Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about Hitchcock Creek. The first was published March 11, 2014.
Today’s Hitchcock Creek Greenway, which is part of the City of Rockingham’s Blue Trail from Roberdel to the Pee Dee River, is a former lake bed from the first cotton mill on Hitchcock Creek.
On June 4, 2002, Neal Cadieu, Benny Sharpe, Brent Neal, Walter High and others appeared before the Rockingham City Council on behalf on the Richmond County Historical Society to request the city to make the 90-acre lake bed a park.
They asked Council to acquire the land and designate it a low-impact park along the trail of Hitchcock Creek. Low-impact means walking trails and little else. The city has now installed bridges boardwalks on a Greenway.
At first, no one could claim clear title to the site, the owners of the lake bed having died a long time ago.
The city agreed to seek title and put funds in the next budget to survey the property and ascertain the heirs of William Covington, the owner in 1890.
When cotton mills began developing in North Carolina in the 1800s, Richmond Manufacturing Company was able to get authorization to site the fifth in the state in Rockingham on Falling Creek.
Money was raised for it by 1837. It was successful until burned in 1865 by Union Army soldiers. It was rebuilt after the Civil War as Great Falls Mill.
The dam for those mills still exists in the back of the ruins on U.S. 74 west, Rockingham. It has a 40-foot waterfall. That land is private property. Because the stability of the ruins is unknown, trespassing can be dangerous, as well as illegal.
Its success prompted the development of even more cotton mills, this time along Hitchcock Creek. Falling Creek just below the first mill runs into Hitchcock Creek south of U.S. 74 west.
The first mill on Hitchcock Creek was Pee Dee No. 1 where the City of Rockingham now has a new recreation area and Greenway into the old lake bed for the mill through which the Blue Trail courses.
Operational in 1876, it had 100 looms and 2,000 spindles - machines and thread spindles to weave cloth. Built on the site of the old Charles Robinson grist mill, that mill’s pond was too small for a large operation and was replaced with a dam which could back up a 90-acre lake.
Rockingham negotiated for years with the heirs of Robinson to gain title to the land covered by that lake. The dam was washed out in the great flood of 1945 and never replaced. An effort in the 1960s to rebuild the dam failed.
Ledbetter Mill, built upstream from Pee Dee No. 1, became the dam at the northernmost end of Hitchcock Creek used for that purpose. The mill was enlarged in 1911. After it’s dam broke in 1945, it was rebuilt.
In recent years the stability of the dam has been in question, so Ledbetter Lake’s bed has been reduced to just the course of Hitchcock Creek through it.
The Hitchcock Creek Watershed drains the central part of Richmond County with a main water source above McKinney Fish Hatchery on the Joe MacDonald property.
In 1881, Lewarae Mill was built - better known as Midway Mill - and now Cascades Moulded Pulp whose size is greatly expanded. The name is a compilation of the builders’ names of Leak, Wall and McRae.
Roberdel, between Pee Dee No. 1 and Ledbetter, built a dam and began operation in 1884.
By 1895, Steele’s Mill and the village of Cordova were under construction. It opened in 1898 with 996 looms and 39,450 spindles.
The last mill on Hitchcock Creek was Pee Dee No. 2 on the west side of what is now U.S. 220 north. It was the only mill not needing a dam for water power. It drew water, however, from the creek to operate a coal-fired boiler to produce steam as power. It became operational on Jan. 1, 1900.
When electricity became available in 1902 to operate machinery, mills were able to build away from the creeks and into East Rockingham, even though they were not far from Falling Creek.
In period of 24 years, six cotton mills were established on Hitchcock Creek. The creek made mills possible to employ some 2,000 people and established Rockingham and Richmond County as a major textile producer in the South.
Electricity became preferable as a source of power for the plants because there were times when the cotton mills had to close or reduce production if there was low water in Hitchcock Creek.
By World War I, Richmond County had 10 major textile mills, and the major Seaboard Railroad complex in Hamlet.
By then, Hitchcock Creek had become a major provider of unorganized recreation. The mill ponds were favorite places to fish and swim, although heavily polluted. Today there is only light pollution from water runoff from certain farms in the watershed area.
The creek is not considered favorable for swimming today unless someone falls out of watercraft.
Because their value to manufacturing was gone, the mill dams received little attention until recent movement to remove dams by state and federal governments to improve fish habitat, at least up to Midway.
It has taken many years for Hitchcock Creek to have taken a full circle from the time when Native Americans paddled their canoes up and down the waterway until today when everyone is able to once again travel by watercraft on its waters.
Visit the Richmond County Historical Society at rchs-nc.net and its Facebook page.