Our series of articles about getting outside in the Charlotte area to be active on the Carolina Thread Trail network and Catawba River is presented in partnership with local orthopedic-care provider OrthoCarolina.
When asked what fascinates him most about the Catawba River, Rusty Rozzelle has a lot to say, but his answer begins with one word: bridges.
Rozzelle doesn’t just serve as the water quality manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services. He’s also a descendant of the family that ran Rozzelle’s Ferry across the Catawba River in northwest Mecklenburg County off and on from 1790 to 1923 — the namesake of Rozzelle’s Ferry Road, which currently runs from Five Points in the Historic West End to Fred Alexander Boulevard in northwest Charlotte.
“We all know technology has really advanced, but a lot of us, I don’t think, really understand how much,” Rozzelle told Queen City Nerve when we visited him in November 2021 to chat for a podcast about the history of the Catawba River.
He explained that steel and iron weren’t in regular use yet in the South until about 150 years ago, meaning any bridge that was built would need to be made with wood.
“Who’s going to invest that much money in a wooden structure over a river that floods and [the bridge] could rot and fall in and all that other stuff; they’re just not going to do it,” Rozzelle explained. “So up really until the middle part of the 1800s, there weren’t that many bridges across the Catawba, which is kind of hard to imagine. So how did you cross that river? Either you had to use a ford or a ferry.”
Charlotte wasn’t built on the Catawba River, in large part due to the prevalence of rocky shoals that made it impassable for the larger boats that would be needed to carry out effective trade and transportation. Those same geographic features also made it possible for so many fords — shallow places where a river or stream may be crossed — to develop along the Catawba River on Mecklenburg County’s western border.
A 1911 map of Mecklenburg County shows at least 15 locations of fords and ferries on the Catawba River, the latter of which usually featured a ride on a flat boat that was able to cross shallow waters.
If you’ve been in Charlotte for any period of time, you probably recognize the names of a few of those Catawba River fords and ferries, the legacies of which have lived on in street names.
While some of these namesake streets have gone on to be home to rich histories themselves, we wanted to take a look at the stories behind a few actual Catawba River fords and a ferry you might recognize: Nations Ford, Tuckaseegee Ford, Beatty’s Ford, Cowan’s Ford and Rozzelle’s Ferry.
The Catawba River is currently named after the tribe that first settled its banks: the Catawba Indian Nation. The Catawba, meaning “people in the fork of the river,” have lived in the valley for more than 10,000 years, and the tribe was already an advanced civilization when early explorers came to their land.
Located near Fort Mill, South Carolina, Nations Ford was one of a series of natural fords on the Catawba River that provided safe crossing points for the Catawba Indian Nation, especially for trade and communication with northern tribes. The path later became an important trading route for manufactured goods such as guns, powder, kettles and fabrics.
The area around Nations Ford was the site of The Battle of Liberty Hill, fought between the Cherokees and Catawbas. Each side lost around 1,000 warriors in the battle, which resulted in an understanding that all land between the Catawba and Broad rivers would be a hunting ground for both tribes — a “No-Man’s Land” where warfare was forbidden.
Nations Ford became an important crossing point for both armies during the American Revolution. Later, in 1840, it was near Herron’s Ferry on the original Nation Ford Road – near the current site of The Pumphouse in Rock Hill – that the Nation Ford Treaty was signed by state appointed commissioners and the leaders of the Catawba tribe, which had by then been decimated to a population of less than 100 thanks largely to smallpox brought by English colonists.
In 1852, the Charlotte and Augusta (C&A) Railroad built a trestle over the ford, and the first locomotive passed over the 1,127-foot-long and 50-foot-high trestle. The railroad depots created the towns of Rock Hill and Fort Mill.
The trestle was burned by Union troops near the end of the Civil War. On April 27, 1865, President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were escorted across the ford by a military detail. It was said that at this site Davis reviewed his troops and dismissed them one last time. He was captured the next month in Georgia.
The Tuckaseegee Ford, located on the western border of Mecklenburg County near what is now the U.S. National Whitewater Center, is known as the first documented crossing of the Catawba River. The ford was named for the Cherokee trail that led to it; we’ve seen Tuckaseegee translated as “muddy turtle,” “place of the turtle,” and “crawling terrapin,” so safe to say it involves a turtle.
Further east, the Tuckaseegee Trail met with the Great Trading Path, which came north from Nations Ford, to form an intersection that would one day become the crossroads of the city of Charlotte – now Trade and Tryon streets.
Maps made as early as 1704 identified the Tuckaseegee Ford as the only ford crossing the Catawba into what would become Mecklenburg County, making it the first documented ford in the county.
In 1765, the small town of Charlotte was named the county seat of Mecklenburg County, and the newly erected courthouse drew many people from the western part of the county, along with others who traveled along the Tuckaseegee Trail to take care of public business and trade in Charlotte.
Other areas along the trail continued to attract settlement on the western side of the Tuckaseegee Ford. In the small peninsula of land between the Catawba and the South Fork rivers, a community known as the Point settlement flourished.
The Tuckaseegee Trail was a well-known local landmark by the time of the American Revolution. General Griffith Rutherford and his troops crossed the ford on their way to one of the major battles fought in the area, the Battle of Ramseur’s Mill in Lincoln County.
In the early 1860s, the area on the Mecklenburg side of Tuckaseegee Ford became home to The North Carolina Powder Manufacturing Company, a quickly built mill that manufactured gunpowder for the Confederate army.
The completion of NCPMC led to the construction of a dam on the Catawba as well as plank roads, tram roads and more to help connect the mill to Wilmington, yet it was plagued with deadly mishaps.
