Canal Detective puts Pee Dee River under surveillance

Virginia man explores Hitchcock Creek, Pee Dee River in search of ‘secrets of the past’

Story and photos by Tom MacCallum
Richmond County Historical Society

RICHMOND COUNTY — Now a sportsman’s paradise and boating playground, the Great Pee Dee River once had a commercial purpose — fishing and transportation.

Twin bridges today provide a traffic crossing of the river at a single point. Less than a century ago, traffic crossed on ferry barges at several locations up and down the river.

After a long hike downhill from a bluff on private property, the trio of, left to right, Bill Trout, Pat Franklin and May MacCallum reached the remains of the Sneedsborough Canal parallel to the Great Pee Dee River. Several hours were spent reaching and exploring the extent of the canal.

After a long hike downhill from a bluff on private property, the trio of, left to right, Bill Trout, Pat Franklin and May MacCallum reached the remains of the Sneedsborough Canal parallel to the Great Pee Dee River. Several hours were spent reaching and exploring the extent of the canal.

The early history of Anson and Richmond counties — once joined together as one large county — is very much related to the river.

Although much of the river history has been known for a long time, it was never compiled thoroughly in any one place.

William E. “Bill” Trout III, Ph.D., came to Rockingham on Sept. 3 to work on a more complete record of river activity. The result will be an annotated atlas of the river on topographic maps from the U.S. Geological survey, legal size paper.

He spent the following week as a guest of Richmond County Historical Society Genealogy with headquarters at the Leak-Wall House from where he set out to travel up and down local waterways related to the river.

From Edenton, Trout is a volunteer consulting canal detective with the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society of which he is a member. They also have North Carolina interests and have written several books on the subject.

Fishing interests

Beginning with Native Americans who first inhabited the area, the Pee Dee River was a great source for fish and was commercially fished by others well into the 20th century.

In preparing his exploration of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River, Trout discovered a Portland, Ore., court case over patent rights in the 1880s in which two Richmond County brothers were given credit for the invention of the American fish wheel in the 1770s.

This sketch of a fish wheel (or dipping wheel) was involved in a lawsuit in which it was discovered that a similar wheel was said to be the first invented in America and credited to two Richmond County brothers. Bill Trout was looking for evidence of such a mechanism being used on the Pee Dee River.

This sketch of a fish wheel (or dipping wheel) was involved in a lawsuit in which it was discovered that a similar wheel was said to be the first invented in America and credited to two Richmond County brothers. Bill Trout was looking for evidence of such a mechanism being used on the Pee Dee River.

William “Clubfoot Bill” Thomas (1741-1800) and his brother, the Rev. Dr. Robert Thomas (1737-1817), both of Rockingham, apparently developed and used such a device at the Grassy Islands in the Pee Dee River.

Planning to travel the length of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River for interesting sites along it, Trout developed a special interest in the fish wheels (dippers) never having heard of them before. On his trip to Richmond County he hoped to find some evidence of their use.

The only evidence he found was in conversations with those who had seen similar devices used in the river over 200 years later and in books.

One book on fish wheels said that “during the Civil War more than a hundred fish wheels were in operation on the Pee Dee.”

Many made partial use of the ancient Native American fishing weir formations in “W” and “V” shapes in the river incorporating the structures as support for a fishing wheel.

River atlas in the making

Trout finished a final leg while here of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River survey for a future publication which will be an atlas of local river maps with stories about features of the terrain along the way.

“Every river needs an atlas,” he said.

With his one-man 10-foot yellow kayak, he explored the river from just below Tillery Dam to the South Carolina line near Mark’s Creek a segment at a time.

For points of identification he did not know about, or on which he wanted clarification, Trout relied on information supplied in text and on maps provided by May MacCallum and Pat Franklin of RCHS Genealogy.

The jovial 77-year-old retired research geneticist on a recent Friday set out alone on Hitchcock Creek and pulled out at the Steele’s Mill dam ruins at Cordova.

“Since Hitchcock Creek is now a new navigable canoe trail, it should be in the Yadkin-Pee Dee Atlas,” he said.

The Sneedsborough Canal from the east bank appears as a large creek with water. Although it empties to the south into the Pee Dee River, it is not a “flowing” stream.

