From the 1938 Centennial Edition of the Times-Register
In the first quarter of the past century the matter of river transportation on the Roanoke was a task that engaged the attention of Salemites, and the river from Weldon, N.C. to this point was actually made navigable to the extent that one batteau boat came up the river. However, the scheme was impractical and there is no record of more than one trip being made.
In those days river travel was the sole means of long distance transportation and the early residents of this town had dreams of connecting Salem to the Atlantic ocean by means of the Roanoke river. Had the scheme been successful there is little doubt but that Salem as the head of navigation would have become a place of commercial importance.
In 1815 the Roanoke Navigation company was chartered by the Virginia Legislature. Work was started on the building of sluices and canals so that boats could navigate. In some manner a by-pass was made around Roanoke Rapids so that a flat boat could be propelled around the rapids.
A brick warehouse that was to be used for a wholesale distributing plant was erected by William Ross and William Boyer on the corner of Union and Main streets where a filling station is now located. This building was the headquarters of the Roanoke Navigation company.
This building was purchased from the original owners by Dr. J. H. Griffin in 1831, who came from Bedford bringing with him his bride, Sara Jane McClanahan of Big Lick. The property was last occupied by Dr. Griffin’s grandson, W.B. Bowles, Jr., and wife, and was torn down in 1930.
It was a gala day in Salem when the first boat was poled into this town. That batteau boat had been propelled for a distance of 244 miles but the scheme proved entirely unworkable and no record is available of any other trips being made up the river.
On April 4, 1838 an act was passed by the Virginia legislature to permit the Roanoke Navigation company to increase its capital stock but not to exceed $650,000. This act provided that if the capital stock was increased the company was authorized and required to improve the Roanoke river between the confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers, the Dan river to the town of Danville and the Staunton river to the town of Brookneal. It was specified that locks and canals be built to make navigation possible for boats not drawing more than two feet of water. As to where such improvements were to start the company could use their own discretion. It was further specified that none of the new funds to be raised could be spent in North Carolina but that only in Virginia should such improvements take place but it was stated that the legislature reserved the right to compel the company to improve the river all the way to Weldon, N.C.
Six Per Cent Dividend
This act further provided that holders of the old stock be paid five per cent dividends on their stock if the company made a profit before the new stockholders were paid any dividend. A maximum of six per cent was all that the law permitted in dividends.
In case it was necessary to acquire land through which a canal was to be built or for any other purposes the law gave the company the right to issue an ad quod damnum proceeding or condemnation. In acquiring any land the serif was to summon twelve freeholders who would assess the value of the land but their actions would be subject to review and confirmation by the court. It was also stated that anyone damaged by the backing up of waters caused by dams or by other reasons had recourse to the courts for settlement of claims.
While the act of 1838 showed that legislature had faith in the ability of the promoters to make this river navigable an act passed on Feb. 5, 1852 showed greater optimism and this date probably marks the time when the greatest hopes were held for successful navigation of the river. While railroads were beginning to extend their rails westward at that time there evidently was not much faith in the new means of transportation. On February 5, 1852 an act was passed amending the charter of the Roanoke Navigation company authorizing it to not only improve the Roanoke, Dan and Staunton rivers but their tributaries. However, it was provided that in no case should the navigation company charge a greater toll than the Richmond & Danville railway.
Short Hauls Made
While there is no evidence to show that more than one boat ever made the complete trip from Weldon to Salem it appears that short hauls on the river were practical at that time and the company may have taken in considerable revenue from charges made on short trips. That a portion of the Roanoke river was used for transporting merchandise long after the railroads had built lines in Salem is evident.
However, by 1877 the Roanoke Navigation company had found the sight. On April 4 of that year the going tough and the end was in state legislature passed the following resolution: “Resolved that the directors of the Roanoke Navigation company be requested to inform the general assembly at the next session thereof on the condition of the works of said company; the amount annually expended in the improvement of said works since construction was completed; what portion of their said works since their construction was completed; what portion of their said works and line of navigation has been abandoned by said works and what lines of navigation has been abandoned by said company. What tolls are being charged on such part of said works as has not been abandoned and what improvements are intended by said company.”
End Of The Company
The tone of this resolution shows plainly that the Roanoke Navigation company was about ready for a fade-out and that the high hopes of the river navigators were on the rocks. It was inevitable that the scheme should have failed and some time before the turn of the century what little was left of river traffic passed on as had the buffalo, the Indian fort and slavery.
However, the Roanoke Navigation company was not the only company of its kind that had been a tragic failure for there were a number of other companies chartered by this state for the same purpose and they likewise folded up when the railroads came. As early as January 21, 1827 the legislature passed a resolution authorizing the board of public works to require the public engineer, without interference with previous engagements, to examine and survey the territory between the headwaters of the Roanoke and New rivers so as to ascertain the practicality of a water communication between them. This resolution seems to show that the legislature had faith in the ability of the river men to run boats to the headwaters of the Roanoke.
They had great faith in such navigation plans in the early days but their inability to foresee future trends was excusable. Who knows but that one hundred years from today the people will look back on us and wonder why so much money was spent on roads at a time when the airplane was giving evidence that it was the fastest means of transportation?