years to get over that.

“There was many a person got killed over in Korea. I had a feeling I was with all these guys that got killed… and yet I was home, and they weren’t home. And I got my face right in the dirt, and people laughing and celebrating and thanking the Lord for being home; it was the other way with me. I knew I won’t supposed to be home and it was the first time I ever heard the Lord talk to me in my life and he said ‘George, if you get yourself right, I’ll use you.’”

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Seated at a weatherbeaten picnic table at his home in James City, Wetherington gazes out from his backyard at the wooden oddity of Green Springs water park that rises above the Neuse River some 50-yards away, a faded Confederate flag blowing slowly in the late summer breeze from the four-story tower that dominates the surrounding structure. A few teenagers in bathing suits pass by and say hello on their way down to the catwalk-like series of piers, steps and platforms.

At 86, Wetherington appears much like the water park itself, battered but still functioning. Adjusting his red “Make America Great Again” cap, he explains how after returning from the Korean War he moved from his boyhood home some 20 miles away to his current multi-acre spread on the waterfront of James City, an unincorporated community a few miles east of New Bern. He was lost, mentally and spiritually, searching for anything that might show him “who I really was, whether I had a purpose in this world,” he recalls

According to Wetherington, after several aborted attempts he began work on Green Springs water park in earnest in 1975 with the help of a local Boy Scout troop.

“There was a Scout mom who asked me to bring the troop down here and clean the area as a Good Turn project. Before that I had a pier for swimming that washed up in 1971. There was nothing out there but an old pole and it’s still sitting out over yonder. There used to be an old lover’s lane down there and we cleaned it up. When the pier washed up I bought this lot here. I was leasing the first lot and I decided I’d move the pier over here on this one.

“When we first started we put anchors in the ground, we put cables to the pier trying to hold it, we done a little bit of everything. The cables would rust out, anchors would rust out and the poles would come up. We just sunk more poles and just kept adding to it.”

After four decades of additions, repairs and re-thinkings the Green Springs of today is a sprawling anomaly that would look more at home in the swamps of Louisiana than just around the corner from some of the most prized waterfront property in Craven County, North Carolina. In addition to four towers connected with levels of walkways, the park also includes ramps, rope swings, zip lines and designated areas for diving. Looking at it head on from the pier that connects to Wetherington’s backyard can be disorienting: nothing is exactly level or square; walkways warp underneath your feet and don’t always lead where you might expect. Like a real world construction by a rustic M.S. Escher, however, Green Springs has its own internal logic.

According to Wetherington, getting approval for the project took an effort almost as fraught with setbacks as its construction. One of his favorite stories, maybe his very favorite, is how he beat the local and state authorities who tried to thwart his dream.

“We had a pretty hard time getting a permit for it because about three people were bucking us that had a lot of pull on it; it took a long time,” he recalls. “I was facing an automatic $10,000 fine when I built it: they told me I won’t gonna build it and I told them I was gonna build it, that we had a right to have it and everything they was doing was illegal, but it didn’t make no difference. I ended up taking it to Raleigh, and the U.S. Attorney told me ‘Right or wrong has nothing to do with it, it’s how much money you got.’”

“They was one that was trying to stop me, an old sheriff, and he died in ’74.  Even a congressman got involved and tried to have the permit taken away after we got it. That was a long time ago. But there’s no way I could have held on without the Lord’s help, there’s no way I could’ve done it. The things I bucked…”

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If God was indeed fully behind the Green Springs project, he often had a strange way of showing it. Nature’s catastrophic outbursts, human malice, and sheer bad luck have almost done the park in on a number of occasions.

In 2011, two-thirds of the structure was submerged thanks to Hurricane Irene. According to Wetherington, storms and floods routinely tear bits and pieces from the towers and piers, which require almost constant repair.

“About three years ago somebody set it afire out there. I don’t know whether it was an accident but I believe it was on purpose,” he notes dryly.

And despite the numerous signs warning of shallow water and the absence of lifeguards, there have been at least two deaths and a handful of serious injuries since the park opened. In the summer of 2015 a 21-year-old man drowned, as did a teenager in 2010. The following year a 10-year-old girl fell from the third level of the swim deck to the second level and broke her femur. In 2014 a teenager got airlifted out after doing an alley oop into the river.