The Sneedsborough Canal from the east bank appears as a large creek with water. Although it empties to the south into the Pee Dee River, it is not a “flowing” stream.

In 1801, the Richmond County Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions ordered that Hitchcock Creek be opened for water navigation up to Terry’s Mill. But it never was. That was long before cotton mills lined the creek damming its flow for water power.

On Saturday, Trout was joined by Franklin and her grandson, Josh Franklin, both of Richmond County; and her cousin, Bill Pegues of Pegues Plantation in Marlboro County, S.C., who lives along the river in the family’s ancestral 1770 home. Franklin lives on Hitchcock Creek in Rockingham. All are frequent users of local waterways for fishing and entertainment and suitable guides for Trout.

They traveled in three kayaks from the river landing of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at the Diggs Tract to the confluence with Marks Creek.

On Sunday, Trout set out alone from below Blewett Falls to the Diggs Landing. On Monday, he set out alone from below Lake Tillery Dam to N.C. Route 109 at the U.S. Pee Dee Wildlife Refuge river landing on the Anson-Richmond county line in the northwest part of the county.

On Tuesday, MacCallum and Franklin accompanied him on land to find the northern entrance — and southern exit — of the Sneedsborough (Sneedsboro) Canal parallel to the Pee Dee River.

The atlas from Lake Tillery to South Carolina is divided into nine separate maps, seven of which are for Richmond and Anson counties. Trout said he wanted to travel as much of the local waterways as possible to get the feel of them.

From a road cutting the canal in half, water now stands like it would if it was ever put into use. This view south empties into the Pee Dee River at Whortleberry Creek.

From a road cutting the canal in half, water now stands like it would if it was ever put into use. This view south empties into the Pee Dee River at Whortleberry Creek.

“I don’t like to put information on an atlas for areas on which I have not traveled,” he said, noting he doesn’t personally travel on every inch of them.

Now an outdoorsman, Trout spent much of his life indoors as a research geneticist and retired from the city of Hope Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif. He travels waterways in Virginia and North Carolina in his kayak with a bottom well-scraped by river and creek rocks.

“Shallow water levels are best for seeing the bottoms of waterways which can hold secrets of the past,” Trout said.

He was in luck visiting here because all water levels were low. Rain was also minimal. Read more about his adventures here.

Sneedsborough Canal

Trout and RCHS members were able to hike through private property in Anson County several miles to visit the Sneedsborough Canal Tuesday. While on the river, Trout had located what was to have been the northern opening of the canal at Baby Branch. It was a rock and wood diversion dam to channel river water into the canal.

Built by hand by slave labor about 1818, for the Pee Dee Navigation Company, it is approximately 1 mile long. The purpose was to provide access for flat-bottom boats around the Buchanan rock shoals in the river at this point. It went south to the confluence of Whortleberry Creek with the river.

Bill Trout, right, speaks with John Neal of Blewett Falls, retired superintendent, Blewett Falls hydroelectric plant, about his knowledge of “fishing wheels” and narrow boats used with them on the Pee Dee River.

Bill Trout, right, speaks with John Neal of Blewett Falls, retired superintendent, Blewett Falls hydroelectric plant, about his knowledge of “fishing wheels” and narrow boats used with them on the Pee Dee River.

It got its name from the nearby town of Sneedsborough.

Before the canal could be completed over 196 years ago, funds for its construction were exhausted, and the corporation declared bankruptcy.

Before railroads, rivers offered the best means of transporting goods. Many canals were proposed in the state to connect them. At the Uwharrie River, one was proposed to connect the Pee Dee River to the Cape Fear River. One was proposed to connect the Pee Dee River at Rockingham with the Cape Fear River at Fayetteville; and one from the Lumber River to the Cape Fear River near Elizabethtown. None were constructed.

Canal protected

Preserved and protected on private property, after some 196 years the Sneedsborough Canal it remains mostly intact, clearly a manmade structure dug into the soil some 100 yards west of the Pee Dee River. An odd relic now, it reflects dreams of early developers with grand ideas.

The old town of Sneedsborough was chartered in 1795 on land now privately owned. Because of two epidemics of disease, the town was abandoned about 1835.

