In just a few months the city has been able to physically remove some of the pilings in Hitchcock Creek that would impede canoe traffic, purchase property at the headwaters of the trail and is near an agreement with the state for the creation of a primitive campground and boat landing at the end of the 10-mile route.
“Things are moving a whole lot faster now, but it took us seven years to get to where we are now,” Crump said this week. “The thing is we’ve done a whole lot of the grunt work, so things should move faster from here.”
Crump, who is a canoeist, envisions a day when somebody could put in a canoe at the base of Roberdel Dam and go all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
The city’s role is much smaller. Rockingham wants to create a “blue trail’ along a 10-mile stretch from Roberdel through Richmond County on south to the Pee Dee River. From there, the river widens and snakes through South Carolina and reaches the coast near Georgetown. Before the introduction of Interstate highways, the river served as a key transportation route for goods.
To make the trail a reality involves overcoming both physical and bureaucratic obstacles.
A major man-made issue was the removal of the old Steele’s Mill dam, which blocked fish from going upstream in Hitchcock Creek for more than a century. It was removed late last year through the efforts of the state and federal government.
“Now the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, through the group American Rivers, has started a commission to do a study of returning fish,” Crump said. “They were counting fish down there last week and they’ll be back counting next week.”
Some of the issues were more bureaucratic. The city wanted to carve out 25 acres from a 1,600 acre state wildlife area and use it for a primitive camping and canoe site. Some state officials bristled at the idea of a campsite in the middle of a hunting area, but a deal has been reached.
“We have a memorandum of understanding from the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission in house right now that we’re reviewing dealing with the boat ramp and primitive campground,” Crump said.
That agreement will ultimately have to go to the North Carolina Council of State and be signed by the governor. It sets aside 25 acres for the campground and a buffer zone.
At the start of the trail there was no public access for canoeists, so the city purchased a few acres at the foot of the Roberdel Dam earlier this year. Plans are to remove two dilapidated houses and provide parking.
About midway through the route, the city is looking to acquire 90 acres and create a walking trail.
“We’ve been authorized to get an appraisal on that,” Crump said. “We have retained a consultant to work on part of a grant from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund for development of a walkway. They were here last week and spent a full day to get an idea of what can be included in that.”
The city will likely have to go to court to have the land condemned. For years it was part of a lake bed, and property boundaries are vague and there are dozens of parcels.
Further south there was an old railroad bridge that stood in the 1800s and early 1900s. The bridge is gone, but the pilings remained near where the von Drehle plant sits. The pilings effectively made it impossible to pass. Within the past few weeks city crews have been able to remove most of them and plan to remove the rest in the next few weeks.
That still doesn’t mean it’s clear sailing for a novice canoeist, Crump said. When faced with an obstacle, many canoeists will opt to pull up to land, and drag or carry the canoe past an unsafe area and then put back into the water.
“It’s something that you’d better be real careful with,” Crump said. “It’s something that you’d probably pull up to land and port around it. It’s one helluva rapid, it’s about a Class Three. It’s probably a 4 percent grade and a 200 foot chute. I know I wouldn’t do it, and I’m an experienced canoeist.”
Matt Rice, a conservation spokesmen for American Rivers based in Columbia, S.C. has worked with the city on the Hitchcock Creek project. He sees value in it, and how it could fit into a much larger picture.
“The great thing about Hitchcock Creek is it’s an untapped resource,” Rice said. “Industry isn’t relying on that creek. So like many other towns, that have a river running through them, often times it’s been developed and there is too much concrete and the water quality has been degraded.”
Rockingham’s plan ends at the Diggs Tract and the Pee Dee River, but Rice said it could fit into a bigger picture if other governments did the same. Across the river from the Diggs Tract is Anson County and 20 miles downstream is Cheraw, S.C., a historic part of the trade route on the Pee Dee.
“What makes Cheraw so interesting and such a great partner in this project, is that they really identify with the Pee Dee River,” Rice said. “The town was created because of the Pee Dee River.”
“I had a good discussion during the first stage of the project about working with Anson County and Society Hill, and extending the trail down to there, which makes for a great interstate trail. It might make for a little of a long day, 20 miles, (to Cheraw) but that’s doable,” Rice said.
“One of the great things about water trails is they’re really cost effective,” Rice said “You don’t have to lay concrete or acquire land like with traditional trails. The important thing is putting the information out there about how to safely use this river. Most of these a novice can use safely, but you need to know how to do it.”
Crump agrees, but believes from here on out, the public should see more progress.
“I want to stress, it took years of planning and negotiating to get some of this stuff behind us,” Crump said. “You have to get the foundation laid, and then everything else is going to move a whole lot quicker.”
Peter Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 910-997-3111 extension 18.