click for map

The Roanoke River is one of five large rivers in the southeast  that flow from the foothills of the Appalachians to the coast. A major  artery in northeast North Carolina, the river is an arm of the Albemarle-Pamlico  Estuary. Its basin contains some of the largest bottomland forests  in the region.

Like other rivers, the Roanoke has felt the effects of lumbering,  agriculture and urbanization. Recently, efforts to preserve the integrity  of the natural system have been successful. Since the health of the  Roanoke River is vital to  the well-being of the estuary, the challenge  now is to continue these efforts.


“River of Death” the Indians called it, because of the Roanoke's  tendency to flood during the spring. More properly, the Roanoke is  a giver of life. Its  silt-laden floodwaters lay a blanket of rich  alluvial soil over the forest floor, while flooded bottomlands give  to  the river an incredible tonnage of detritus organic matter,  such as decayed leaves. When gnawed and shredded by river creatures, detritus becomes a keystone of nutrition for life in the river.

The Roanoke River rises in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and reaches  the Albemarle Sound some 400 miles later. With its six-billion-gallon  average daily flow, the Roanoke carries more water than any other  river in North Carolina and contributes over half the fresh water  supply to Albemarle Sound.

All told, the river and its tributaries drain almost 10,000 square  miles of land. About 3,500 of these are located below the Fall Line,  the interface between Piedmont hills and Coastal Plain. Above the  Fall Line, the narrow, hustling river cuts through rocky channels  and 75-foot-high bluffs flamboyant with wildflowers each spring. As  it meanders through flat coastal lands, however, its floodplain can  be as much as five miles wide, with vast roadless swamps of baldcypress  and tupelo-gum.

Wilderness bottomlands are actually a washboard of ridges and sloughs  created by the constantly changing river. Sloughs (low areas, pronounced  slews are ancient river channels; ridges are  natural levees  formed during floods.

An incredible diversity of plant and animal life flourishes here<197>over  200 species of birds alone. Dense populations of white-tailed deer  and wild turkey thrive. At least six heronries dot the wetlands.  During the  fall over 500 migrating hawks have been observed on a single day.


Less than a century after explorer Ralph Lane encountered swift  currents and hostile Indians in 1586, early settlers were attracted  by rich alluvial soil. Lumberjacks, aptly named swampers, logged  bottomlands. Folks with royal grants created small farms, and slave  labor built dikes to hold back floods. Plantations, regarded by many  as the best farms in the east, produced fine crops of cotton, corn  and peanuts. Settlements like Plymouth and  Williamston became leading  ports and  centers for entertainment as well when showboats arrived. It was not  unusual for fifty or more ships to be docked at town wharves, loading  shingles, naval stores and barrel staves. Other settlements, like  Dymond City, Hog Town and Dalys Hill, now forgotten ghosts of the  past, once flourished along a busy river. When the river's rapids  at the Fall Line were conquered first by canal, then by rail, the  Roanoke proved to be a vital link between the interior and the coast.

This prosperity came to a halt during the Civil War, when Union troops  cut a wide swath through northeast North Car-olina  and captured Plymouth  in 1862. Hidden away in a Halifax cornfield, however, was the Albemarle,  a 152-foot armored ram covered with a two-inch iron plate. During  high water, the ram coasted over chains laid across the river and  recaptured Plymouth. The town remained in southern hands until 1864, when a daring Unionist attached a torpedo to the ram and destroyed  it.

Despite serious damage to the city during the war, Plymouth became  one of the busiest ports in the state, shipping naval stores and lumber.  Nearby, Williamston became a port for craft running between the coast  and the interior. As late as 1923, three steamship lines served the  river, until the opening of a bridge across the Roanoke encouraged  transportation by road.


Years past on an April weekend the Roanoke would teem with herring,  and  fishermen would crowd its banks. Massive spawning runs of striped  bass,  herring, shad and white perch were the backbone for thriving  commercial and recreational fisheries.

Fishermen at Jamesville set seines half a mile long to catch as many  as 20,000 herring at a time.  Long drift nets and skim nets resembling  large ladles were used, too. Near Hamilton and Williamston waters  flowed rapidly enough to operate unattended fishing machines strange-looking  contraptions that were actually skim nets with paddles powered by  water flow.  At times they sank under the weight of colossal catches.

Unfortunately, fishing is not as good as it once was. Commercial catches  of striped bass and herring have declined by more than half. Fishing  advisories because of dioxin  released during paper production exist on the lower Roanoke. Acres of bottomlands have  been drained and converted to farms or tree plantations that may extend  to river banks and are clear-cut when harvested. The lower Roanoke  suffers from low dissolved oxygen levels caused by industrial discharge  into poorly oxygenated swamp waters. Major dischargers of wastewater  into the river are pulp and paper companies, towns, prisons, and industry.  Mining, road-building, crop irrigation, and industrial processes  that use large amounts of water also affect the river.

Clearing land increases runoff of sediment and reduces detritus  available to the river. It can also cause severe flooding downstream.  In the wake of record-breaking floods in 1940 that devastated the  area's  farm economy, a string of dams was constructed upriver to control  flooding and produce electric power. Today,  lakes created by these  impoundments are popular recreation areas.

But releases from reservoirs have produced unnatural water flows that  have been linked to declines in hardwood reproduction, disruptions  in turkey nesting and calamitous drops in the Roanoke's striped bass

Reproduction of striped bass is keyed to natural rhythms of river  currents and food supply. Proper flows are needed to promote their  spawning more than a hundred miles upriver near Weldon, and to carry  fish larvae to the river mouth for feeding. One hopeful sign: during  1988, after many years of poor spawning,
water released from reservoirs was controlled to closely resemble  natural flows, and  spawning was successful.


Worried by alarming losses of forested wetlands and declining wildlife  populations in the Southeast, Congress has identified the Roanoke  River as a national priority under the Emergency Wetlands Resources  Act.

In 1989 a giant step was taken to preserve the  river's wilderness  when the 33,000-acre Roanoke River National Wildife Refuge was born.  The Refuge represents almost ten years of cooperative effort by The  Nature Conservancy,  US Fish and Wildlife Service, NC Wildlife Commission,  and the Gov-ernor.  Protection of the rich bottomlands involved a  complex strategy of donation, bargain sale<N>and land swapping. Acquisition  of additional acreage is necded to complete the refuge.

Future protection of the river will depend on how we choose to use  the land. Intense use of bottomlands is detrimental to life in the  floodplain, but hunting, fishing, and selective cutting of timber  are activities that will sustain bottomlands. Wise management of our  environment will restore the health of the Roanoke River and the estuary  it nourishes. But the well-being of the river will ultimately  depend on people who are willing to become informed,  make their voices  heard, and alter their way of living to protect  our valuable  resources.