Sunday, December 27, 2009

An important Gap in the Piedmont

The Other Choke-Points in the Piedmont

Though it is true that stream fords are the most common and generally governing geopolitical choke-points in the piedmont of the southeast, saddle gaps and water gaps too attract and capture routes. A good example is the saddle gap south of Occaneechi Mountain, where I-85 passes, near Hills
borough, NC.
[In the image to the right, highest land is represented as white.]

The Occaneechi Mountains border the Eno River south of Hillsborough, NC. In fact the river, flowing generally north to south west of Hillsborough hits the west end of these volcanic remnants and turns over 90 degrees and heads east of northeast for about seven miles. It then cuts through a soft spot in the Occaneechi hills and heads east and then south to pass behind the Occaneechi chain for a ways before turning once again east. Porters, pack horsemen, wagoners and highway engineers all have had to cope with this peculiar geology.

Coming at the Eno east of the Occaneechi range required that travelers either recross the river to get to the upper fords over the Eno, or parallel the south bank of the Eno and avoid another crossing. This course required traffic to pass south of Occaneechi Mountain. There is easy passage until one approaches the main cluster of three peaks south of Hillsborough, and it is at this difficult point that we find Occaneechi Gap.

Just south of the main three peaks there is a saddle (shown in the image atop this article) that allows travelers to avoid the main obstacles, the hills and the Eno. The pass saves an assent and descent of over 100 feet in elevation, a considerable energy expenditure. Today that gap carries Interstate 85, and one hundred years ago it carried what came to be called Highway 10, and before that it eased the way for any number of paths, trails and roads trafficing between the upper fords of the Neuse and the middle fords over the Haw River between the town of Haw River and Saxapahaw, NC.

[Here are some of our members hiking on an old roadbed near where it intersects the interstate]

In the gap itself can be seen, today, old roadbeds squirting out from under the interstate on both sides of its right of way. There is a nearly continuous ten foot wide track running from the south edge of the interstate to a crossing over Seven Mile Creek and beyond to where it slides under a paved section of a road called "Old Ten."

It is remarkable to observe and amusing to consider the constancy of this old mark on the land, this chokepoint.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lessons learned and questions raised about mountain gaps

"Gaps" are to mountainous terrain what fords are in the piedmont. They are the critical "chokepoints" through which traffic must pass. Like fords, some gaps are better than others; easier to get to, easier to get through, safer. So, calculating the earmarks of critical gaps is important. Any suggestions to that end will be appreciated.

Working on a presentation about Daniel Boone's routes to the Cumberland Gap gave me the opportunity to consider gaps, and I mapped over one hundred and fifty of them along his likely routes. Here are the observations made, thus far:

1. Many, perhaps most mountain gaps are unnamed as such on USGS topographical maps.

2. Gaps come in two varieties; "saddle gaps" and "water gaps". Of these two, water gaps (if they can be safely navigated by water or by foot, horse, or other conveyance) are preferred as they require less climbing than do saddle gaps. A water gap that occurs off the line of march between two important destinations, though, is less important than one that services the needed course of travel.

3. Saddle gaps, low saddles between two peaks or ridges, are attractive in proportion to their lower elevation relative to surrounding terrain, the quality of the approach climbs on each side of the "saddle", and their proximity to a line of march between to destination points.

Here are some questions regarding gaps:

A. What are the characteristics of a safe route, one along which one's enemies or opposing authorities are less likely to be able to interfere with free travel?

[Nobody seems to know which gaps were monitored by "authorities" in the 17th and 18th centuries, but common sense says at least some were kept under watch. ]

B. Many South Carolina treaties with Native American groups included clauses by which the Native American group retained ownership of or rights in certain fords; were there similar arrangements regarding mountain gaps?

[Analogizing from similar cultures is fraught with danger so take the following with some salt, but studies of riparian cultures in South and Southeast Asia, West Africa, and tropical South America reveal family social status identified with occupation of, ownership of, or control of stream crossings.]

C. How did Boone, know which passage would be safe? Native guides and/or informants?

D. Were some gaps monitored continuously and some monitored but sporadically?

E. Did Native Americans in the colonial era ever charge "tolls" for safe passage through choice passages?

F. Were there so many gaps that closing one or another was a futile waste of resources?

G. Every route has points of no return, junctions at which a choice of trail commits the traveler to using one gap or ford rather than another. If these junctions were the points monitored by authorities, perhaps the intelligence thereby gained granted time to properly position an ambush? In the mountains of the southeast, where were they, and what are their key features?

