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Council designates half-built lock a historical marker

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Vincent Bellis looks at where a lock existed on the Tar River on Dec. 21, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Tar River in Greenville is viewed today as a source of recreation, but since Europeans settled the area more than 240 years ago the waterway primarily served as a route for commerce and transportation.

A nearly forgotten piece of that transportation history recently received formal recognition from the Greenville City Council.

A structure known as the navigation locks, located behind the Greenville Offleash Dog Park on Ash Street, was designated as a historical landmark by a unanimous vote of the council on Dec. 13.

The request’s sponsor, retired East Carolina University biology professor Vincent Bellis, applauded the decision.

“It recognizes the value of the river historically and in the future,” Bellis said. “It’s a tangible piece of history that we can see and feel and learn about.” He also sees the landmark designation as a step in fulfilling the Tar River Legacy Plan, which preserves the river and the public access to it while fully developing its economic development potential.

Bellis said he would like to see the city clear underbrush from the river banks and install a bench were people can view the remaining lock structure, along with watching the river.

Approximately 200 feet along the river’s south bank are covered in the historic landmark designation.

The area runs along the river’s south bank roughly between Oak Street and Warren Street.

The structure consists of a northern “river” wall that consists of approximately 16 cribs constructed of 12-inch squared timbers with plank cladding. The cribs are filled with river sediment and trees grow in the cribs.

The city’s Historic Preservation Commission recommended the designation because the locks are “one of the last remaining examples of similar mid-19th century structures.”

“It’s the largest antebellum structure in Pitt County,” Bellis said.

There has not been a formal archaeological survey on the site, Bellis said. He would like to probe the canal to see if there is a constructed floor and how much more of the lock has been preserved.

Bellis’ interest in the site goes back nearly three decades.

“You can blame all this on Roger Kammerer,” Bellis said.

When the Bellis family first moved to Greenville they would take walks along the river. In the Ash Street area. Bellis saw an iron post sticking out of the river. He was told it anchored a heavy chain used to stop Union boats during the war.

Bellis and Kammerer, a historian who has written extensively about Greenville, Pitt County and other eastern North Carolina communities, were walking along the river and Bellis pointed out the post and shared the story about the chain.

Kammerer said it actually was part of a navigation locks that was partially built before the Civil War.

“I said, ‘Roger, you can’t build a lock on the Tar River,” Bellis said.

Navigational locks are devices that raise and lower boats and other watercraft along rivers and canals that have different sea levels.

Bellis started researching East Carolina University’s archives and found documents detailing how the locks would be built but no engineering drawings were ever discovered.

Greenville’s navigation locks would have allowed a westbound boat to enter the structure. A dam would open to allow water in to raise the boat so it can proceed west.

With an eastbound boat the dam would be closed to lower the water level so it can proceed east.

Bellis said the navigation locks were conceived at a time when waterways were still the main mode for transportation but railroads were expanding.

The Tar River was especially important for cotton growers in Edgecombe, Pitt and Greene counties who needed to get cotton to Washington, N.C., for shipment to manufacturing facilities in New England or Great Britain.

“The Tar River didn’t provide a dependable avenue because it wasn’t deep enough,” Bellis said. Most boats could only go as far inland as Greenville because sections further west would be too shallow at certain times of year.

The General Assembly established in 1848 a Railroad Commission to build a railroad originating in Morehead City and going west.

Businessmen in the eastern part of the state complained that their tax dollars were funding a project that would not benefit them, so the General Assembly appropriated $25,000 so two locks could be built and the Tar River could be navigated year-round.

“We talk about activating the river; they figured it out 200 years ago,” Mayor P.J. Connelly said.

Notices requesting materials and labor were posted in 1853 and 1854 but progress was slow going because questions about several river navigation projects were surfacing and the General Assembly was slow to provide further funding.

At one point, an engineer assigned to the project complained there was “no fixed determination ever to finish it.”

Work did occur. Today, people walking along the riverbank may notice it curves. Bellis said it was shaped to accommodate the lock’s wall.

The lock structure was completed in the fall of 1856 and money was sought to build the dam. The General Assembly instead appointed a committee to review the project. During the 1858-59 legislative session the committee reported that without a dam, the lock could be a dangerous obstruction in high water. They also said the state was “honor bound” to pay for the materials and labor already used.

There was no more discussion about building the dam. The Civil War intervened and once it was over, there was no interest in finishing the project because rail transportation now dominated the landscape.

Today, portions of the cribs that supported the lock’s riverside wall are visible when river levels are low, Bellis said. It’s not uncommon to see people standing on them while fishing.

The cribs become so filled with silt that trees grow out of them.

Bellis said as his research continued he learned the locks had been well known to many people who once lived in the Wilson Acres neighborhood, which is now called the grid. Bellis said it was a conversation with one former Wilson Acres resident that helped his identify the entire length of the lock.

Many left after their homes were flooded following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. He wants to collect their stories about the lock.

Bellis said he would like to see the stories and memories people have about the locks preserved. No formal project is underway, he said, but individuals who have stories to share can email him at corgys@suddenlink.net.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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