Trap Pond in Laurel has served many purposes in its centuries of existence, but for the past 22 years, it’s been missing a key element: recreational-quality water.
The pond closed to swimmers around the millennium due to frequently 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.
That’s about to change. Following over a decade of efforts by stakeholders, the state has provided $2.5 million for the construction of a splash pad at Trap Pond.
“We hope within the next year here, we’ll be moving dirt,” said Rep. Tim Dukes (R-Laurel).
From industrial to recreational
Trap Pond started out as a logging pond, transporting lumber cut from bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar trees. (It remains home to one of the northernmost bald cypress stands in the country today.)
Later, the pond was used as a mill, according to park interpreter William Koth.
“It is important to remember, the area spent much more time being an industrial area than a protected resource,” Koth wrote in a Delaware State Parks blog.
It wasn’t 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,” Koth wrote, the pond was not open to the public.
Trap Pond officially became Delaware’s first state park in 1951, and its biggest draw at that time, arguably, was swimming.
In the era of segregation, there were two 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.
Jason Beach was a special gathering place for Black residents in the ’50s and ’60s, and likely earlier, as well. It was used for church services, baptisms, picnics and other social events. A historical marker was placed there earlier this year.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the Red Cross brought hundreds of children to Trap Pond for free swimming lessons each summer.
Bacteria levels at Trap Pond were concerning, though, as early as the 1980s. When the pond was closed to swimmers for a few days in 1989 due to bacteria levels, a spokesperson for the park said “several hundred” people were swimming there most summer weekends.
High bacteria levels became more frequent and swimming was banned at Trap Pond by May 2000.
“Increasingly, park officials got complaints that swimmers had developed skin rashes or become ill after swimming there, said Steve Schilly, state parks operations administrator,” a News Journal reporter wrote at the time.
Later that year, state officials announced funding to design and build a “spray ground” at Trap Pond, but plans ultimately fell through.
Some of the funding for the “spray ground” went toward planning for building the Baldcypress Nature Center, according to Koth. It opened in 2010, with room for exhibits, events, patios and spotting scopes.
Splash pad plans
Today, Trap Pond State Park encompasses 3,993 acres. It offers RV hook-ups and tent, yurt and cabin camping. There are over 12 miles of hiking trails. Kayaks, canoes, boats and paddleboards are available for rent. There are multiple fishing docks, a playground, volleyball courts and a disc golf course. Park interpreters offer guided tours.
But there’s still no swimming.
That didn’t sit well with western Sussex County leaders like the late Sen. Robert Venables of Laurel, and the also Delaware Parks and Recreation council member Ron Breeding, of Seaford, who wanted to bring water recreation back to the area.
Rep. 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 adjacent to the future splash pad site, according to Dukes.
Dukes has been building on Venables’ and Breeding’s plans since their deaths, pushing for state funding for the past few years, he said.
“It’s really about providing something … that can provide recreational entertainment for kids and families and create a revenue stream at Trap Pond,” he said.
It wasn’t until 2019 that money for a concept design came, and 2020 when Century Engineering and GWWO Architects were hired to develop it. This year, the state legislature allocated $2.5 million to permitting and construction of the splash park.
“I’m excited,” Dukes said. “Sometimes we do things in this state that have nothing to do with what party you’re a part of. This had a lot of support from the Democratic side.”
Dukes said some federal funding is involved, as well, and Sussex County will be asked to “chip in,” too.
It’s set to be built on a 4.5-acre area of the park, southwest of the nature center, according to the master plan. It will be divided into three or four individual splash pads, each for a different age group.
The actual splash pad area will total about 5,000 square feet (a little bigger than a basketball court), with the rest of the space used for concrete decking, restrooms and other features.