Sunday, June 23, 2019

History in our backyard

An hour or so after attending the ribbon cutting on Friday for the newly-established Yadkin River Park, my friend Jay and myself were strolling along the newly-laid gravel trail at York Hill. Jay and I are Civil War buffs and, as a consequence, casual amateur historians.

The newly-graveled trail at Fort York.
 Along the trail, we eventually caught up with Chris Watford, a real historian with a couple of published works about local Civil War history and who has probably forgotten more stuff about Davidson County's contribution to the war than most of us will ever learn (and I mean that as a compliment to Chris).

In the overall realm of things, North Carolina's geographic Civil War history is relatively sparse. There's New Bern, and Kinston. There's Wilmington, Fort Fisher and Bentonville, of course. And late in the war, Stoneman's raiders came down through Blowing Rock on the way to Salisbury, too late to liberate the already freed Union prisoners there.

But not too late for some elements of the raiders to stub their toe on a minor clash at Fort Yadkin (as Fort York was sometimes called), resulting in a Confederate victory about the same time Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox.

Part of the stairway and deck at Wil-Cox Bridge, overlooking the Yadkin.
 I thought about this for a moment and then asked Chris if there are any other significant Civil War sites between Bentonville and York Hill.

Not really. Maybe a few encampments here and there, but nothing resulting in anything like significant artillery and rifle fire. North Carolina was more of a transportation, recruitment and supply depot than a battleground. If you want battlefields, go to Virginia or Tennessee or Mississippi.

Whoa. In a way, you could argue that the Civil War ends right here at York Hill, less than 10 minutes from our driveways.

But the history percolating there doesn't just include the Civil War. The ribbon cutting officially opens Yadkin River Park, which right now is centered around the Wil-Cox Bridge, an historic seven-arch span that dates back to 1924 – almost 100 years ago – and mirrors the Great Trading Path. George Washington's tour of the south in 1791 came through here. So did Nathaniel Greene while being chased by Lord Cornwallis on the way to Guilford Courthouse. You want history? Spanish explorer Juan Pardo may have taken a break here in the 16th century, possibly looking for barbecue. And Guatari Indians preceded Pardo.

The historic and picturesque Wil-Cox Bridge.
All in all, there's about 12,000 years of history floating through the Yadkin at this spot. I expect to see high school and college-level field trips coming here (well, at least they would in a perfect world) to supplement their studies.

The opening of the park (which is just the first phase of development for the area) is the culmination of a 15-year project to preserve and interpret the area. More is planned for the years ahead. The site of the old York Hill Restaurant may eventually become an outfitter for the river as well as a welcome center and museum for the startling well-preserved lunettes and entrenchments on the heights above.

It's all pretty exciting stuff even though it might take another 10 years to realize (that would make me 78 years old. It's a good thing the new gravel trails at York Hill are already wheelchair accessible. On the other hand, hurry up with those restrooms).

The progress being made here is well documented by other media, and there's a ton of people to thank, but I personally want to thank a couple of friends of mine who are working diligently in the background to make all of this possible. I like to socialize and joke around with Chris Watford, Guy Cornman and Lee Crook when we're at Civil War round tables and field trips together, but I am in complete and total awe of what they've accomplished in this current effort. And Chris Phelps, as director of the Tourism Recreation Investment Partnership, has been instrumental in generating funding and grants. All of them are members of the Yadkin River Park Planning Committee.

Salute, my friends. You guys are amazing.

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