By Vince Bellis
Before the Civil War, Tarboro was the commercial hub of the central coastal plain. The Tarboro newspaper, The Southerner, a nearly complete microfilm set of which can be found at ECU’s Joyner Library, served the region. Articles selected from the pages of The Southerner reveal much about transportation in antebellum North Carolina.
Unpaved, often-muddy roads made transportation through Eastern North Carolina slow and cumbersome. Private transportation was by foot, horse, wagon, or carriage. Public transportation was by stage coach or river steamer. Like today, people in Greenville had to go to Rocky Mount to catch a train.
Before 1853, the only way to travel between Rocky Mount and Washington, NC was by stagecoach. In January 1852, The Southerner published the schedule and fares, “[the stage] will run as follows: Leave Rocky Mount every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6 o’clock, A.M. and arrive in Washington at 11 o’clock P.M. same day. Leave Washington every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 1 o’clock, A.M. and arrive at Rocky Mount at 5 o’clock, P.M. in time for passengers to take the cars [train] going North.”
Rocky Mount to Tarboro $1.00
‘ditto’ to Sparta $2.00
‘ditto’ to Falkland $2.50
‘ditto’ to Greenville $3.00
‘ditto to Pactolus $4.00
‘ditto’ to Washington $5.00
Tarboro to Sparta $ .50
‘ditto’ to Falkland $1.00
‘ditto’ to Greenville $2.00
The entire trip from Rocky Mount, probably including ‘rest’ stops, took 17 hours and cost $5, equivalent to $135 in 2012 dollars. Land transportation was slow, uncomfortable, and expensive.
In 1853, thanks to Greenville’s place as the northern-most point on the Tar-Pamlico River able to be reached year-round by steamer, the grueling stagecoach journey between Rocky Mount and Washington became more comfortable: the steamer Amidas, owned by the Myers family in Washington, was added to the transportation mix.
Now stagecoach passengers from Rocky Mount could board the steamship in Greenville for the continued journey to Washington.
Washington served as a major port for trans-shipment of cotton and other commodities to markets in the North. In April 1853, M. Brown of Washington advertised in The Southerner that he was willing to “receive and forward any number of bales of Cotton from Planters or Merchants of the counties of Edgecombe, Pitt, and Greene, sent to me to be consigned to Mess. Blossom & Son, merchants of New York, free of storage labor and all charges whatever to the owners of the Cotton; and will pay all the attention required, in shipping as early as possible as and at the lowest rate of fright.”
Also in April 1835, The Southerner reported progress on construction of the Tarboro to Washington plank road. This plank road followed a route midway between the Roanoke and Tar rivers and was intended to serve farmers and citizens who did not have ready access to boat landings.
Simultaneously, Mr. R.L. Myers of Washington, whose family owned and operated the mail and passenger steamer Amidas, and had laid plans for a second steamer to join the Amidas “in a few months,” announced the appropriation of $25,000 from the N.C. General Assembly’s Railroad Commission. This commission, established in 1848, supported plank roads and river improvements in counties not likely to benefit directly from the railroad. This sum, Myers predicted, would be “amply sufficient” to construct two locks on the Tar River making it “navigable at all seasons.”
The Governor appointed W. Norfleet (Tarboro), Dr. W.J. Blow (Greenville), and Myers as the Tar River Improvement Commission.
The Tar River was not the only river system slated for improvement. River improvement commissions had been appointed for most of the state’s major rivers. A civil engineer, W. Beverhout Thompson, had designed locks and dams for the Cape Fear River, and he was selected to do the same for the Tar River.
Thompson completed a survey of the Tar River between Hardee Creek in Greenville and the Tarboro waterfront during the summer of 1853. The survey consisted of a level line made along the North side of the river. Locations of shoals and sand bars were noted and sediment cores were obtained along selected cross-sections of the river. Thompson concluded that the difference in elevation of the river surface between Greenville and Tarboro was 12 and 3/10 feet.
Merchants, many farmers, and especially the operators of steamboats supported the proposal to build dams on the Tar River. But support was not universal. Several commercial fisheries depended upon spring runs of river herring and rockfish for their annual catch as did many private citizens who maintained dip nets. Some farmers voiced concern that farm land would be flooded. Engineer Thompson addressed these concerns by designing a very low-profile dam. None of the four proposed dams would raise the level of the water more than five feet above mean low water. Flood waters would flow over the entire structure to allow fish movement.