The property survived intact because in 1917 Carolina Power and Light Company bought land on both sides of the river for a future dam and lake. In recent years that land was sold and contains thousands of acres in Anson and Richmond counties.

Though overgrown with grasses on the bank, Trout was able to walk most of the canal from near an entrance point on land north at the river to where it enters Whortleberry Creek to the south.

Cut nearly in half by an access road, the northern end of the canal is dry now from recent dry weather while the southern end contains water. The canal is about 100 yards parallel to the river. It was being built for flat-bottom boats to travel by pushing with poles or pulled from the banks of the canal.

It remains in remarkable shape after some 196 years in the wilderness.

Bill Trout is dwarfed by many huge trees between the 200-year-old Sneedsborough Canal and the Pee Dee River some 100 yards to the east.

Bill Trout is dwarfed by many huge trees between the 200-year-old Sneedsborough Canal and the Pee Dee River some 100 yards to the east.

When railroads began to come west, water transportation began to eventually lose popularity for transportation. The early importance of the river for transportation was evident because for years population in Anson and Richmond counties was located within five miles on each side of the river.

The RCHS publication “Mixed Blessings” gave an account by Chris Florance in “My Pee Dee River Hills” that Eben Ingram would sit on his front porch facing the river in the Grassy Island area and count the river barges carrying his lumber to market downriver. He also ran a successful commercial fishery using fish traps on the river. A channel or channels wide enough for batteaux may have been cut through the Grassy Islands, said to be an ideal location for the Thomas brothers’ fish wheels.

Trout is a member of a group that restores old batteaux or builds replicas of them on which they travel canals in Virginia. It is a shallow-draft, flat-bottom, double-ended boat with pointed ends bow and stern.

Such boats were said to be used on creeks in Richmond County and on the river. Trout spoke to John Neal of Blewett Falls about his seeing small boats tending fish wheels in the river. Neal is a retired superintendent of the Blewett Falls Hydroelectric Plant down the road from his house which is located on a bluff above the former Wall’s Ferry crossing site.

A road now divides the canal with one section holding water, the other usually empty. Some trees have fallen in the empty section to the north, but the canal can still be seen. In all, the canal remains much as it was when dug by slave labor by hand over 196 years ago. It is about one mile long.

A road now divides the canal with one section holding water, the other usually empty. Some trees have fallen in the empty section to the north, but the canal can still be seen. In all, the canal remains much as it was when dug by slave labor by hand over 196 years ago. It is about one mile long.

Trout’s work will be beneficial to RCHS Genealogy in having identified locations which appear from time to time in researching a family’s history and for a local history record for Society research. Genealogy is continually a resource office for many people seeking such information. Its e-mail address is rchs84@yahoo.com.

Hard to find

No Ordinary Lives” said the Pee Dee River was “navigable from the ocean to Buchanan Shoals above Cheraw Hills and could be used by canoes, small boats and bateaux (batteaux) above the shoals.”

So much evidence is now covered by river silt, Trout said. Even so, he was looking for evidence of any structures such as posts or post holes or boats.

“For us,” he said of the canal society, “when canoeists think the river is too low, that’s when we go,” searching river bottoms.

Not likely to find a remaining fish wheel in the river, Trout was looking for formations in the river where one may have been located. The last known operating fish wheel in the river was about 1946.

One account of fisheries said the fish wheels were used by “everyone who had river front and current enough to turn one used them.” Some of the fisheries’ wheels caught fish coming upriver and others caught fish going downstream. Operations ceased at times for four days a week to allow a number of fish to freely go in either direction.

One fishery with fish dippers was still in operation in the early to mid-1900s at the Coward and Pegues fisheries in South Carolina with seven dippers for fish going upstream and four fall traps for those going downstream.

Except for an occasional boat with people fishing the river between Blewett Falls Dam and Buchanan shoals, the river is no longer busy with fisheries once a local industry.

William E. (Bill) Trout III, Ph.D.

William E. (Bill) Trout III, Ph.D.

The information Trout gathered in the days on the Pee Dee River along Richmond and Anson counties will be added to his research and knowledge and evaluation of waterways to produce the Atlas of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River. No publication date has been set.

The Richmond County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization open to membership dedicated to the collection and preservation of local history. Visit the society on its website or on  its Facebook page.

Filed in: Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Outdoors

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