The Yadkin-PeeDee River: Blowing Rock to Winyah Bay

W. Kerr Scott Lake, High Rock Lake, Tuckertown Reservoir, Badin Lake, Falls Reservoir, Lake Tillery, and Blewett Falls Lake.

Last issue, we spent some time on the Catawba River chain, and its eleven lakes. All those lakes are man-made impoundments, created as a result of dams constructed along the river. These dams primarily generate hydroelectric power, provide flood control, and create reservoirs that provide drinking-water for the communities along the river. So, the Catawba is very much a working river, but also provides ample opportunities for recreational use.


The same is true for the Yadkin River, which runs roughly parallel to the Catawba, but has its origin in Watauga County near the town of Blowing Rock and the Thunder Hill Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Yadkin is one of the longest rivers in North Carolina, running 215 miles, but with only five impoundments including the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, High Rock Lake, Tuckertown Reservoir, Badin Lake, and Falls Reservoir. At its confluence with the Uwharrie River, the Yadkin becomes the Pee Dee, and adds two more impoundments – Lake Tillery and Blewett Falls. With fewer lakes than the Catawba – we’re talking quality, not quantity – there is more free-running river along all those river-miles.


The river also flows through Pilot Mountain and Morrow Mountain state parks, as well as the Uwharrie National Forest.

But I need to go a little James Michener on you and talk about the past, that past prior to the arrival of European settlers and the making those Moravian sugar cookies along the river’s bank near what is now Winston-Salem. But more on that later.


Prior to miscellaneous Europeans tromping around the place, the Yadkin River basin was home to the Saura and Tutelo tribes of Native Americans. These were Siouan-speaking people and, it’s believed, the word “Yadkin” is derived from the Siouan Indian word Yattken or Yattkin, which may mean “big tree” or “place of big trees.” The Catawba Indians (Remember them from last issue?) were also Siouan-speaking.


There’s not a great deal known about the Saura or the Tutelo, but they seem to have joined other, larger tribes over time. The Saura, it’s believed, left the Yadkin basin as a result of the Spanish intrusion in the mid-1500’s under Hernando De Soto, moving to the Dan River Valley on the Virginia line. Later, there are indications of some Saura in what is now Anson County on the NC-SC border and identifying as “Cheraw” people. They completely disappear from history, probably as a result of the same smallpox epidemics that also struck the Catawba people, during the late eighteenth century. Their name is perpetuated in the Sauratown Mountains in Stokes County and in the town of Cheraw SC.


Even less is known of the Tutelo, a relatively small tribe that seems to have left the Yadkin Valley completely by 1740, later being adopted into the Cayuga tribe of New York. There is no doubt, though, that the fertile river valley was home to many people.


While the Spanish, moving up from Florida, did some exploring in the Yadkin region in the sixteenth-century, other Europeans didn’t begin arriving in large numbers until the early 1700’s. Colonial settlers consisted primarily of Scots-Irish, German, and English peoples migrating from Virginia and Pennsylvania using the Great Wagon Road and the Carolina Road. Notably, these included Moravian colonists from Bethlehem, PA who occupied the 100,000-acre Wachovia tract following its purchase in 1753.


The Wachovia tract was purchased by the Moravian church in Europe in what was referred to as the “backcountry” of North Carolina from John Carteret, 2nd Earl of Granville, who had inherited one-eighth of the Province of Carolina from his great-grandfather, Sir George Carteret. The land grant from the King of England to the Carteret family remained in the family until the American Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Moravians got busy and named the tract they’d bought from Carteret “die Wachau” after the area along the Danube River in Austria where the ancestors of Count von Zinzendorf, the Moravians’ patron, had lived. “Die Wachau” was Latinized as “Wachovia.” The settlers built six villages on the tract with the town of Bethania, NC and the city of Winston-Salem remaining today. In more recent times, Wachovia Bank, which originated in Winston-Salem and originally run with Moravian prudence, was later purchased by First Union Bank of Charlotte, and is now a part of Wells Fargo.

And that brings me back to the sugar cookies. The large Moravian community in Winston-Salem (There’s another one in Bethlehem, PA.) makes spice cookies or sugar cookies as a part of their Christmas tradition. The buttery treats have proven to be so popular that they’re available year ‘round.


