Inadequate infrastructure was a prevailing problem in 18th Century America, particularly in the Piedmont regions. While land and opportunity were certainly abundant, impassable waterways and poorly maintained roads made it nearly impossible for farmers to transport their goods to coastal markets. The green federal government did not possess much authority to fund infrastructural projects under the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the burden fell upon the often underfunded and Tidewater-biased state legislatures, whose representatives expressed little interest over backcountry concerns.
Yet, to Virginia statesman Patrick Henry, internal improvements were necessary to stimulate interstate commerce and augment national prosperity. Throughout his political career as a Virginia governor and house delegate, Henry campaigned for the development of the Roanoke River Basin through cooperative resources from North Carolina and Virginia. Henry’s vision was posthumously realized in 1805 with the opening of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, which connected the Albemarle Sound—and thus the Roanoke River—to the deep-water port of Norfolk, Virginia. Seven years later, the Roanoke Navigation Company was chartered to coordinate future improvements upriver; however, due to the War of 1812, the company was unable to survey the Roanoke River until 1817.
The Roanoke Navigation Company commenced construction for its long-awaited canal in 1819. Designed and supervised by chief engineer Hamilton Fulton, the Roanoke Canal was completed in just under five years. Built largely on the backs of enslaved labor, the manmade waterway circumnavigated nearly nine miles of treacherous rapids and accommodated for the ninety-foot elevation change along the river’s fall line.
Despite being an engineering marvel of its time, the Roanoke Canal was not a profitable enterprise. While frequent flooding and collective maintenance work racked up significant expenses, the canal's greatest detriment was the emergence of railroads in the 1830s. More reliable and cost efficient, locomotives quickly surpassed their bateau counterparts as the preferred method of travel and commerce. By 1861, four major railroads serviced the region, transforming the sleepy canal town of Weldon into a bustling transportation hub and rendering the Roanoke Canal essentially irrelevant.
During the Civil War, the canal was commandeered by Confederate forces to transport armaments and supplies along the Roanoke River. Simultaneously, escaped slaves utilized the navigation system to access the Great Dismal Swamp—a refuge for runaways along the Underground Railroad. Although much of the canal's infrastructure survived the war, the Roanoke Navigation Company went completely out of business by 1875.
In the early 1890s, the defunct waterway was modernized by the Roanoke Navigation and Water Power Company (RN&WP Co.) to generate hydroelectric power for the region’s emerging industries. During this renovation process, a second channel was constructed parallel to the original by Thomas Emry and the competing Great Falls Waterpower Manufacturing and Improvement Company (later renamed the Roanoke Rapids Power Company in 1895). Emry, who owned several properties adjacent to the navigation canal, built a series of spillways and dams to create his ‘Power Canal,’ which provided separate hydroelectric and hydromechanical power to the growing municipality of Roanoke Rapids.
Though direct competitors, the two power companies managed to coexist with little dispute for more than a decade; however, that all changed in 1906 when a major drought left both businesses struggling for water. In an effort to increase flow, the RN&WP Co. constructed a diverting dam in the Roanoke River, which effectively cutoff Emry's Power Canal from its vital water supply. This prompted a lengthy legal battle between the two companies. Emry asserted that it was unlawful for one business to siphon excessive water from the river, highlighting the dire financial challenges faced by other companies downstream. In response, the RN&WP Co. referred to the original Roanoke River Navigation Company’s charter—which they had purchased in 1882—giving them sole discretion of all water use on the Roanoke River. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of Emry’s company in 1912 and the dam was subsequently destroyed. Without a reliable water source, the RN&WP Co. sold its assets to the Roanoke Rapids Power Company shortly thereafter.
The Power Canal ceased energy production in 1955, following the completion of the Roanoke Rapids Lake Hydropower Dam. The Roanoke Rapids Power Company was sold to the Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO), which later became modern-day Dominion Energy.
THE ROANOKE CANAL TRAIL
Regarded as “North Carolina’s longest museum,” the Roanoke Canal Museum and Trail follows 7.8 miles of towpath between Roanoke Rapids Lake and Weldon. Though the trail's western terminus is located at the Roanoke Rapids Lake Day Use Area, an additional two miles of canal lie submerged beneath the murky lake waters, along with the waterway's original entrance dam and guard lock—victims of the dammed Roanoke River’s rising waterline.
At Mile 0.9, visitors can explore the crumbling remnants of the Power Canal’s bulkhead. Built by the Roanoke Rapid Power Company in the 1890s, this massive structure was utilized for water retention and outflow control. While only a small creek flows between its brick and concrete columns today, one can still appreciate how impressive the Power Canal’s hydroelectric operations were back in the early 1900s.
Just a half-mile from the bulkhead stands the old Power House—one of the earliest hydroelectric structures in the United States (c. 1900) and home to the Roanoke Canal Museum. For an entry fee of $4, visitors can tour two stories of exhibits detailing the rich history of the canal, hydroelectric power, and the greater Roanoke River Valley. Outside the museum stands one of the original two middle canal locks, which accounted for thirty-five feet of elevation change over a two-hundred-foot distance.