“Somebody sued me in ’88,” says Wetherington. “A boy had been out here early and he was showing off and did a belly flop up off the fourth floor. The lawyer got ahold of it and the county attorney told me ‘George, you’ve got a big nice piece of property and everybody wants it.’ But the boy wasn’t hurt; we backed ’em off.”

The accidents have led some nearby residents to call for the park’s closure, a possibility Wetherington seems wholly unable, or unwilling, to countenance.

“A lot of them want to say it’s dangerous, and the kids are lookin’ to get hurt and this and the other, but the people that got hurt, most of them was in shallow water, they would jump off the shallow stuff into water, it’s not from the high stuff.”

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As the late afternoon shadows deepen and the swirl of cicada song grows louder in his backyard, Wetherington greets 16-year-old Dennis Suggs, who’s been coming to the park with various uncles, siblings and friends since he was 10. “Yeah, I’ve been to a buncha other water parks, like the one in Kinston and there’s one in Morehead,” says Suggs, “but I’ll always come back to Green Springs. You don’t run across stuff like this anymore.”

It’s a sentiment heard often from the regulars, out-of- towners and first-timers at Green Springs on any given summer day. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that has led the park to be featured in numerous YouTube videos and on the popular website of the strange and unique, Atlas Obscura. But according to Wetherington, without the help of volunteers, the park may not be around for anyone to enjoy much longer.

“It’s in bad shape, no doubt about it. The pier is all ragtag, it’s all to pieces, but I can’t fix it. I’m slowing down quite a bit,” he admits. “I would like to try and repair it but it’s very discouraging, you get out there and you get a whole bunch of kids, ‘Oh. I’ll help you with this, I’ll help you with this’ and all that kinda stuff, and the very time you go with a hammer and nail they’re gone, see. And really, a lot of people are that way.”

Although he stopped charging admission years ago, Wetherington said fewer and fewer thrill seekers come to Green Springs each year.

“I bet there’s been close to a million people here since I been here; today there’s not very many here, there’s just a few,” he says, scanning the pier. “But back in the ’70s and all there was 300 to 400 a day, everyday. In the ’80s, 200 to 300 a day, all summer long. We used to have drink boxes and stuff, but once McDonalds come out there I done away with them and let them walk out there to McDonalds. I couldn’t make no money on them no way.”

Despite, or maybe because of, the numerous setbacks, Wetherington seems determined to continue until he’s simply no longer able to rise each morning to greet Green Springs’ visitors.

“I felt the Lord has let me live for a reason and I look at all these little kids and all, five generations now I’ve seen here. A lot of them come down here and say ‘Do you know so and so? That was my grandmomma or granddaddy.’ There was somebody here the other day who said they were the third generation been coming here.

“People have wanted to put condominiums and stuff down here, but then where would the kids go? They walk in just like it’s home, a lot of them come from Jacksonville, they used to come from Newport, Greenville, all along, just to see what it is, just to jump off something. I didn’t know what in the world they come for, because it ain’t nothing purty, but that’s the reason they like it. It’s the old-timey thing, ya’ know, it’s just fun. I nicknamed it ‘the last of the old-time swimming holes.’”

Wetherington maintains his determination to see Green Springs continue can be traced back to a young man who returned from the war that claimed so many of his friends, and even today, isn’t quite sure why?

“I thought the Lord let me come back from Korea and those over there didn’t come back, they gave everything they had, and I had just as much right to give my life for something as they did over yonder. I wanted to make a place for kids to go swimming when they’re at grandma’s and all, or just a little homecoming and whatever, just the little simple things that kids ain’t got no more.”

And that, it seems, is the final story George Wetherington has to tell, the one he’s still living.

“All these kids down here, they don’t care nothing about tomorrow, it’s all today. But one day they’re going to grow up, some of them will, and some of them will be in a fox hole and a shell will come with their name on it, some of them will jump out of an airplane and the parachute ain’t gonna open. And when that happens their mind’s going back to the most fun they ever had in all their life, and that’s when I want them to remember me and Green Springs.”

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