In the Piedmont region of North Carolina sits Richmond County, the seat of which is the City of Rockingham. Hitchcock Creek runs through the center of town in an intimate setting, finally merging with the Pee Dee River on the county’s western border. When the industrial age sprang up across the South, rivers and creeks were dammed up to service and support textile mills, which at the time were the lifeblood of the community workforce. Now, with a divergent economy moving away from a previous textile past, a few communities are discovering that the natural beauty of these once free-flowing waterways can be resurrected with proper foresight and approach.
The City of Rockingham has heeded this call, creating plans to develop a 10-mile long “Blue Trail” Paddleway on Hitchcock Creek. It hasn’t happened overnight and the project still has many rapids to negotiate before the vision becomes reality. What city leaders envision is an eco-tourism destination which places a premium on conservation and beautification efforts, while allowing citizens from all over the region to enjoy paddling the newly-developed creek. Once the creek has been negotiated, visitors continue on to the “Diggs Tract”, a 1,600-acre land parcel. Here, paddling enthusiasts would have the opportunity to access a boat landing and 10 acres set aside for primitive camping. If the plan is successful, Hitchcock Creek may serve as a model for other communities looking to turn previous industrial creek usage to recreation and conservation.
In July of 2009, a major milestone was achieved during the two-day removal of the 110-year old Steele’s Mill Dam. In doing so, a major section of Hitchcock Creek became a free-flowing waterway again, opening the possibility of improved safety and the restoration of fish and wildlife species.
Throughout the process, the City of Rockingham has been working with American Rivers, a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to preserving healthy waterways for communities to use and enjoy. Southeast Regional Director, Matt Rice, has been an outspoken advocate of the process. “The great thing about Hitchcock Creek is that it’s an untapped resource,” he stated. “In essence, they want to create a park that is focused around it. I’ve paddled the creek and it’s wonderful. It’s intact, and everything you want in an urban river. There is potential for this to become a paddling destination for people throughout North Carolina and even the southeastern United States,” he added.
The last obstacles for an eventual “ribbon-cutting” ceremony are literal ones—Hitchcock Creek must still undergo a thorough removal of obstacles for a safe paddling experience. Fallen trees and storm debris currently impede sections of the creek. However, with a recent assessment from the NC Department of Water Resources, a grant has been pledged and added to the total endowment for the project. Estimates for opening Hitchcock Creek to the general public vary, but it is expected that within the next year, the City of Rockingham will have a beautiful outdoor opportunity to offer—and hopefully a model to share with other communities looking to beautify their immediate areas for future generations to come.