Early morning, Oct. 15 and we were off for a kayak adventure on the Black River. All members of our party met at Beatty’s Bridge, a few miles south of Ivanhoe. The weather was in the upper forties upon arrival and not a cloud was visible. The day would be absolutely beautiful with full sun and warming temperatures. We had a stiff head wind rippling the water in the wider areas of the river. We were headed eleven miles downriver to Newby’s Bridge on Highway 11.
On two previous trips we had made it down to the Wildlife Landing, below Newby’s Bridge, which is thirteen and one half miles from Beatty’s Bridge. Along the banks, the foliage was beginning to change colors. The tannin-stained water had a deep brewed-tea color. The river is sometimes 100 feet wide at others places 30 feet. On an earlier summer paddling adventure the water was much lower and you could view the sand beneath your kayak in spots, and see patterns much like a windswept desert.
During the three combined trips down the Black River, we saw various wildlife forms: two eagles were sighted in mid-summer; we saw wild turkeys on the summer and fall trips; wood ducks; deer; and on one trip some trees were full of huge vultures. But, the calling card for this trip was to once again experience “The Three Sisters” swamp.
We are at The Three Sisters. The water is high and the current explodes as it breaks out of its riverbed. There is no real channel to follow, but all the water continues to move swiftly south. We had considerable difficultly in maneuvering and dodging through the forest of cypress knees and trees. Then it happened on a sharp, fast turn; I found my kayak upside down and my cooler floating away. I struggled to get to my feet while in chest-high water. After draining water from my kayak and soothing my baptized ego, we were on our way again.
During our previous boating outings the water was low and we had towed our kayaks and canoe through the swamp. Dragging a kayak or canoe in a low water situation is my personal preference, when navigating this swamp. But on this day the water was too deep to wade through.
“The Three Sisters” isn’t just any ordinary old swamp. Everywhere, bald cypress trees stretch toward the sky. Cypress knees become obstacles and they sometimes grow eight to ten feet tall. The trees are enormous. But size doesn’t tell you everything about their age. On some, their flat tops look as if they’ve been mowed by some mysterious force. Over the centuries hurricanes and foul weather have topped the crowns of these trees. These trees aren’t just old; they’re ancient.
These trees are the oldest living things east of the Mississippi River. Researchers believe there are some as old as 2,000 years old. Most have hollow centers and can’t be dated. One solid tree has been core dated (by dendrochronology scientists) and found to be 1,700 years old. This tree is called Methuselah by locals and BLK69 by scientists. That tree now stands as the oldest known living tree in eastern North America. Once out of the swamp area the river is once again 75 to 100 feet wide. And in less than two hours we are at the Newby’s Bridge landing. The trip took six hours total.
The Native Americans first used this pristine Black River water-way and its tributaries. The Indians used small dugouts or log boats made from cypress trees to navigate the waters. Then came the early European settlers.
From the colonial period until the early twentieth century, the Black River was a commercial thoroughfare. And by the opening of the nineteenth century, virtually every tributary had been cleared of sunken logs, snags and other obstructions. Many small, Sampson County farmers located off the larger streams now had a way to market.
During a winter or spring freshet (high water) there was often a jam of rafts, pole boats, and other crafts on the Cape Fear, in Wilmington, waiting to sell their tar, turpentine gum, timber or other produce.
Sampson County farmers that came down the Six Runs, the two Coharies, or the South River all merged into the Black River. These men were a hardy and hard-working set of people.
Usually it took about four or five days for a rafting trip from the headwaters of anyone of the tributaries to Wilmington. They sold their timber rafts upon arrival in Wilmington. And then walked home, that took another four to five days.
In the days when rafters and pole boaters navigated the Black River there were three distinct channels in the swamp area of the river, hence the name “The Three Sisters.”
Oral history has kept alive accounts of how clear and open these streams were at the beginning of the twentieth century. That was before erosion, caused by big time farming, silted these streams.
The Great Coharie, Little Coharie and Six Runs Creeks begin in northern Sampson County. They merge to create the 68-70 mile-long Black River which flows into the Cape Fear. South River also empties into the Black River near Ivanhoe.
The Black River was only one link in the water course of our ancestors from upper Sampson, to Wilmington and the sea. Other links were the three tributaries, South River and the Cape Fear.
But what about the tributaries that flow into the Black River; when were they open for commerce? Let’s look at some clues.
In 1788 John Wrench was assigned to a work party to work on the Little Cohary River; his stretch of river was from the forks (of Caesar Swamp and Little Cohary) to the Governor’s Ford down river. John lived near the forks which is the head waters of the Little Cohary River.
In 1821 James Wrench (son of John Wrench) was ordered by the Sampson County Court to serve as overseer of a local work party to clear the Little Cohary Creek and keep it open for navigation. I have been unable to document James’ rafting trips. But, he was a turpentine farmer and the Little Cohary was the only route to the Wilmington market.
Esquire Hugh Larkin Wrench (son of James Wrench) left behind documentation of rafting naval stores (tar, turpentine and timber) from the headwaters of the Little Cohary Creek to Wilmington. His first documented trip was in 1853. These streams were open to navigation much earlier than some previously thought.
The Big Cohary, Six Runs Creek and South River most certainly have a similar history of early navigation as does the Little Cohary.
In the mid-1870s the Black River Navigation Company was formed to encourage area trade. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assisted with dredging and improvements to the river. After the route was made accessible, scores of steamboats and vessels of other types plied its waters.
Quoting from Branson’s NC Business Directory in 1889: “steamboat line between Herringsville (Clear Run) Sampson County& Wilmington, Steamer Lisbon” owned by Amos Johnson, of Sampson County; tows flats during the winter months, when the water is up.” The Lisbon hauled cotton, lumber, naval stores, livestock and passengers.
Quote from the NC Division of Archives and History: “The A. J. Johnson, a fifty-seven-ton stern-wheel steamer constructed at Clear Run in 1899 and fitted out in Wilmington, was perhaps the largest of its type. Operated until 1914, the ship in that year was tied up at Clear Run and sank during a storm. Its hull is visible to this day during low water. The presence of the hulk of the A. J. Johnson is a reminder of a bygone era.”
With the event of the steamboats a citizen of Herringsville or Lisbon (Lisbon is now a ghost town) could own the same goods that the folks of Wilmington enjoyed.
During the last 100 years the Black River and its tributaries have returned almost entirely to their natural condition, and are now used primarily by sportsmen, hunters, and fishermen.
Sources: N. C. Division of Archives and History; Branson’s Business Directory; Sampson County Court Minutes; family papers, and Sampson County Heritage Book.
*From the January 2012 issue of the Huckleberry Historian