Besides cookies and other tasty treats made famous by the Moravians, there’s more flavor history in the Yadkin Valley than you may know. By the mid-19th century, there were 25 wineries in North Carolina, with extensive independent vineyards largely in the Yadkin Valley, to the extent that the Old North State dominated the national market for American wines at the time. The Scuppernong grape, a native American grape variety, was the primary source for this wine production, as it had been for about two hundred years. The Civil War ended the market dominance and winemaking licenses were revoked as regulatory retribution following the war.


Wine production began to recover later but was stopped anew as a commercial activity when North Carolina became a “dry” state in 1908, followed by Prohibition, which began in 1920. Prohibition ended in 1933 and the state legislature passed laws permitting winemaking in 1935. Today the state ranks tenth in both grape and wine production with more than 100 wineries and over 400 vineyards. And the lowly Scuppernong, along with its cousin, the Muscadine, now shares vineyard space with grape species native to the Mediterranean region, French hybrids, as well as other species native to eastern North America. All benefitting from the richness of the Yadkin Valley and the water flowing down that 215-mile run of the Yadkin River.


I could go on and on. And don’t get me started on the barbeque, Lexington being right in the middle of all that Yadkinenity. If you’re not from around here, you may not have heard – How is that possible? – of the shouting matches that can occur over the nuances of Lexington- versus Eastern-style barbeque. Suffice to say there’s a tomato or two involved. Ketchup versus vinegar. The rivalry could approach the Duke’s versus Hellman’s conflagration, but that might stretch things a bit.


For the uninformed, Lexington-style uses a red sauce that includes vinegar, a little ketchup, usually some red pepper flakes, and other spices that vary from one recipe to the next. Being civilized, this style also uses only the pork shoulder. Sauce recipes can vary widely and can range from sweet to hot and spicy.


Eastern-style is a whole-hog barbeque accompanied by an equally Eastern-style vinegar- and pepper-based sauce, with no tomato product. At all. Imagine. Likewise, the Lexington-style coleslaw is made with the same red sauce, while Eastern-style coleslaw is made with mayonnaise or a reasonable facsimile thereof. And how can you possibly eat barbeque without slaw? Hushpuppies generally accompany Lexington-style ‘que, while Easterners don’t know much about fried cornmeal.

by Mike Aldridge

But I digress. We were talking about the river. You know, that 215-mile stretch that starts near Blowing Rock. After the river tumbles down the Blue Ridge Mountains below Blowing Rock streaming almost due south until it runs headlong into the Brushy Mountains. There it's forced to make a dogleg turn just above Lenoir and runs northeast between the Brushy Mountains and the Blue Ridge towards Pilot Mountain – Mount Pilot, to you Andy Griffith aficionados.

Badin Lake, probably the deepest of all area lakes, is bounded on its eastern side by the Uwharrie National Forest. The forest name is derived from the Uwharrie Mountains where the 50,000-acre forest is situated. The mountain chain, or course, borrows its name from the Uwharrie people, the native Americans who once lived in the region.

The High Rock Dam was completed in 1927, spanning the Yadkin River and separating High Rock Lake from Tuckertown Resevoir.

Before it goes too far that way, however, the Yadkin runs smack into the Scott Dam, which was completed in 1962 to form the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir. The lake is about midway on the river’s northeasterly track before passing by Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro. State Road 268 roughly parallels the river’s path until the Mitchell River joins the Yadkin near Burch Station in Surry County, continuing sort of northeast towards Pilot Mountain.

After passing under the US 601 bridge, it’s joined by the Fisher River, and runs by Rockford and Siloam. The Ararat River joins the Yadkin just above the lower portion of Pilot Mountain State Park. (You’ll need to look at a map. The boundaries of that park look for all the world like a gerrymandered electoral map drawn by the North Carolina state legislature.)


This is where the Yadkin decidedly turns back to the southeast, running past King and below Winston-Salem and Clemmons. It passes under I-40 and bends around a local park called Tanglewood before coming upon the first hydroelectric dam built on the Yadkin, Idol’s Dam, built in 1898 primarily to supply power to textile mills around Clemmons. The power station continued in operation for 100-years until a fire destroyed most of the operation in 1998. The dam created a small reservoir, but the dam location on the Yadkin at Carter’s Creek is now a relic of the past and an obstacle for paddlers on the river.


