Trading Ford: Facing 'death by 100 cuts'
Publication Salisbury Post
Date March 23, 2003
Page 0
Byline Mark Wineka
Brief Trading Ford: Facing 'death by 100 cuts'

By Mark Wineka, Salisbury Post

By Mark Wineka, Salisbury Post

The 1929 monument built to celebrate Trading Ford's place in history sits sorely forgotten along the roadside.

When the N.C. Department of Transportation surveyed this area of Davidson and Rowan counties in recent years, it failed to even locate the monument on a map, until someone pointed it out.

To local historian Ann Brownlee, the oversight symbolizes the state's refusal to recognize the historic importance of the whole Trading Ford area along the Yadkin River.

Brownlee contends -- and she has some supporters -- that Trading Ford and all it entails may be the most important historic site in this region of North Carolina. It has ties to Native Americans, colonization and the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

The area has Indian relics, Civil War earthworks, and traces of fords, ferries, bridges and paths important to Rowan-Davidson history and the settlement of the South in general.

Brownlee views it as a historic gateway "embedded in our self-identity." She says strong arguments could be made that a 4-mile swath -- from a half-mile upriver of the U.S. 29 bridge to 3.5 miles below the bridge -- could qualify as a heritage or cultural landscape district on the National Register of Historic Places.

But there's always been a problem in preserving this area -- progress.

Over the last century and a half, man has fragmented the landscape in what Brownlee describes as "death by 100 cuts." The cuts have come in the form of the railroad and a hump station, U.S. and interstate highways, industries like Color Tex and Buck Steam Plant and High Rock Lake.

In the not-so-distant-future, the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to build new bridges and eight lanes of I-85 across the river some 500 feet south of the existing I-85 bridge over the Yadkin. Brownlee fears the I-85 project will destroy significant historic resources and be a last straw in disrupting the landscape beyond repair.

Trading Ford has been the site of historic confrontations. Brownlee has made it a battleground once more.

To that end, she has scheduled a meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Rowan Public Library for anyone interested in joining her efforts to save as much of Trading Ford's integrity as possible in face of the future I-85 construction.

What's included in this area?

* Trading Ford offered a spot for early settlers to cross the Yadkin River, but it's also where Gen. Nathanael Greene foiled the pursuit of Lord Cornwallis and perhaps changed the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

Greene's camp from 1781 and other Revolutionary War camps from 1780 were located near Trading Ford.

* Remnants of the Indian Trading Path still exist here and cross I-85. Native Americans and European explorers from Juan Pardo in 1567, to John Lederer in 1670, to John Lawson in 1701 used this first road that brought settlers to Rowan and Davidson counties.

* Three fords -- Trading Ford, Yadkin Ford and Island Ford -- were used in prehistory as part of the Native American trading network. They formed a complex that was a main east-west crossing for routes leading to Virginia and coastal North Carolina and west to the Piedmont and mountains until the early 19th century.

Yadkin Ford later had a ferry, mentioned in history as early as 1780, and known in later years as John Long's Ferry, Cowan's Ferry and Hedrick's Ferry.

* The Battle of Camp Yadkin occurred here on April 12, 1865, when a federal calvary raid struck Confederate forces said to number about 1,000 men.

The focus of the six-hour artillery bombardment -- Fort York -- was a defensive structure on a high, rocky hill immediately north of today's U.S. 29. Most locals call it York Hill, site of one of the last staged battles of the Civil War.

Brownlee said the state errs in not looking at a 1.8-mile area related to the fight as a historic battleground.

* The stone piers remain from the first Beard Bridge, designed and built in 1818 by Ithiel Town. It was the first bridge across the Yadkin and possibly the prototype for Town's lattice-and-truss design that was patented in 1820 and used in bridge construction over the next century.

* The 1924 Wil-Cox Bridge, still part of U.S. 29, will be closed after the I-85 expansion and probably preserved as part of a pedestrian trail or greenway.

* Brownlee says the area also includes the Jersey settlement that predates Rowan County, possibly an old slave cemetery, the Ellis family cemetery, a burial ground for Union soldiers killed at Camp Yadkin, numerous other road traces and the Trading Ford monument.

Acknowledging that the state will expand I-85 to eight lanes, Brownlee pushes for construction that would cause the least disturbance to the historic area. She believes the Department of Transportation could somehow use the four existing lanes for half of the new road and build the other four lanes upriver and, in that way, stay away from what was once the Yadkin Ford.

Brownlee says there also would be room to avoid the York Hill site.

For more than a year, Brownlee has repeatedly spoken to and corresponded by e-mail with various officials in the N.C. Department of Transportation and the State Historic Preservation Office.

In January, she also submitted four specific sites in the Trading Ford area as study list applications to the State Historic Preservation Office. The office will have to consider the applications which, if approved, would designate the sites as eligible for National Register listing.

With that designation, the state may have to take a closer look at the impact of its road project. The trouble is, Brownlee says, that only the Department of Transportation can request "a determination of eligibility."