The KapStone Paper Factory comes into view after crossing Roanoke Avenue. Established as the Roanoke Rapids Paper Manufacturing Company in 1907, this was the first mill in the U.S. to produce paper via the kraft process—a chemical pulping method that revolutionized America's paper industry. The company became the Halifax Paper Corporation in 1911 and retained the name until 1962 when it was assumed by the Ethyl Corporation. The facility was acquired by KapStone in 2007 and continues to manufacture kraft paper and packing materials to this day.
Two miles east of the paper mill sits the site of a tragic aerial disaster. On July 31, 1949, Fletcher Thomas Bender—a 32-year-old Air Force 1st Lieutenant—was flying an F-80 "Shooting Star" fighter jet on a routine training mission from Maxwell Field, Alabama to Langley, Virginia. For unknown reasons, Bender's plane crashed into the Roanoke River, killing the seasoned pilot instantly. Several pieces of the wreckage were recovered from the river and are currently on display inside the Roanoke Canal Museum.
Located at Mile 6.25, the Chockoyotte Creek Aqueduct is perhaps the canal’s most spectacular attraction. This 110-foot-long structure was engineered in the early 1800s by Hamilton Fulton, who utilized the drystone method in its assembly. The aqueduct’s thirty-foot arch has been held together by nothing more than the forces of gravity for over two centuries, allowing bateauxmen and bikers alike safe passage across the creek.
At Mile 7, just south of Weldon, adventurous travelers can explore an abandoned graveyard that contains the bodies of over 150 Confederate soldiers. Many of these men died at Wayside Hospital #9—a Methodist church-turned-infirmary following the 1862 Peninsula Campaign—located a half-mile east down the canal. Today, nothing remains of the hospital except a vacant lot and several foundation stones. Across the street from the hospital plot stands the Riverside Mill. Founded in 1895 as the Weldon Cotton Manufacturing Company, this complex was powered by the Roanoke Canal and contributed greatly to the region’s textile industry development. While manufacturing processes ceased in the 1950s, the mill buildings continue to operate as one of North Carolina’s premier antique malls.
The trail continues from Riverside Mill into the town of Weldon—a vibrant transportation hub during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, with the nationwide decline of railroads during the mid-1900s, Weldon's prosperity followed suit. Many of Weldon's railroad landmarks have since disappeared, but some still survive and can be seen while passing through town. On 1st Street, the Atlantic Coast Line Viaduct comes into view, spanning an impressive 3,800 feet across the Roanoke River. Adjacent to the elevated trestle stands the former Union Station (c. 1911)—a two-story train depot that accommodated passenger and freight exchanges between the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line twenty feet below. When passenger service stopped in 1971, the second floor was completely removed while the main level was converted into the town library. Next door to the old station is the Seaboard freight terminal. Originally constructed between 1838 and 1845, the terminal is North Carolina's oldest surviving railroad building. Though locomotive services ceased in 1967, the structure is currently utilized as a local radio broadcasting studio.
At Mile 7.8, the Roanoke Canal Trail reaches its eastern terminus, River Falls Park. During the late 1800s—prior to its designation as a riverfront recreational area—the property was utilized by one of the largest industrial complexes in Halifax County. Unfortunately, many of its mills and factories shut down following the loss of guaranteed water rights in 1912. In 1938, the Works Progress Administration cleared the complex of its dilapidated outbuildings and converted an old corn mill into the Weldon community center. The building fell into disrepair during the 1960s and was left to decay until 2007, when it was restored to its original 1890s appearance by the Weldon Mills Distillery.
My expedition along the Roanoke Canal Trail was decent at best. While I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the infrastructural ruins and learning about the canal’s history, the trail itself left much to be desired. It is quite evident that the towpath has been poorly maintained in recent years due to the abundance of downed trees, intrusive overgrowth, erosion, decaying bridges, and protruding rocks and roots. These obstructions not only blemish the trail, but also pose safety risks to its travelers. While the global pandemic has certainly contributed to this lack of upkeep, it is important that canal administrators renew maintenance efforts soon in order to better preserve historic structures and foster a more enjoyable trail experience. My second qualm involves some of the unpleasant scenery surrounding the canal, specifically the Roanoke Rapids Sanitary District between miles 5 and 6. The pungent odor of wastewater permeates through the air along this stretch of trail, making for a most unpleasant olfactory encounter. Another downer is the presence of massive overhanging powerlines between miles 1.5 and 2. While this may not be a detriment to everyone, I personally dislike seeing modern infrastructure deface historic locations. The Roanoke Canal Trail possesses the potential to thrive as a unifying historic landmark for the region, but falls short given its current substandard condition. Trail Rating: 4.5/10
Read the following resource for more about the development of the Roanoke River:
Rice, Philip M. "The Early Development of the Roanoke Waterway—A Study in Interstate Relations." The North Carolina Historical Review 31, no. 1 (1954): 50-74.