Finding the Flow With a drainage area of almost 10,000 square miles, the Roanoke River is bigger than all the other North Carolina river basins — only the Cape Fear
With a drainage area of almost 10,000 square miles, the Roanoke River is bigger than all the other North Carolina river basins — only the Cape Fear comes close. The catch is that all of the more than 9,000-square-mile Cape Fear basin is within North Carolina, while most of the Roanoke pulls Virginia’s Blue Ridge waters our way, with just over one-third of the Roanoke actually in our state. The Dan River, part of the Roanoke’s headwaters, drains some of North Carolina over by Mayodan and Hanging Rock and the Sauratown Mountains. Then, it joins the Roanoke east of South Boston, Virginia, on its way back here by way of Kerr Lake, Lake Gaston, Roanoke Rapids Lake, and the lower Roanoke below the rapids: through Weldon and Halifax, down around Occoneechee Neck, beneath Rainbow Bluff, past riverports Williamston and Plymouth, and around the Purchace Islands on its way to the great Albemarle Sound, which, for good reason, was known long ago as the Sea of Roanoke.
Though smallest in the chain of three Roanoke River impoundments (including Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston above it), the hydroelectric station at the Roanoke Rapids Lake Dam can generate 95 megawatts of power — 42 percent as much as the far larger Lake Gaston’s 224-megawatt output. And Roanoke Rapids Lake draws folks who appreciate the relative quiet and the many coves of its 47-mile shoreline. I have seen men fishing happily from the willow bushes where a road dead-ends into the lake’s south side, hoping for bream and crappie and catfish well on into the night.
I have stood at the old locks at Weldon, long empty now, imagining the lock chamber filling and awaiting a 50-footlong bateau coming down the Roanoke Canal waterway, carrying produce and hogsheads of tobacco from the upper Roanoke Valley. I can still see boatmen on the towpath, leading the mules that pull the boat, cruising it slowly over the old 110-foot Chockoyotte Aqueduct, held high above Chockoyotte Creek by a single elliptical arch with a 30-foot span. This lovely water bridge, designed by the Scottish engineer Hamilton Fulton, who had earlier worked under the engineer behind the Caledonian Canal across Scotland, joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and now serves as a key feature of the Roanoke Canal Trail.
This relatively new distillery joins a spirited tradition hereabouts. In 1840, when North Carolina was the country’s premier wine-making state, the biggest vineyard around was Preacher Sidney Weller’s in Halifax County. The Garrett family bought the Wellers out after the Civil War, and Paul Garrett, the scuppernong king, crushed his grapes and bottled his wines near Weldon. These days, Weldon Mills distills a bourbon dedicated to raising funds for families of fallen soldiers, a Rockfish Whiskey supporting preservation of the striped bass, and, notably, the first rhubarb gin ever produced in America.
My great friend Bill Garlick, an avid fisherman who’s wet lines from Cape Lookout to Costa Rica to Tasmania, says that fishing the Roanoke in the spring is as exciting a sport as an angler could find anywhere. The anadromous rockfish — or striped bass — come into our estuaries by the hundreds of thousands to spawn in the spring, and fishermen find them splashing and thrashing around, thick as can be. “As the water temperature nears 60 degrees,” says veteran Roanoke angler Jay Cheesborough, “the large gravid ‘cows’ are courted by the frisky bucks in what the locals call ‘rockfish fights.’” That is a colorful name for the occasion, considering that the fish, in fact, are mating.
With more than 160 miles of track, the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad was the longest in the world when it opened in 1840, and it was immensely important during the Civil War. The W&W connected at Weldon with the Petersburg, Virginia, line, which, as a whole, crossed the Roanoke carrying military matériel from the blockade-runners’ port of Wilmington north to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, one of the last supply lines open as the Confederacy was falling during early 1865.
If your boat is a small craft, you really are in that water, almost of it, under no delusion about what constitutes the superior force. A riverine world unfolds before you, the delight of sun and breeze all around, and the smells of the river, of mud and fish, all merge. Kayak or canoe, the boat at times slows, then perhaps slides forward faster than you expect, shifts course a bit, as the river itself lets you feel it, as masses of its water, down from the Sauratowns and the Blue Ridge, push, pull, and challenge each other under your keel. And now come the rocks, for these are the Roanoke’s rapids, more than 100 feet of fall over just a few miles: You are threading the needle, looking for the next chute, falling a foot at a time toward the great Albemarle Sound.
The Occoneechee Neck composes one of the bigger, wilder areas in the Roanoke’s bottomlands. In photographs from on high, one can read the tale of the Neck’s growth, see the succession of arcs that the great river made as it curved out farther and farther, till it hit a granite wall that it could not cut past. In high water times, the river flooded through the big peninsula, taking what it would before it and leaving silt behind as it settled back down. Turkeys down in the Neck are of the old original stock from ancient times, and the yellow, white, and blue spring-flowering terraces of Camassia Slopes are thought to date to an ice age nearly a quarter-million years ago, if not more. In Mebane Holoman Burgwyn’s childhood adventure story, River Treasure, the Roanoke in flood diverts a stream in the Neck and reveals in its bed a buried treasure. Her tale’s title tells us a lot, for the real treasure is the Roanoke River itself.