Thompson’s report to the Tar River Improvement Commission included an economic analysis citing the benefits of the lock and dam system. He presented a table enumerating the agricultural commodities received in Washington from Greenville and points upriver during the period July 1852 to June 1853. This included 81,000 barrels of turpentine, 22,000 barrels of tar, 2,800 barrels of spirits of turpentine, 5,200 barrels of rosin, 7,000 bales of cotton, and 111,000 bushels of corn. He estimated that the toll charges on these shipments would generate $3,700 annually. Although quantitative data was not available, toll revenue would also be generated from the “large amount of bacon, green pork, lard, peas, beans, etc., etc., which is received or sold to victualers.” Additional tolls would be generated by “up-stream freight” such as groceries, salt, lime, plaster, and guano. Even more revenue could be derived from renting land to stations harnessing the water-power generated by the dams. Thompson estimated that the return on investment in the form of transportation tolls alone would be in excess of 6 percent annually.
Thompson ended his optimistic report of the river improvements proposal as follows, “In conclusion, gentlemen, it appears to me that you must adopt the opinions which have been irresistibly forced upon my mind, that the Improvement in every point of view is eminently desirable–that it will be promotive of all the true interests of the country–that it would have the tendency to add greatly to the growth and business of the flourishing town of Tarborough, as well as of Greenville and Washington. They would become the deposits for the drainage of the productions of rich and fertile districts of the country; and finally that so inconsiderable an investment to accomplish such great ends cannot fail to prove a paying one.” Newbern, Sept. 20, 1853
The Tar River Improvement Commission authorized construction of the first, and largest, of the lock and dam structures designed by Engineer Thompson. This lock was to be constructed “below sycamore shoal, about two miles downstream from Greenville.” The top of the dam would rise four feet above low water and would create a navigable pool seven miles long. The Greenville lock was to be 130 feet long and 25 feet wide. It was to be constructed of wooden planks secured to the river bottom by pilings driven into the sediment. This work was to be supervised by S.T. Albert, an assistant engineer to Mr. Thompson. Albert held this position until November 1854, when his duties were assumed by J.C. Turner.
Notices calling for laborers and construction materials appeared in The Southerner on October 22, 1854. One notice called for delivery of 955 pilings of sound, straight Cypress, White Oak, Pitch Pine, Gum, or Poplar. The piles were to be 16 ½ feet long and 10 to 14 inches in diameter, bark removed; to be delivered near the Red Banks below Greenville, 80 pilings per week, beginning in November 1853. Lumber requested included 300,000 board feet of good heart pine 12 inches square, in lengths above 23 feet. It was to be delivered at Red Banks on, or before, April 1, 1854. Bids for these materials were to be addressed to Dr. W.J. Blow, Greenville, N.C.
A separate notice in the same paper called for laborers “to work on the Tar River below Greenville,” starting November 1, 1853. Daily laborers were to be paid 80 cents per day. Food would be furnished. Monthly laborers would be paid $15 per month and their food furnished. The notice continued, “[a]lso wanted to hire by the year, for the year 1854, Fifty able bodied negroes, for which good wages can be obtained. They will be well treated, comfortably provided for and furnished with dry quarters to sleep in. As the work required of them will be chiefly executed upon Boats and Flats, they will be but slightly exposed to the water.” Applications for this work were to be sent to R.L. Myers, Washington N.C.
Doubts about the feasibility of the several river navigation projects then under way in North Carolina began to surface. In 1855, the editor of The Wilmington Herald opined, “[t]he contemplated improvement in Tar River has paralysed or suspended all other projects until the result . . . can be known, which we fear will be at some distant period.”
Apparently slow progress with the Tar River lock and dam caused some investors to question whether such projects would ever “equal the hopes of their projectors.” The Deep River improvements had been delayed over and over again and Chatham County coal was not reaching the Port of Wilmington as had been promised.
Seeing funds in the Tar River Improvement Commission budget were insufficient, the commissioners requested an additional appropriation in late 1854. In February 1855 the House of Commons (General Assembly) voted 24 to 18 to provide $15,000 to the Tar River Improvement Commission.
Three months later, in May 1855, after viewing the lock and dam construction site in Greenville, the editor of The Southerner stated, “20 to 30 workers were employed but … funds appropriated by our last legislature will soon be expended and further work stopped until additional funds can be obtained.”
