By Jeff Keeling
Five years of toil and dedication by dozens of volunteers have yielded a good foundation at Johnson City’s newest park, Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek – trails, a few benches for visitors, and the reintroduction of hundreds of native plants. With its emphasis on enjoying a natural setting, the 28-acre mix of a wooded ridge and acres of wetlands won’t ever be the scene of playgrounds, ballfields or pavement.
A few intrepid groups of children have enjoyed the park’s rich array of flora and fauna, but they’ve done so in spite of one major, important component of the park yet to be completed – a safe, wide, accessible bridge over Sinking Creek.
That’s about to change at the park that’s located along King Springs Road just more than one-half mile east of the road’s intersection with Legion Street and even closer to Mountain View Elementary School – and that makes Parks and Recreation Director Roger Blakeley happy.
“It is a beautiful place that brings tranquility and peace to a lot of people,” Blakeley said of the park. “When you have this here, it’ll open the door to have a lot of people use the park that aren’t using it now. We anticipate that we’re going to have more people use it.”
The “this” to which Blakeley refers is a 10-foot-wide bridge that will span the creek on the park’s downstream end and should be done within a few weeks. As dragonflies buzz around them, frogs bask in the mud and the creek babbles by, Parks and Recreation crews have been completing the complex infrastructure work necessary to place the handicapped accessible bridge that will bring visitors from the wetlands half of the park to its wooded slopes and the trails that meander through them.
Though they hit rock, the crews have placed the necessary supports, and are completing a boardwalk and ramp leading to the span. Next week, labor crews from the Tennessee Department of Corrections will be in the park, placing the bridge’s decking and side rails.
Blakeley said the new infrastructure will take visitors from the parking lot past a rich bit of wetland prior to reaching the bridge.
“It goes over a marshy area and past a vernal pool,” Blakeley said. “We’ll have gravel and a boardwalk as part of this project.”
“Without this bridge, it’s a little rough getting across the creek,” Blakeley said. “With this, anyone can do it.”
The changes underway at the park are bringing great joy and satisfaction to Bill Francisco, for whose son, Jacob, the park is named. The Franciscos live along Sinking Creek upstream from the park. Jacob died in 2004, when he was 6, from complications related to an E. coli bacteria infection. Since then, Francisco has worked on projects designed to help the public be more aware of the importance of clean water and the dangers of E. coli.
In 2011, Francisco teamed up with other Boone Watershed Partnership members and – with increasing levels of monetary and in-kind help from college students, boy scouts and many others – began working to help make the park a reality. Money raised for the park and saved in a BWP account is paying for the bridge materials and the engineering, with the city taking care of the labor and additional needs.
“With the sign and the boardwalk and the bridge, families will stop instead of just driving by, and kids will get out and run around, they’ll go to the top of the bridge and spit down and see if a fish comes up to nibble on it,” Francisco said. “Then they’ll say, ‘look at this trail, it goes creekside.’
“People will just explore, and we’ll have kids climbing trees again, and running around – and that – that was my son. When I see the kids out here; it’s how he lived.”
For his part, Blakeley said the park represents a very important element of Johnson City’s overall park system, and one that’s becoming increasingly important to people.
“Remember, this is a forested area in the middle of town that has access to trails,” Blakeley said. “It gives bird watchers a chance to go in, it gives people a chance to get away from cars and trucks and all that kind of stuff and just go in and relax.
“We don’t really have balls and bats out there, we just have people walking around. This park is similar to Willow Springs but it has a different dimension. This is like stepping into the forest. Because of the creek and because of the work we’ve done, we’re clearing up the water, we’re seeing more amphibians come in.”
Jacob’s Park visitors can park at a small lot on the south side of King Springs Road about 0.6 miles east of its four-way stop intersection with Legion Street. Plans are underway for additional boardwalks and an outdoor learning center, as well as for a nature center at the upstream end of the park, which is near the Tweetsie Trail. To learn more about the project and about Jacob Francisco, visit jacobfrancisco.com.