One can envision Halifax kinsmen and political opponents William Richardson Davie (father of the University of North Carolina) and Willie Jones (father of Raleigh) discussing the new Republic over drinks at the Eagle Tavern in the 1790s. On February 27, 1825, an official delegation from Raleigh met the French Marquis de Lafayette at the Eagle, where he was spending the night while on his Southern tour, and joined our great Revolutionary ally for a banquet in his honor there.
Likely named for the 1930 hit song “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” the Sunny Side Oyster Bar, a relaxed little frame building near the corner of U.S. Highway 17 Business and U.S. Highway 64 in Williamston, has been one of the great epicenters of eastern North Carolina for most of 90 years. Offering the “Finest Steamed Oysters and Shrimp — ANYWHERE,” the seafood bistro’s longtime oyster-cooking approach is disarmingly simple: “2 minutes = rare; 3 minutes = medium; 5 minutes = well done.” Yellow, blue, and red neon in the front window lights the way into this hot spot by night, and pecks by the score fly out of the steam box out back and onto the thronged U-shaped bar. As to the ambience? Charles Roberson, whose family opened the place long ago, once told me: “Don’t be a bad boy in the Sunny Side Oyster Bar — it’s the sunny side! Nothin’ bad’s ever happened here!”
Deep in the drowned cypress and gum wilds of Devil’s Gut, a long distributary that leaves the main Roanoke channel and then rejoins it above Jamesville, the visionary Roanoke River Partners built its host of tent-camping platforms 20-odd years ago, including Beaver Tail and Beaver Lodge, which is, in a manner of speaking, way out yonder where there ain’t nobody never is. When the climate allows, spend an evening or two visiting with at least one parliament of barred owls. For more information, visit roanokeriverpartners.org.
Hard to believe, perhaps, but Plymouth, this sleepy riverport, was in 1864 just about the most important place in the South for President Abraham Lincoln. He wanted Union troops to take the lower Roanoke River chokepoint back from the Confederates, then move on upstream and cut the Weldon railroad bridge and rebel supply line to Virginia. Nowadays, Plymouth is the jumping-off point to a natural-heritage wonderland, from the Roanoke bottomland islands, filled with songbirds that return by the thousands each spring, to nearby national wildlife refuges southeast of town, where phenomenal flocks of geese, swans, and ducks overwinter, and where great sleuths of black bears wander year-round.
In his 1624 map, Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame named the Purchace Isles of the lower Roanoke for his friend Samuel Purchas, whose collection of sea stories and adventure travels, Purchas His Pilgrimage (tales collected dockside from returning mariners at the English port of Leigh), was one of the most popular books of its day. From Williamston down to Albemarle Sound, these islands are Conine, Tabor, Great, Huff, Wood, Goodmans, Rice, Louse, and one unnamed. On 9,000-acre Bull Run Island, left out of the Purchace group, a small, long-abandoned logging locomotive still rusts and weathers away in the bottomland’s absolute mud.
One morning on our honeymoon, Ann and I spun our jonboat down Spanish-mossy Pembroke Creek, out into the broad, still Edenton Bay, the shining waters across which historic Edenton looks out upon Albemarle Sound, just east of the mouth of the Chowan River. Unafraid of the old French cannon set at the waterside, we circled the harbor below the Barker House and the double-piazza Homestead several times, till we felt we had made it our own. A great blue heron atop a short cypress gazed down upon our going out and our coming back, seeming to bless us with stoic regard, so we took that heron on home with us in our hearts, and we have it yet.
When the sun sets over the old sound-and-river lighthouse in Edenton, it falls slowly, too, over the vast swamps at the mouths of the Roanoke and Chowan rivers, over 90-foot Pleistocene bluffs and all the ospreys of Swan Bay, over the Purchace Islands, over Occoneechee Neck and miles of rocky, falling river between Roanoke Rapids and Weldon, over long lakes that give us both power and pleasure. This is the watery world of one of the great rivers of America, and one of the great blessings of our common wealth, the Roanoke.
Native Williamstonian Lucia Peel has been active as a Roanoke River Partners board member (and former chair) for most of the past two decades. After working in Atlanta and Raleigh, the Wake Forest Law graduate returned and threw herself into the life of her rivertown home. She opened Haughton Hall as a bed and breakfast in 2004 and soon devoted herself to Roanoke River Partners and its tie-in projects, like forming the Roanoke River Mayors Association and lobbying against uranium mining in southern Virginia; the purchase and restoration of the Rosenwald School in Hamilton; and the operation and maintenance of 15 tent-camping platforms in the Roanoke bottomlands. Literally taking her stand by the river itself, Peel says proudly: “People from more than 40 states and 12 foreign countries have come here to the Roanoke and camped on our tent platforms.”