Typical Pre-modern Stream Crossings in the Southeastern Piedmont

Some General Comments
on Stream Crossings
in the

In pre-modern times ground transportation in the southeaster piedmont experienced three technological transformations. In earliest times cargo traveled on the backs of porters. Pack horses replace porters starting no later than the third quarter of the 17th century. Wagons replaced packhorses starting in the second quarter of the 18th century. Knowing how each of these technologies crossed streams is essential to understanding southeastern settlement patterns.

Geographic Conditions
Travel on land in the southeastern piedmont generally requires dealing with water barriers and precious few water channels. Between Bermuda Hundred and Occaneechi Island there are about 236 named watercourses none of which unmodified was usefully navigable. Between the James River and the Savannah River at Augusta, GA there are 38 large, barrier streams cutting one's path. The least creek could, in spate, after a rain storm, stop a traveler or force a course alteration, and almost any named stream could end a trip or a life in an instant.

Owing to climate and terrain, bridging, particularly in the piedmont of the southeast remained quite uncommon until, practically, the 20th century. Piedmont streams rise ten, fifteen, and even twenty feet or more in spate, after a downpour. The circumstances needed for erecting wooden bridges, a wide bottom to allow the flood to dissipate over the land, were rare in the Piedmont. And the mechanical properties of wood were simply not adequate to the task of raising a structure high enough to avoid the floods without creating an effective dam of bridge pilings.

Steel was the material needed to bridge the streams of the Piedmont. The late unpleasantness drove down the price of steel but simultaneously destroyed the economy of the South. Thus the Piedmont of the southeast did not experience widespread bridging until the very last decade of the 19th century. This fortunately allows us to still find vestiges of the fords used for centuries before bridging.

Fording, the crossing of streams without a bridge or ferry was and is inherently dangerous and, day in and day out, fording was probably the most dangerous part of pre-modern Piedmont life. Perhaps most interestingly, the risk was unavoidable and safety could not be bought; rich and poor, master and slave, native and newcomers all had to ford the streams of the southeast. The hymn "One More River" was written in the southeast in the early 19th century and uses stream crossing as a metaphor for all of life's worst travails. Fording was such a common part of life, almost nothing was ever written about it. What we know we must extrapolate from remnants along our streams.

From these remnants we can tell that stream crossings reflect transportation technology. People forded rivers differently than did horses, and horses forded differently than did wagons. The challenges to these three technologies were the same but the solutions to those challenges varied. Each challenge is in itself a characteristic of all fords.

Fords consist of:
  • A way to the stream from a ridge, (in pre-modern times ridge paths, trails, and roads were the norm)
  • A more or less safe way into the stream from dry land,
  • A stream bottom that will safely bear the conveyance,
  • A more or less safe way out of the stream to dry land, and
  • A way up to the next ridge.
Each of these criteria was critical. Each characteristic could, in a pinch be manufactured. The absence of any one would raise the cost and risk of crossing the stream. So, we can say with confidence that nature provides a limited number of places congenial to fording any stream.

Human Fords
People are very nimble critters and smart too. People can find ways to pass cargo over any stream. They can traverse hillsides steep, sandy, rocky, and covered with brush. They can hop from rock to rock. They can build rafts and boats. If there is a conceivable way off of a ridge path to a stream, people will find it. If there is no gentle slope into a shallow ford, people can find one or fabricate one. People, though, do need solid footing over which to carry cargo.

When a ridge runs out above a stream, people will walk right down the "hog back" to the water, or, if it is too steep for straight forward walking, people will make switch-back trails. If it comes to that, and if the terrain allows, people will improvise steps. But people are as a rule lazy (hence inventive) and will only invest the minimum needed to improve a slope for walking. And when it comes to entering the stream and exiting, people generally let nature do the work.

