By Jeff Hampton
Elizabeth City, NC (AP) – Mysteries surrounding a long-lost port called River Bridge have historians studying thousands of atifacts going back 300 years found in the narrow, dark waters of the Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City.
No records have turned up, although divers have found boatloads of Colonial-era relics that came from as far away as England and Germany, likely through the Norfolk port.
There’s a pipe with George Washington’s face carved on the bowl, a German broad ax from the early 1700s, dinner plates from the Revolutionary War years and whiskey flasks that were last tipped to the lips while Andrew Jackson was president. Plates have cut marks on them from people slicing their meat.
“Some of these pieces have never been seen anywhere else,’’ said Wanda Lassiter, curator of the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. “Is there a story that’s never been told? There are a lot of questions we do not know the answer to.’’
Nearly 300 of the 10,000 artifacts uncovered are on display at the museum for the next three years. The collection of early American ceramics and glass is one of largest found in the state. The everyday items – including work boots, beer tankards and hand-decorated chamber pots – cover more than 200 years of life in northeastern North Carolina.
The discovery demonstrates trade patterns and commerce in the region from the 1700s to the 1900s. Early maps indicate a cluster of warehouses thrived just south of the locks in South Mills along the Pasquotank River. It was called River Bridge.
The completion of the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1805 connected the Albemarle Sound to the Elizabeth River, further improving commerce there.
Records and recollections from long-time residents indicate the bridge crossed the Pasquotank River until into the 1900s. George Washington made note in his diary of the bridge when he visited here in 1763, according to records at the museum. He said it was deep enough to allow “New England vessels to come up and load.’’
A 3.5-acre lot was owned by Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Pilings from the old bridge remain and River Bridge Road still exists not far away. Old records indicate plans for a town named Joppa to form there.
Early American pipe bowl & stem from River Bridge
Elizabeth City and other towns along the Albemarle Sound shipped goods through the river to the canal and to ports like Norfolk.
Loggers cut cypress and cedar for a brisk trade in shingles and wood for boats and buildings. The divers have found hundreds of pieces of shingles. Pork, beef, rice, indigo, tar, pitch and turpentine were among other products likely shipped from there. Merchants bought the goods from the warehouses at River Bridge and sold them to local residents.
Eventually, a new canal was dug bypassing River Bridge and the railroad made hauling freight by land easier. Commerce at the site faded.
Philip Madre, his son Jason, Eddie Congleton and Jason Forbes began a search in the coffee-colored waters about 20 years ago for the wreck of the Appomattox, a Civil War gunboat. The boat had attempted an escape up the canal from federal ships in 1862. When it could not make it, it was scuttled and burned.
Equipped with diving gear, the men eased into the water unable to see anything. Jason Madre used a screwdriver to poke into holes in the deep sand and silt to make sure a snapping turtle was not preparing to bite his finger off. He used a stick to swish the water before surfacing in case a water moccasin awaited. He kept his eye out for an alligator reported to live in those parts.
Instead of a ship, they found bottles, pottery, plates and shoes – hundreds and hundreds of shoes. The site has yielded every shoe type found in America from about 1750 to 1900. Some are unique. Most show signs of heavy wear and repairs.
“There were shoes everywhere,’’ said Philip Madre, 75 and still diving.
A shoe expert from Williamsburg helped preserve several examples. He did not know why this place was a shoe dumping spot for generations, Lassiter said.
The glass and ceramics emerged from the water as pristine as if they were new, said Jason Madre. The tannic acid and lack of oxygen preserved them.
“It was bizarre,’’ he said.
Seven years ago, the museum began collecting and identifying the artifacts and organizing them into an exhibit. Some pieces had to be glued back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
The group eventually found the remains of the Appomattox and other boats. The state issued the divers a permit to continue their work uncovering artifacts and documenting boats.
The river bottom still holds thousands more artifacts. The project could take another 20 years to finish, Philip Madre said.
“There is still a lot to discover,’’ he said.
Top photo: Some of the artifacts from River Bridge now on display