Twenty years ago, Benny Sharpe, Jack Wills and their families cleared a section of Hitchcock Creek in one day with chain saws and hard labor while working from flat-bottom boats.
Today there are some 90 debris areas recorded between Roberdel Dam and the Pee Dee River along the creek to make passage difficult.
If the city of Rockingham has its way, that debris will one day be removed.
The past, present and future of the Hitchcock Creek waterway was reviewed Monday night at a meeting of the Richmond County Historical Society at Rockingham City Hall.
Once unknown, the name John Hitchcock will now become associated with the creek which is believed to bear his name.
Linda Pryce and May MacCallum of the society’s Genealogy Committee shared their research into colonial records about Hitchcock’s history in the area.
Neal Cadieu told of the importance of the creek in the development of Rockingham from being a means of transportation to the development of textile mills along its path.
John Massey, Rockingham city planner, explained how the city plans to revive the creek to become a place for recreation and enjoyment of nature.
Hitchcock came to Richmond County from Maryland to what was then Bladen County in 1738. Bladen later divided to form Anson County which later divided to form Richmond County. He was granted 300 acres which included the creek. Later he owned thousands of acres in both North and South Carolina.
Cadieu said the creek and Pee Dee River in those early days was comparable to an Interstate highway today when it came to transportation.
He said early churches developed near the creek, followed by a grist mill. One of the millstones from the mill is now resting at the Bostick School on Carriker Road north of Ellerbe.
The first textile mill dam on the creek was for Pee Dee No. 1, a four-story mill on Steele Street. Cadieu said 84 acres was obtained for the pond formed behind the dam.
The city is now working to gain title to that former pond area. Massey said the city may have to obtain it by imminent domain.
Then followed dams for textile mills at Roberdel, Ledbetter, Midway and Steele’s Mill.
Steam replaced water power at the end of the 19th century, Cadieu said, then soon after that electricity was used enabling textile mills to move away from the creek into East Rockingham. At one time, he said there were 10 major textile mills operating in Richmond County.
On Sept. 17, 1945, a dam on Hitchcock Creek broke in the Hoffman area sending a flood of water downstream causing dams at Ledbetter and Pee Dee No. 1 to fail. Ledbetter dam was rebuilt, he said, but not Pee Dee No. 1.
Sharpe and crew cleared an area between Roberdel and the former Pee Dee No. 1 pond 20 years ago. He said the creek always has a reliable strong current. “It is probably full of logs again,” he said.
“It is jewel for a park,” Sharpe said of the beauty of the creek. Being right in the middle of the city, he said he encouraged its development for recreational use.
Massey said the debris fields mentioned are not from trash but rather natural material which has accumulated over the years.
Part of the master plan to restore the creek includes removal of this debris. The water is clean, he said, as indicated by water sampling.
The city has partnered with federal agencies in an effort to restore the creek which includes removal of part of the dam at Steele’s Mill in Cordova. It is supposed to be a model project for stream restoration on the U.S. East Coast.
“We’re almost there,” Massey said. In March, they hope to cut a U-shaped hole in the dam. The site will receive an historical marker.
On a passage from Roberdel to the river, portage for canoes and kayaks can be established at the Midway Dam which will not be removed.
The Pee Dee pond bed will become a passive recreation area, or greenway, from downtown to the Civitan Park.
Massey said getting title to the pond area was a “mess” because the mill never bought the property, so there is a question now as to who owns it which raises the issue of possibly using imminent domain as a means to obtain it.
Massey said the city is also exploring a boat landing on the newly-acquired Diggs Tract along the Pee Dee River with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and a campground also at that location.
An issue there is that WRC doesn’t think a campground and hunting area go together.
The pond bed area was described as a “unique place” and “hard to believe” which the city hopes to make available to all.
An environmental survey in 1993 described the creek as encompassing a diverse system which includes rare species of wildlife and plants “that should be preserved.”
Massey said the development of the recreational park between Old Aberdeen Road and Richmond Road is moving forward with the application for grants to begin work “a little at a time.”
The development of a housing project off Richmond Road is in “limbo” at the moment, he said.
n Contact reporter Tom MacCallum at 997-3111, ext. 15; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.