Volume 2, No. 4
Bridges are so integral a part of roads today that we barely notice the streams far below us as we cross them. But in the old days the rivers and streams commanded attention, for they had to be forded and bridges were a luxury slow in coming.
A look at the history of bridges over the Eno River will show how long the population of the Eno Valley lived with fords, and how only within our century were bridges built that could withstand the power of the water.
The first bridge to be built across the Eno River was, as we might expect, at the town of Hillsborough. As the vast Orange County, the town attracted all kinds of traffic to its crowded streets; and the inconvenience for so many reasons and for so many people of an often impassable ford early forced the county to supply a bridge. The Court Minutes of 1787 and 1788 contain various notations about such a bridge, and the 2 June 1787 minute “Let the bridge be built” put the court’s final sanction on the undertaking. And the bridge was built.
We do not know how long that earliest structure withstood the daily wear and tear and the seasonal freshets that could sweep away everything near the river. It was probably repaired and rebuilt many times before 1853 when the bridge then standing was entirely removed.
In that year the Hillsborough Recorder (13 April) advertised for sealed bids “… for the repair and reconstruction of the covered bridge across the Enoe adjoining the town of Hillsborough.” A further notice on the llth of August described the old bridge as unsafe and noted that it had been “taken down and a new one is in the process of construction.”
While the bridge was down, in July the newspaper reported a “narrow escape” [27 July issue):
The stage coming in from Raleigh last night a little before nine o’clock, in crossing the river at this place, was upset in the middle of the stream, which was considerably swollen by the rain. There were nine passengers in the stage and four on the top. Four of the inside passengers, we understand, were young ladies on their way to school in Greensborough …The water was so deep as nearly to cover the stage when upset, and the passengers were saved with difficulty. Three trunks belonging to the passengers, we learn, were lost, and some other baggage. All the mails, we believe, were saved, though they were in a sad condition, being saturated with water. Considering the confusion of the moment and the extreme darkness of the night, it may be regarded a providential interference that none of the passengers were lost.
The second bridge to be built across the Eno was at the present-day Red Mill Rd. crossing. In 1806 Richard Bennehan had bought the old Hicks’ Mill built in 1791, and sometime between the time of his purchase and 1824 had built a bridge at that place. We learn this in a letter from his son, Thomas D. Bennehan, to Willie P. Mangum, then representing Orange County in Congress, in which Bennehan proposes a new mail route from .Raleigh to Person Court House, the mail to leave Raleigh and go by Brassfields, “then to the Fish Dam from there crossing Enoe at my mills on the Bridges (we all object-to its going up to Sime’s mill [the mill at present day Roxboro Rd.] as the mail would be frequently lost by not being able to cross Eno and Little Rivers) ….”
(The papers of Willie P. Mangum ed. H.T. Shanks, V.I, p.102.)
Almost thirty years later the situation was unchanged. In all the distance from Hillsborough to the Wake County line only two bridges spanned the Eno River. The farmers were finding it ever more irksome to contend with often impassable fords in carrying their produce to and from the mills and to the large distribution centers of the county. The whole situation is set forth in detail in a petition dated February, 1852, signed by citizens of Orange “residing on both sides of Eno,”requesting a bridge at the Guess Mill crossing, now Guess Rd.
They described it this way:
…There is no public bridge across Eno from Hillsborough to Mr. Cameron’s Lower Mills [Cameron had inherited Bennehan’s property] a distance of 18 miles. . . that in times of High Water let the necessity be ever so great no communication by passing over can be had with the north and south sides of said River unless it is crossed at one of the bridges above mentioned – There are 4 public roads crossing the River and Leading into the great Southeastern Thoroughfare by Wm N. Pratt’s store into the Southeastern and Eastern Markets; These roads cross at Dicksons Mills about six miles from Hillsborough (present day Gates’s Ford) J.C. McCowns 8 miles [Cole Mill Rd.]W. W. Guesses about 10 miles [Guess Rd.] and Mrs. Sims about 12 miles from Hillsborough [Roxboro Rd.], that the greatest part of the waggoners to be accommodated by such bridge are those from Person County and the north part of this county living above Redmountain [Rougemont] and from the Flour mills of J.F. Lyon and Alex Dickson….”
