Unless you have an airplane, the best way to cross Pee Dee River or any other river or creek is by bridge.
Like I stated in a previous story, the first bridge across the Pee Dee was built in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1823.
Until then, about the only way to get a load across the river for many years to come was by ferry. Ferries were located all up and down the river for many years.
One of the most ancient fords and later to become Lowder’s Ferry was located where the boat ramp is today at Morrow Mountain State Park in Stanly County. This crossing of the river was used by early Native Americans allowing them to wade or cross the river with their canoes. It was a popular trade route for many different tribes.
Besides trading skins and furs, a rock of volcanic origin, called aphyric rhyolite, was mined on Morrow Mountain. It was used as trade by Native Americans all over, even to the coast, to make tools, arrowheads and spear points.
The old ferry site is just across the river from where the confluence of the Uwharrie River enters the main river. Interesting enough, it is at this point on the river the river’s name changes from the Yadkin to the Pee Dee. In colonial times, it was spelled “Pedee” and named after American Indian tribes that lived along the banks of the river.
Another important ferry crossing was several miles down-river called Swift Island Ferry. Until 1841, Stanly County was a part of Montgomery County. The western settlements of the county had a tough time crossing the river on a ferry every time they needed to go to court and so the counties were divided.
Swift Island Ferry was the straightest route into both counties. It was located about where Hwy. 73 west goes into Hwy. 24/27 at the river bridge.
There was an old family story, I’ve been told, about a Confederate soldier, returning after the end of the war, crossing the Swift Island Ferry. He was from the Montgomery County community of what is called now Wadesville.
He had volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army at a young age and served under the command of Gen. Robert Lee for four years. In the last year of the war, he was captured and sent to a northern prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. About time the war ended, he became ill but was released to make it on his own. He was determined to make his way home to Montgomery County.
It was a long journey home for so many of our Southern boys who had gone off to fight. Like in any war, some never made it back home while others returned home with battle scars or illness.
As our soldier made his way home, late one evening, he finally reached the Swift Island Ferry, on the Stanly County side of river. He paid his fare and as the ferryman rowed him across to the eastern bank, the ferryman sensed something wasn’t right with the soldier. The ferryman later recalled that this young soldier was one of his last customers to cross that evening. He could tell, like so many returning soldiers, that the young man was mighty pale and malnourished, but this one held his stomach a lot.
As the ferryman let the young soldier off on the Montgomery side, the soldier asked, “Is there any place a man can get a drink around here?” The ferryman pointed to an old run-down tavern just up the hill. That was the last time he would ever see the soldier.
The soldier went into the tavern and bought a bottle of homebrew whiskey. Whether it was bad or not, we will never know.
As the soldier walked the five or six miles on toward his home, he took several drinks from the bottle and corked it back up. As night came, he could go no farther. He lay down beside the dirt road not far from an African American family’s cabin. Folks don’t know whether it was the whiskey, his illness, or both, but the soldier began to moan with pain.
He was close enough to the cabin that the folks inside could hear the moaning and screaming. But without a light and not knowing what might be awaking them, the family bolted the door and hunkered close to the fire for the night.
The next morning, one of the youngins went out to get some stove wood and spotted the soldier lying limp by the road. The young boy took off back in the house and told his Ma what he has seen.
Word soon got out that the young soldier, who was trying so desperately to make it home, had died just about a mile from his home.
The same river ferry site, where the young soldier made his final crossing in 1865, was used until the early 1900s. Then folks decided they badly needed a bridge at the Swift Island crossing. In late December of 1922, a new bridge was dedicated. It was a state-of-the-art bridge made of reinforced concrete and was a modern engineering feat. Trouble was, it was it only lasted four years.
The current Swift Island Bridge across the Pee Dee River. A new bridge, currently under construction, is expected to be complete next year.
Next week I’ll tell you how the destruction of the bridge became known as the “Battle of Swift Island Bridge.”
J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and recently released book, “Southern Fried, Down Home Stories.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.