THE PASQUOTANK RIVER
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For generations, the Pasquotank River has shaped the economic and social fabric of life in northeast North Carolina. As part of the Intracoastal Waterway, the river has been an important link between Albemarle Sound and Chesapeake Bay. As an arm of a vast system of highly productive waters known as the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary, the health of the Pasquotank River influences the well-being of the estuary as a whole.
Out of the depths of the Great Dismal Swamp the Pasquotank rises. Dark languid streams with names like Moccasin Track and The Horseshoe seep from peaty wetlands and merge to form a deep narrow river. Near the Narrows of the Pasquotank, where Elizabeth City is located, the river swings giddy oxbow bends, then straightens and spreads out for the last twelve miles of its journey to Albemarle Sound.
The Dismal Swamp Canal, one of the oldest operating canals in the country, couples the Pasquotank to the Elizabeth River in Virginia. Land on either side of canal and river is low and flat, with vast cypress swamps and shrubby pocosins that may overlie peat deposits as much as twenty feet deep.
Technically, fish shouldn't be able to reproduce in the tea-colored waters once prized by seamen for their keeping qualities during long ocean voyages. Low levels of dissolved oxygen caused by decaying matter from swamps create an apparently inhospitable home for fish. Yet herring and shad have successfully spawned here, and local creeks have provided good fishing for striped bass, large mouth bass, croaker and white perch. Mullet barbecued on wood skewers is a longstanding local favorite, and old-timers once considered Old Trap a bass fisherman's paradise.
Within the Pasquotank watershed North Carolina's 14,000-acre Dismal Swamp State Park is home to one of the few stands of white cedar remaining on the east coast. A glorious paradiseGeorge Washington called the Great Dismal Swamp, referring to its abundant wildlife. Even today, though its acreage has been whittled to twenty percent of its former area, it is the haunt of bear and other wild creatures quail, fox, deer, and migrating waterfowl.
South of Elizabeth City, the Pasquotank is governed by wind tides that may sweep water upstream, down-stream, or cross-stream. Salinity rises downstream as river water mixes with ocean water from Oregon Inlet. Baldcypress fringe the shore, where bald eagles<|>once nested in old aeries.
Refugees, hunters, and adventurers from points north plodded along two Indian trails through the Great Dismal, as they called it, to settle along the Pasquotank and its creeks. They met small tribes of Algonquian Indians the Pasquotanks, Perquimans, and Yeopim whose numbers quickly dwindled, but whose legacy remains as the names of local rivers. They came because fertile soil and vast stands of timber promised prosperity. Self-sufficient family farms produced corn, potatoes, wheat, flax and cotton on small scale, and tobacco as a cash crop. Pork was a daily staple<197>free-roaming hogs fattened easily on wild chestnuts and acorns.
Farmers weren't just farmers. They put to sea, made shingles, or fished the spring runs of shad and herring. Soon large plantations thrived, producing fine crops of cotton, grain and tobacco. Late into the nineteenth century, large sailing ships would navigate the Pasquotank's winding creeks to load cargo for foreign shores.
Swampy, roadless country spurred travel by ferry. The first official ferry operated between Arenuse and Newbegun creeks, and the first courthouse was on the Newbegun. But the rough, three-mile trip across the river forced both ferry route and courthouse further north. Sawyer's ferry, chartered in the late 1700s, crossed a much narrower river at Camden and continued operating until a bridge replaced it in 1911.
Curiously, the arduous task of grinding corn inadvertently led to new roads. Water mills were eventually replaced by more efficient windmills for grinding but not before the tops of milldams were used as roads. Today, Highway 343 crosses the sites of three early milldams.
With river depths of ten feet or more close to shore, Elizabeth City has proven to be a fine natural harbor for sailing ships, steamers and today's pleasure craft. When the Dismal Swamp Canal was completed in 1825, the town became pre-eminent in commerce. Over a hundred ships called Elizabeth City home port, trading shingles and barrel staves for molasses, rum and sugar. A regular steamboat line connected the Albemarle to points south.
The Pasquotank River takes its place in history books, too. In 1677 the Culpepper Rebellion, a bloodless revolt against petty tyranny, began on its banks. Some historians say this civil disobedience foreshadowed the Revolutionary War.
During the War Between the States, Elizabeth City was the second town in the Albemarle to fall to the Union navy; however, through- out federal occupation, a hastily assembled Home Guard (guerillas, the Yankees called them) harassed Union forces, avoiding detection by melting into the dismals they knew so well.
MAN AND THE RIVER
By 1881 rail lines linked Elizabeth City to points north and south and cemented the city's position as an industrial center. At one time a dozen canneries pro-cessed oysters harvested from North Carolina waters. Shipyards, textiles manufacturing , and two military installations contributed to the greatest concentration of population and industrial activity of any river on the north side of the Sound.
By the 1950s large quantities of untreated domestic sewage and industrial wastes were being dumped directly into river and creeks. Metal-plating operations discharged copper, chromium, and cyanide. Sewage sludge lined the banks and the water was colored dark gray, with oil slicks, fish offal and other debris. After storms, a distinct odor of sewage pervaded Elizabeth City.
Since river flow was often sluggish, pollutants were slow to disperse. Chemical testing indicated low dissolved oxygen and high counts of coliform bacteria, making the river a public health hazard for swimming and other water sports. In 1956 a major fish kill occurred.
Slowly the national philosophy of ilution is the solution to pollution gave way to urgent calls for cleaning up the nation's waters. Great strides toward mending the Pasquotank were made soon after the Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed. This federal law requires permits for discharge of wastewater into navigable waters.
At the same time, high commodity prices during the 1960s and '70s fos-tered a flurry of agricultural activity. Swamps were heavily lumbered. Cypress was harvested up to river's edge and cut-over swamps were ditched and drained for farming. Streams that were once spanned by bridges, and where fish once spawned, no longer existed in their natural form. As Elizabeth City grew, they were channelized and drained. Fisheries declined dramatically because traditional spawning grounds were lost.
Like other rivers, the Pasquotank can accept only limited manipulation before it loses vitality. Wise land use planning and protection of habitat are keys to promoting healthy waters that provide fish with basic needs: oxygen, food, cover, and freedom from disease.
Modern methods of wastewater treatment and expanded use of agricultural Best Management Practices that control runoff of sediment and nutrients will help restore the river. Citizen volunteers who monitor the health of rivers and creeks are also protectors.
Ultimately, the well-being of the river will depend on people who care enough to become informed, make their voices heard and change their lifestyles to protect our valuable resources.