(C.R. 073.925.2, N.C. State Department of Archives and History.)
In the following year, February, 1853, a similar petition requested a bridge at Dickson’s Mills. Despite the apparent favor with which the Court looked on the second proposal, (for the newspaper advertised for bids for the building of a bridge across Eno at Dickson’s Mills,) the plan fell through and the bridge was never built.
Two years after that, however, bids were again let, this time for a bridge at Sim’s Mill (28 March 1855), and presumably this bridge was built in place of those requested at the other two crossings.
The river was hard on man-made structures near it. After heavy rains it was quick to flood and become a raging torrent. Time and time again the mill dams were damaged and repaired and rebuilt. And the early bridges suffered the same fate. Even as late as 1875 the damage still continued. The Recorder of 10 March reported on the destruction caused by a spring freshet:
…There are but few bridges left in the county, the one across Eno just below the railroad being the only one to our knowledge. The fine bridge at McCown’s Mill 1 , the finest in the county, and finished during the last year, supposed to be above the reach of any water, was swept away. We sub- join a list, a very imperfect one, of the bridges carried away and of the dams broken…. The Town bridge at Hillsboro, rebuilt after the flood of 1861. This bridge had recently been put in thor- ough repair. The bridge across the Eno at McCown’s Mill completed last year at a cost to the county of $1200…. We hear of the loss of the bridge at Cameron’s mill near the mouth of Eno2 , but are not certain of the fact. All the bridges across Flat and Little Rivers….
Within thirty years, the same story was told again with even more detail of devastation:
A telephone message yesterday from Hillsborough said that the Eno River had climbed over the highest water mark known in fifty-eight years, more than four feet. The bridge between Orange and Durham, an unusually high one, is completely submerged and such is the fall of rain that the waters steadily rise rather than fall. The memory of the most antique inhabitant is taxed for anything comparable to it, and Eno river with all of its fellow creeks has become a perfect torrent whose damage has just begun. It still rains and the streams grow hourly, until there seems little doubt that the waters are higher than ever since the Noachian debacle that drowned the world.
Hillsborough has been as hard-struck as any place. Situated on Eno river at a very high elevation, the stream appears determined to overflow the town and in the low places residents have been compelled to seek shelter elsewhere. A newcomer on the afternoon train yesterday said the river has almost reached the bridge. The engine ploughed its way through the watery waste while the water and mud splashed on it by reason of the river’s rise makes it look like the Maud of funny paper fame….
At midnight Mr. M.E. McCown telephoned the Herald that the worst freshet he has ever observed has struck the community in which he lives and that the stream is still rising ….
The bridge at Christian’s Mill, he is certain, is gone. It was an iron structure with wooden abutments and was a splendid piece of work. The fury of the stream has struck it with full force and the timbers have cracked until the last sound has been heard….
The pump station reports distress. The filter house has gone, and the water works will probably be slightly disabled for some time.
Next day presented nightmare-like scenes:
In addition to the Cole Mill dam , persons who were out there declare that nearly all the mill worth anything went down the stream. Constable James Cagle vows that he saw Mt. Airy and all of its pink granite quarries float down stream with sixteen men riding the rocks. There was observed evidences of mill foundations and every thing else floating down the river and the destruction there was complete….
Below this place … went two bridges and another dam. The bridge at Geer’s Mill, a wooden structure, was not nearly equal to the pressure and gave way early. Similarly the new steel bridge over the stream at Christian’s Mill went and a loss of more than $2,000 will result. The ruins of the place attract more than one Durham traveller and the town had scores out yesterday.
Only in comparatively recent years when funds and know-how could finally match the challenge of the river, bridges were built at all the public road crossings; and only Gates’s Ford remains today to give us some idea of what life was like for the large population of then Orange County for over two hundred years, when bridges were a rarity and the river was often “past fording.”
1. Roxboro Rd. By 1875 the older McCown Mill had been sold to John A. Cole and John McCown was then manager and owner of the former Sims’ Mill.
2. Red Mill Rd