From Idol’s Dam, the Yadkin meanders east of Advance before merging with the South Yadkin River then passes under I-85 between Salisbury and Linwood, slowing into High Rock Lake and beginning its run along the western slope of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains.


High Rock. We’ll get into individual lakes in a future issue, but what a paradise! The name is taken from the highest peak of the nearby Uwharrie Mountains, High Rock Mountain. High Rock Dam was completed in 1927, flooding the lake to create 360 miles of shoreline. It’s one of the best fishing lakes – just ask Maynard Edwards – in North Carolina, with channel, blue, and flathead catfish, plus sunfish such as bluegill and shellcracker. It’s home to striper and their hybrids as well as white and largemouth bass. Can you say, “fishing tournament”?

Passing through the High Rock Dam, the Yadkin flows into Tuckertown Reservoir, the chief water source for towns including Albemarle. Tuckertown Dam was completed in 1962, forming the lake and providing hydroelectric power to the area. Its shoreline is relatively undeveloped, making it both scenic and a haven for boaters and fishermen.


Following the same theme and path, the Yadkin is again stalled as it leaves Tuckertown and flows immediately into Badin Lake. The history of efforts to dam the Yadkin begin here in the 1890’s, but it wasn’t until 1917 that the dam was completed at Narrows, forming Narrows Reservoir, now known as Badin Lake.

The Narrows Dam was primarily intended to provide hydroelectric power for an aluminum smelting operation in the town of Badin. There’s a story there, which has been told and told again, but we’ll rehash that in a future issue, too.

Leaving Narrows Dam and Badin Lake, the Yadkin is once again slowed as it runs immediately into Falls Reservoir, a tiny lake about two miles in length, created by the construction of Falls Dam in 1919 to produce even more hydroelectric power, supplementing the power produced at Narrows.


Below the Falls Dam, the Uwharrie River joins the Yadkin and the name of the river become the Great Pee Dee, named for … wait for it … the Pee Dee people. Also variously spelled Pedee and Peedee, they were native Americans living in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas as early as the year 1000. Today, there are still some of the Pee Dee Indian Tribe living on their ancestral land, although they number only a few hundred enrolled members.


Oh … and just to clear up some confusion you must be experiencing, please note that Falls Reservoir, part of the Yadkin-PeeDee chain, is different from Falls Lake. Falls Lake is up the hill in the Raleigh-Durham area, and is an impoundment on the Neuse River.


But what’s in a name? The Yadkin, now Pee Dee, runs immediately into what we now know as Lake Tillery, a lake created with the construction of Tillery Dam in 1928. The dam was constructed to supplement the power generation of the Blewett Falls Dam 20 miles downstream.

Lake Tillery has 118-miles of shoreline and reaches depths of 200-feet, depending on the fluctuating lake-levels. The Uwharrie National Forest bounds much of its upper eastern shoreline, while Morrow Mountain State Park adjoins Tillery’s upper western shoreline.


Work on the Blewett Falls Dam began in 1905 below what is now Tillery and was completed in 1911. It began generating power in 1912. The lake created with its completion lies in Anson and Richmond counties, just above the North Carolina-South Carolina border, and has about 38-miles of shoreline.


Leaving Blewett Falls, the Pee Dee continues into South Carolina where it is free flowing all the way to its confluence with the Black and Waccamaw rivers at Winyah Bay and Georgetown SC. The river is still navigable upstream to Cheraw (Remember Cheraw?), with the earliest European visitors, the Spanish again, exploring the waterway in 1521.


And speaking of being navigable, the Yadkin is paddler-friendly, with portages around all its dams, possibly excepting Idol’s Dam near Clemmons, although a serious paddler can improvise. Beginning in the tailrace of the Kerr Scott Dam, it would be possible to paddle most of the 215-mile run of the Yadkin, and into the Great Pee Dee for another 232 miles. Negotiating the fall line near Cheraw would require some planning, but after that, it’s on to Winyah Bay and the Atlantic. Sounds like a challenge to me!


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