Can you imagine a British ship in the Pee Dee anchored below Blewett’s falls? How about flat bottomed boats on the river ferrying goods back and forth to the sea? All of this happened routinely and was the norm for 1700’s inland North Carolina. And best of all, could you imagine the construction of locks enabling barges to navigate the Rocky River deep into the hills of western North Carolina?
Until around the 1850’s, farmers carried their produce to the nearest navigable river by wagon where the goods were offloaded onto barges and floated downstream to awaiting ships. Economy flourished where such access to water was available. For daily business along the short run of the Cape Fear, costs of transportation remained low and the activity benefited the state’s seaport in Wilmington. But for points from Winston-Salem south and west, costs were high as routes using the nearby Pee Dee and Catawba rivers were lengthy. These rivers also led to ports in Georgetown and Charleston where business decisions supported South Carolina first. Even during the best of times, you can imagine that goods from South Carolina plantations would fetch better money at South Carolina seaports.
Founded in 1787, the town of Lumberton was situated on the Lumber River, a tributary of the Pee Dee. From its earliest days, Lumberton was at the center of an effort to change the state’s natural economic realities. Could you imagine living so close to Wilmington and yet be faced with the need to ship goods via South Carolina ports by way of the Lumber River? From an article in the August 30, 1798 issue of the Wilmington Gazette:
…it is intended to open a navigable canal from Lumberton to Cape Fear River, which distance is not more than 15 miles; the land is a perfect level, free from rocks …it would not only increase the quantity of produce in the county of Robeson, which is capable of great improvement, but it would command that of most of the back counties in the state, and a large proportion of that of South Carolina; the whole of which would center at Wilmington.
The race to realize geographic advantage was nothing new. The state of Virginia was already engaged in building canals aimed at redirecting resources from this state for their own benefit. One of the surveyors hired for this purpose was a man named John Couty.
In 1816, the North Carolina State Legislature chartered the Lumber River Canal Company. Surveys were first ordered for a canal connecting the Lumber and Cape Fear rivers. But more telling of the state’s vision, the Legislature also ordered studies considering canal runs as far west as to the Catawba. Such areas to be studied included the falls on Yadkin where elevation suddenly crashed from the red clay piedmont to the loamy coastal plain.
In 1818, John Couty was instructed to survey the run of Rocky River from its mouth to Smith’s mill together with a survey from the mouth of Mallard’s Creek to the Big Bend of the Catawba River. The resulting maps survive and can be found at North Carolina State Archives. The survey included two maps; one a plan of the river and the second an elevation of its run. The maps are large, about 18” wide by 5’ long, and drawn on fine canvas. John Couty’s map locates major creeks, road crossings and land owners. Starting near the mouth of Rocky River and working upstream, he mentioned Jones Green’s mill, Whitley’s ford, Bryan Ostain’s [Austin]ford, Jonathan Ostain’s [Austin] mill, Hagley’s [Hagler]mill, Little’s ford, Garman’s, Love’s, Boger’s mill, and Alexander’s mill.
Can you imagine connecting the Cape Fear and Catawba rivers by way of canal? All that traffic through South Carolina would dry and the port of Wilmington would boom with business. But John Couty’s maps of Rocky were never acted on, no canals were ever put into action. This dream of ours died as it was replaced in the late 1820’s by a new vision of transportation by rail. I’m sure some said it’ll never work.