Concerned that she will strike out with the state agencies, Brownlee lately has turned her attention to the Federal Highway Administration and may ultimately have to make her case with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The Federal Highway Administration is responsible for making sure federal highways comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The law forces states to take into account what effects their road-building will have on properties listed on or are eligible for the National Register before the expenditure of any federal funds is permitted.

Nancy Dunn, the N.C. Board of Transportation member for the five-county area that includes Rowan and Davidson, says she is well familiar with Brownlee but believes her efforts should be directed toward the State Historic Preservation Office.

"What they say is the law for DOT," Dunn says.

Carl B. Goode Jr., manager of the Department of Transportation's Office of Human Environment, said in a letter to Spencer resident Dan Patterson last spring that staff "has been working diligently on this particular project for several years."

Goode noted studies of the area by the highway agency's Archaeology Unit and Historic Architecture Unit.

The Archaeology Unit concluded -- and the State Historic Preservation Office agreed in 2001 -- that the York Hill site was eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Historic Architecture Unit also concluded that the Wil-Cox Bridge was eligible for inclusion on the National Register, and the State Historic Preservation Office concurred. The Historic Architecture Unit spoke, too, with the State Historic Preservation Office about the 1929 Trading Ford monument and what might be its future, according to Goode.

But none of these things would change the current plans for the I-85 widening across the Yadkin River.

Brownlee counters that nobody in the state seems to deal with historic landscapes -- that there's more to this place than archaeology and architecture. She says she's looking at the big picture and how the value of a historic or heritage district would be greater than its individual parts.

Patterson, who rallied people to send e-mails to state officials last year about their I-85 concerns, says he has to be realistic. "I believe the state is going to do what it's going to do," he says.

But Patterson wishes the state would take a closer look at the Trading Ford section rather than "just go busting through it." At the least, Patterson says, the area deserves some kind of pull-off similar to the overlooks provided on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Some 100,000 motorists go past Trading Ford every day without any inkling of the history they're driving through, Patterson says. Why couldn't the state provide overlooks with ample parking on both sides of the interstate that include informational markers, drawings and instructions for the viewer as to what the historic landscape represents?

"That's a possibility," Patterson says.

Patterson also calls on the Department of Transportation to design attractive bridges that protect all known battle areas and historic resources.

"We would wish that the entire area adjoining the Yadkin River on both sides, from York Hill down river to Trading Ford, be designated as an historic-protected area," Patterson adds.

Steve Blount, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, recently corresponded with Brownlee by e-mail about a Sunday excursion he and his wife made through the Trading Ford area by kayak, on foot and in a vehicle.

Blount said it was easy to see how some of the historic and ecological features of the area could be developed, but he also listed some "major hurdles" to creating an historic district or tourist attraction.

Blount said noise from I-85 and U.S. 29, the Linwood railroad yard and Buck Steam Plant posed a problem. It would mar any outdoor activities Brownlee envisioned for this site, he said.

The county commissioner said the area also seemed to be the catching point for every form of floatable debris coming down the Yadkin River.

Blount also argued that the impact of eight new lanes of I-85 over the river would be "incidental in comparison to the damage that already has been done by roads, railroads and Buck Steam Plant in this area."

"As those issues are not going away," he added, "it's a little hard to consider the new roadway and bridge a serious threat to this area as a whole."

Blount said it was easy to imagine the wide scope of history, "but it is very hard on the ground to see much evidence of that history." He concluded that he was skeptical of the support "a restrictive historic district" would receive.

Brownlee has asked others to come behind her and make their own independent studies in the Trading Ford area.

Last December, Dr. Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard of East Carolina University issued a report on their site inspection of the "Yadkin Ford Earthworks" on the Davidson County side of the river.

Brownlee and Wayne Boone, a local resident and "historical interpreter," accompanied the men, who inspected a "lower earthwork," "upper earthwork," gun emplacements and a house site dating back to the 1830s.

The East Carolina visitors concluded that the lower earthwork and its rifle pits, which were underwater at the time, represented outposts of Fort York from the Civil War. Two cannon emplacements also looked to be "outworks" of Fort York, and the professors said all should be considered for inclusion on the National Register.

The lower earthwork, rifle pits and gun emplacements should be studied, the professors said, because little is known about small Piedmont trench systems.

Tom Magnuson, head of the Trading Path Preservation Association, visited the Trading Ford area with Brownlee in December. He said his visual inspections during their hike and Brownlee's research provides evidence that she may have located sections of the old road or trading path between Trading Ford and Salisbury.

"If Ms. Brownlee's findings are correct," Magnuson said in a letter to association members, "this road needs to be noted for what it once was before destroying it, if for no other reason than to give cause to search along its right of way for remnants of structures."

Magnuson found other remnants of trail off Dukeville Road near Buck Steam Plant.

"I found clear signs of an early wagon road, and I found a foot path, both of which were headed toward the Trading Ford entrance west of the Duke power plant," Magnuson said.

Brownlee recently spied "a big yellow truck" parked on one of the earthworks. It was there for some geological testing and served as a reminder for Brownlee of all the "collateral damage" that might occur outside the I-85 project boundaries from equipment staging, borrow pits and the like.

The terrain means everything in this area, Brownlee says, and she wants to save it from the death of 100 more cuts.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@