Creeks, when they enter a larger stream, lose energy and drop whatever it is they were carrying. At the mouths of creeks there is usually an accumulation of gravel. If two creeks face one another across a stream there may be a gravel "bar" all the way across the stream. The feeder creek banks up hill, away from the confluence will generally be shallow enough to allow for safe entry into the creek without risking joints, tendons, or cargo. The creek then serves as a ramp down to the bottom of the stream to be forded, and the opposing creek is the way out. There are frequently remnants of people paths and horse trails on the hillsides above opposing creek confluences.

The image to the left shows a perfect example of a people/horse ford next to a modern highway. Along the creeks on both sides of the "barrier stream" to be forded can be seen approaching horse paths.

People are relatively light-weight and the cargoes they carry are measured in tens of pounds. So, gravel is probably the optimum surface for a human ford. Cobble sized stones in a stream bottom are too uneven and slippery and therefore too risky to use for fording. Sand and mud are too energy consuming and almost always hide subsurface hazards. Rock sheets are almost as good as gravel but they too can be quite slippery and hazardous. Gravel seems to be best for people.

Horse Fords
Horses, on the other hand, are heavy, carry hundreds of pounds and have feet/brake pads/support pads small in proportion to their weight. Horses need very solid subsurfaces. Gravel, sand and mud give way under a horses' weight. Having four legs, horses can manage subsurfaces too uneven or slick for humans because they always have three out of four hooves on the ground while they search with the fourth for suitable footing. So horses find rock sheets and cobbles to be better foundations for a ford, but what about approach slopes?

Horses descend from their ridge trails to the ford points, where possible, the same way people do. Frequently, though, they must find another route to the bottom of the slope as, in the Piedmont, there are few soils that allow a horse to "switch-back" down a steep hill face. Pack horsemen would usually take their horses directly down the easiest slope near the route of the porter trail the had been following. This led to massive erosion in places, but it kept the horses on the same ridge line people had previously used.

In the illustration to the right can be seen a modern road making a right angle turn at the end of a ridge. In fact, where the road turned can be seen a pack horse trail going straight ahead. The red line is a moccasin path that switches back and forth down a steep slope. The blue line is where the pack horse operators took their horses down until the erosion so produced made the route impassable. There is absolutely no water source at the head of the gully made by the pack horses, nor is the gully a "natural" catchment. What we have in the image is a motor road laid atop a wagon road, laid atop a horse trail, laid atop a moccasin path.

Wagons obviously descend from and rise up the ridge differently than do horses or people. Wagons carry thousands of pounds but they do so within sever limits as regards terrain and stream crossings. Wagons cannot manage slopes of greater than 5% without burning out their brakes. Wagons can't use opposing feeder creeks to ramp into and out of a stream ford. Wagons need prepared surfaces on which to run and they need engineered fords, with prepared ramps and sometimes with prepared, paved bottoms. Wagons like hard, hard bottoms. Cobbles break wheels. Sand and mud won't support heavy loads. Even gravel shifts under the weight of wagon cargo. [Wagons therefore imply taxes and government and a market economy, but more on that later.]

Still, as a rule, wagon roads were laid down atop pack horse trails whenever possible, just as pack horse trails overlaid foot paths whenever possible. But, as a rule, wagon routes are much, much more restrictive than horse trails which were, in turn, much more restrictive than foot paths. When the wagon road deviated from the pack horse trail it did so logically as regards the specific deviation but illogically as regards the overall trail. For example, see the illustration in which a wagon road made a seemingly senseless ninty degree turn. Had the road been designed for wagons in the first place, it would have lain farther north on the ridge and would have angled north-northeast to the line down the side of the ridge to the valley floor instead of making a ninety degree turn to get to the route off of the ridge.

"May you find an easy road to the ridge." it is said is an old Irish farewell. From the above, we now know why this farewell came into being. Getting from a ridge down to, into, over, out of a stream and back up to a ridge was an arduous, tedious, and essential part of everyday living in pre-modern times.



Popular posts from this blog

"Thigpen's Trace"