In July 1855, Engineer Turner appointed H.M. Patton as his assistant engineer and tasked him with assessing project status and getting it back on track. Turner resigned his position as chief engineer three months later. Patton, who assumed the role as chief engineer after Turner’s resignation, in a Tar River Improvement Commission report to the General Assembly in December 1856, described the construction timeline for the project and presented reasons for failure to complete it.
Patton complained that the lumber delivered to the site was not of uniform dimensions. No plan (construction drawing) of the lock had ever been made. This made it impossible to accurately determine the amount and sizes of lumber required. He complained that pilings for the lock foundation had been set four feet apart and that only after the pilings had been set was a coffer dam constructed around them. Laborers with wheel barrows were then sent into the pit to excavate river sediment to the required depth of four of five feet below the river bottom. Patton stated that the excavation should have been accomplished by use of the dredge before the pilings were driven. This approach would have saved considerable labor cost and time. He stated in his report, “My own opinion is, that the work was commenced without proper understanding of what was really required; and prosecuted with no fixed determination ever to finish it.”
During the following year, Patton worked to complete the lock. Despite frequent floods that set the work back weeks at a time and equipment failures, he was able to announce completion of the lock on October 18, 1856.
By this time the Tar River Improvement Commission had expended all of its funds and carried a debt of about $2400. The largest amount owed was $515 to Patton for his services. Other amounts owed were for Negro hire, store accounts, lumber, and blacksmith. Prominent Pitt County names on the list of those still owed money included: Cherry, Blow, Brown, Ernul, Taft, Delany, Forbes, Latham, Collins, and Dancey.
Since the lock was useless on its own, Patton proposed asking the General Assembly for the funds needed to build a dam. He presented a general construction description and an estimate of $7,000 to build the dam.
Instead of responding with the requested $7119 to complete the dam, the 1856-7 General Assembly appointed a six-member Joint Select Committee to review the Tar River Improvement project.
The Joint Committee reported to the 1858-9 General Assembly, “[f]or the want of a dam the entire work so far from being a benefit, is in its present condition a nuisance, and in times of high water, may become a dangerous obstruction.” They reviewed the expenditures and concluded that the figures were in order.
In addition to providing for the disposal of remaining equipment, much of which was not salvageable, the committee was “of the opinion that the State was honor bound for payment of (remaining debts), both principal and interest, and recommend that they be paid accordingly.”
In 1861, national political events would soon occupy the wealth and interests of North Carolinians, leaving the lock and dam project forgotten. A devastated economy following the Civil War contributed to loss of interest in renewing the lock and dam plan. Rapid expansion of railroads during and immediately following the war may have been an even more important reason why interest in the river improvements was not renewed.
The eventual fate of the lock is unclear. Remains of a wooden structure said by longtime residents to be the remains of the lock could be seen at the end of Warren Street in Greenville until the 1970s. Some say that the lock was removed by the US Army Corps of Engineers during subsequent efforts to improve navigation on the Tar River. During WWII a navigation channel was maintained up the Tar River as far as Port Terminal (east of Greenville). The Port Terminal served as a loading platform for sugar beets grown in the area as part of a wartime effort. It is not clear whether the dredging continued upriver to the Greenville Town Common. It seems likely that the pilings installed to make the lock foundation are still in place.
Despite absence of a lock and dam, commercial river boats continued to ply the Tar River until World War II. The Greenville (ID not certain) and the Lillian were operated on the Tar River after the Civil War.
I would like to thank Roger Kammerer for informing me of the early effort to construct a lock on the Tar River at Greenville. Maury York and the staff of the NC Collection at Joyner Library helped me find the newspapers and government documents needed to complete this research. Finally, I would like to thank Lisa Wilbourne for her critical comments and editing skill in revising the draft of this essay.
Defining Eastern North Carolina Upriver Steamboats through Tar River Archaeology and History, ECU Department of History MS Thesis by Elizabeth Wyllie. April, 2012.
Abstract: This thesis will identify the salient features of North Carolina upriver steamboats and their relationships to steamboats from a variety of regions in the United States in an effort to understand the means by which people adapted and reinvented the steamboat for an array of different environments. Upriver steamboats on the Tar River in eastern North Carolina were an amalgamation of available inland marine technology designed, borrowed, and adapted to allow steamboat service despite navigational hazards and low water. The Tar River had a commercial history that paralleled other southeastern waterways, and, therefore, it is an appropriate case study of navigation on an upriver transport zone in the southeastern United States.