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Delaware to Bring Water Fun Back to Trap Pond With $2.5M Splash Pad

Mon August 22, 2022 - Northeast Edition
Delaware News Journal

The splash pad is set to be located west of the eastern parking lot at Trap Pond State Park. (Delaware State Parks photo)
The splash pad is set to be located west of the eastern parking lot at Trap Pond State Park. (Delaware State Parks photo)

Trap Pond in Laurel, Del., has served many purposes in its centuries of existence, but for the past 22 years, it has been missing a key element: recreational-quality water.

The pond closed to swimmers 22 years ago due to often high bacteria levels. Today, there are no publicly owned pools or other recreational water facilities in western Sussex County, according to the 2022 Trap Pond State Park Master Plan.

But that is about to change, reported Wilmington's Delaware News Journal in an article published Aug. 17.

Following more than a decade of efforts by stakeholders, the state has provided $2.5 million for the construction of a splash pad at Trap Pond.

State Rep. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel, told the newspaper, "We hope within the next year here, we'll be moving dirt."

From Industrial to Recreational

Trap Pond started out as a logging pond, transporting lumber cut from bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar trees. Today, it is still home to one of the northernmost bald cypress stands in the country.

Later, the pond was used as a mill, noted William Koth, a park interpreter.

"It is important to remember, the area spent much more time being an industrial area than a protected resource," he wrote in a Delaware State Parks blog.

It was not until 1936 that the federal government, as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, bought the land surrounding Trap Pond and added recreational infrastructure like pavilions and grills, according to Koth. Prior to that, the pond was privately owned.

"While there is no doubt that recreation such as swimming and fishing took place," wrote Koth, the pond was not open to the public.

Trap Pond officially became Delaware's first state park in 1951, the Wilmington news source noted, and its biggest draw at that time, arguably, was swimming.

Park Once Divided by Racial Barriers

But in the era of segregation, there were two separate swimming areas at the park. White people swam in front of where the Baldcypress Nature Center is now, while Black people swam on the other side, at Jason Beach.

The latter became a special gathering place for Black residents in the 1950s and '60s. It was used for church services, baptisms, picnics and other social events. A historical marker was placed there earlier this year commemorating that fact.

Later, in the 1960s and '70s, the Red Cross brought hundreds of children to Trap Pond for free swimming lessons each summer.

However, bacteria levels at Trap Pond began to concern health officials as early as the 1980s. When the pond was closed to swimmers for a few days in 1989 due to bacteria levels, a spokesperson of the park said "several hundred" people were swimming there most summer weekends.

As bacteria levels went even higher and became more frequent, swimming was finally banned at Trap Pond for good by May 2000.

"Increasingly, park officials got complaints that swimmers had developed skin rashes or become ill after swimming there," Steve Schilly, a Delaware State Parks operations administrator told a News Journal reporter at the time.

Later that year, Delaware officials announced funding to design and build a "spray ground" at Trap Pond but those plans ultimately fell through.

Some of the funding for the "spray ground" was funneled toward planning the Baldcypress Nature Center, according to Koth, which opened in 2010 with room for exhibits, events, patios and spotting scopes.

Plans Call for Multiple Splash Pads

This year, Trap Pond State Park encompasses 3,993 acres, and offers RV hook-ups and tent, yurt and cabin camping. There also are more than 12 mi. of hiking trails as well as kayaks, canoes, boats and paddleboards available for rent, along with multiple fishing docks, a playground, volleyball courts and a disc golf course.

But there is still no swimming.

That did not sit well with a pair of since deceased western Sussex County leaders like Sen. Robert Venables of Laurel, and Ron Breeding, a Delaware Parks and Recreation Council member from Seaford, each of whom wanted to bring water recreation back to the area.

Dukes said both men were "very instrumental and supportive" of the idea of a splash pad at Trap Pond. Venables was behind the 2010 addition of a 207-space parking lot next to the future splash pad site.

Dukes has been building on their plans and pushing for state funding for the past few years, the News Journal reported.

"It's really about providing something that can provide recreational entertainment for kids and families and create a revenue stream at Trap Pond," he told the newspaper.

But it was not until 2019 that money for a concept design came through, and 2020 before Maryland-based Century Engineering, with Delaware offices in Dover and Newark, in collaboration with GWWO Architects in Baltimore, were hired to develop it.

State Appropriates Construction Funds

Earlier this year, the Delaware state legislature allocated $2.5 million for permitting and construction of the splash park.

"I'm excited," Dukes told the Wilmington news source. "Sometimes we do things in this state that have nothing to do with what [political] party you're a part of. This had a lot of support from the Democratic side."

He added that some federal funding is involved in the Trap Pond project, too, and Sussex County will be asked to "chip in" monies as well.

The splash pad is set to be built on a 4.5-acre area of the park, southwest of the nature center, according to the architect's master plan. In addition, it will encompass three or four smaller splash pads, each geared toward a different age group.

The total splash pad area will be about 5,000 sq. ft., a little bigger than a basketball court, with the rest of the space used for concrete decking, restrooms and other features.

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