Obviously, as with most common muscle powered transport technology, when it comes to travel in mountainous terrain, we have more questions than answers. . So, please, share what you know so that, together, we may know something of use.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Mills as tools for finding roads

Old Mill Seats and Fords and Dubious Archaeology

Mills are important to the TPA for two reasons. First, they're important because they are so darned amusing, and second they are important for, as a rule, they identify a ford location and we like to know about fords. Lately we've been spending a good deal of time looking at mill remnants and trying to understand a bit more about the residue of water powered industry in our colonial southeast.

Mills amuse in different ways. Molinary technology fans are interested only in the machinery of milling which is, by the way, a fascinating study by itself. Other folks are interested in the rusticity of standing mills, the nostalgic, outer appearance of mills. Yet others are captivated by the hydrology of water powered mills. From the TPA standpoint, though mill and machinery are wonderfully engaging, hydrology is our thing. This derives from the fact that there seems to be a strong correlation between the conditions needed for making a dam and the conditions needed to make a ford.

Both dam and ford need an accessible, shallow, solid bottom as foundation. The key really is accessibility. Shallow, solid river bottoms occur anywhere geophysics throws bedrock up into the path of a stream. But, if you can't get a wagonload of corn to it, or get a pack horse to it, it serves little purpose. In fact, the roads sometimes are all that remains recognizable at an old mill site.

So far, since February we have looked at two streams with an eye toward understanding their structure and residue. On Stroud's Creek, a five mile long watercourse, there was one known mill seat. That mill was very near the stream's confluence with the Eno River. We walked the stream from its mouth upstream looking for anomalies in the stream bed and on the banks. In the first 2.5 miles we found five mill seats only one of which had any place in the public records ("Burke's Folly"). These were not small enterprises yet, in public memory they were long gone and forgotten. [The accompanying map only covers the first mile of the stream.]

This weekend we looked at another stream. On old deeds the stream is named "Mill Creek." It empties into the Eno River just upstream from the main bridges leading into Hillsborough from the south. In fact, the creek was probably a ramp used by people and horses to get in and out of the Eno ford before there were bridges.

The stream name and a deed map, provided by David Southern (map seen above), showing a mill pond on the stream compelled us to locate the old mill seat. Note that the mill seat is upstream from the railroad. The railroad was built about 1856, so the map content post-dates the railroad.

We walked upstream from the stream mouth looking for anomalies. We found our first before we got to the reported mill site. About fifty yards downstream from the railroad grade we found a likely mill seat. Free stacked stone walls and a race cut into the hillside and held up with more free stacked stone confirmed we had found a mill, and the dam remnants, if that is what we saw, indicated a very tall dam once blocked Mill Creek at this site.

We found nothing upstream from the railroad but, trusting David's map, we returned the next day to see what could be seen. We found quarried and shaped stone set in the stream bed, and that told us where a dam once rose. Noting nothing of interest on the west bank of the stream, and knowing all recorded roads in the area were located east of the stream, we looked carefully at the slopes above the east bank and we found a race. A bit more searching turned up some other confirming residue, but the site was utterly trashed by sewer construction.

Sewer construction along Mill Creek was done quite recently. It was probably done with federal funds, so there should be a Section 106, cultural resource management study done ahead of construction to ensure that nothing of cultural importance will be disturbed by construction. We are looking for that report, now, to see if the CRM/Section 106 report writers took notice of the mill site.

As a rule, when a federally funded project is going to impact a cultural artifact, the builders are required to "mitigate" the damage to be done. In the case of archaeological artifacts, the builder will send in an archaeology team to extract whatever information there is in the ground. That is the artifact site is destroyed systematically rather than willy-nilly so we at least retain the information content. We know that was not done on the sites in question. We want to know why not.

This is not the first time we have encountered wholesale destruction of cultural information. One memorable case occurred on Twelve Mile Creek in Union County, North Carolina. There a CRM firm archaeologist stepped over not one but three races hewn out of living stone in perfect rectilinear form. We happened on the mill site after the second or third charge had been fired blowing up the rock to make room for a sewer pipe. We stopped the blasting and the pipe line was rerouted. How the heck did the examiner not see the mill races?

We asked the owner of the firm but she could not say why but only said that Quality Control was too expensive to do in CRM work, and that the archaeologists put to the task were frequently either unfamiliar with historical archaeological residue or uninterested in same. Alas, this says more about the state of the archaeology profession than most of us want to hear.

This cautionary tale is just one more reason why we should find and map as many of these sites as we possibly can as soon as possible.

BTW, we found the fords below the mills.