On May 23, 1863, while “knocking caked powder off the mill stones with a copper hammer in the customary manner,” one of the mill’s workmen caused an enormous explosion. A reported 700 pounds of gunpowder exploded. The blast, which killed the mill’s superintendent and four of its workmen, completely destroyed the mill and created a shockwave felt 11 miles away in downtown Charlotte.
The mill was promptly rebuilt and began producing powder again in early 1864, and in August of that year, another powder explosion occurred. Two workmen were killed and the mill itself was badly damaged.
What was left of the mill building was abandoned and remained perched on the edge of the Tuckaseegee Trail near the Tuckaseegee Ford until 1916, when the banks of the Catawba River flooded and washed away all but the foundation of the North Carolina Powder Manufacturing Company.
Although traffic along the Tuckaseegee Trail and across the Tuckaseegee Ford declined dramatically in the postbellum period, the ford remained in use until 1904, when the Catawba was dammed to create Lake Wylie, raising the waters around Tuckaseegee Ford by at least 20 feet and covering a large part of Sadler’s Island, an integral part of the Tuckaseegee Ford.
According to Rusty Rozzelle, his ancestors began operating the Rozzelle’s Ferry in 1790 at the present-day site where Highway 16 crosses over the Catawba River at Mountain Island Lake.
It operated there until the 1840s, when representatives of the Charlotte-based Western Plank Road Company approached Rusty’s 3x-great-grandfather with a proposition: If he shut down his ferry, they would build a bridge, which he would have free use of at all times.
“He farmed both banks of the river, so he was constantly hauling stuff back and forth in his ferry,” Rusty said, “and he thought that was a good deal for him. So he shut down his ferry, and they built the bridge.”
The Western Plank Road Company built one of the first bridges to ever run across the Catawba River, and it operated there for two decades until the Civil War.
As part of U.S. Army General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1865, he sent George Stoneman’s U.S. Calvary north from Georgia to disrupt transportation routes and “dismantle the country.”
The cavalry never entered Mecklenburg County, but burned the Rozzelle’s Ferry bridge during its raid of nearby Lincolnton before heading west with hundreds of formerly enslaved people in tow.
Rusty’s grandfather reopened the ferry after the bridge was burned, and it continued to operate for 45 years until a new bridge was built in 1910.
A clipping from Charlotte’s Evening Dispatch dated April, 9, 1909, announced that the county had approved construction of a 600-foot steel bridge at the site for a cost between $14,000-$18,000.
“This is one of the most important announcements that has been made in a good many months affecting the mutual welfare of both the county and the city,” the clip reads. “To the businessmen of Charlotte and to the business life of the city, already a string of wagons from the far corners of Lincoln County and from Gaston and Catawba counties, and even more remote sections from Charlotte, can be seen bringing produce to Charlotte and expending large sums of money here, while to the farmer, and the man who lives across the river, the prospect of a substantial crossing in the form of a steel bridge, looms up as a sight which the people of the section have long dreamed of, waited for and worked for.”
Built largely by incarcerated people, the bridge opened in February 1910, only to be washed away by the famous flood of 1916, when two hurricanes converged on western North Carolina and flooded many of North Carolina’s biggest rivers – most dramatically in the Catawba, which caught the runoff from the mountains.
The flood affected crossings up and down the Mecklenburg border, including the demolition of a railroad trestle bridge built at the former site of Nations Ford. The collapse of another railroad bridge near Rozzelle’s Ferry killed about a dozen railroad workers who some sources say had tried to help the bridge stay put by parking a freight train on it during the storm, though other sources say they were racing to get a load of peaches across the bridge when the bridge crumbled.
The Rozzelle’s Ferry bridge was rebuilt in 1923, around the time Mountain Island Lake was formed by the construction of a dam and hydroelectric station, and some form of bridge has stood there ever since.
Beatty’s Ford/Cowan’s Ford
Believed to be one of the first white settlers to create a passage west across the Catawba from what would become Mecklenburg County into Lincoln County, John Beatty created Beatty’s Ford in 1749 at a site that has since been submerged by the creation of Lake Norman.
Many Charlotteans are familiar with the wealth of history that’s been cultivated along its namesake street, Beatties Ford Road, nicknamed “The River of Life” by Black residents along the corridor.
There’s not much source material describing historic happenings at the original crossing itself, though it did play a role in one major historic event at a ford that once existed less than a mile away: the site of a small skirmish with huge implications for the Revolutionary War.
Like Beatty’s Ford, the original site of Cowan’s Ford, also known as McCowan’s Ford, is located in Huntersville, though currently under Lake Norman.
The ford was the site of the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, known to be the last military invasion onto Mecklenburg County soil. Though resulting in a loss for the outmatched Continental Army, the skirmish was an early example of the guerrilla tactics implemented by Gen. Nathanael Greene, who is quoted as summarizing his strategy with the statement, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” His tactics helped lead to the surrender of the British Army in Yorktown some months later.
Determined to avenge a recent loss in the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina and reacquire the hundreds of British soldiers who had been taken prisoner there, British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ forces approached the Catawba River in late January 1781, finding Beatty’s Ford impassable due to a raging current.
On Jan. 31, knowing that American militiamen were near, he sent a detachment of soldiers to Beatty’s Ford to “make every possible demonstration by cannonading and otherwise, of an intention to force a passage there.”
Then at 1 a.m. on Feb. 1, Cornwallis and his force of about 5,000 soldiers began marching instead to Cowan’s Ford, where they planned to make their actual crossing.
Meanwhile, it is believed that Greene had visited Gens. Daniel Morgan and William Lee Davidson at Beatty’s Ford to plan a strategy for their own force, which numbered closer to 1,000. Before embarking for Salisbury with Morgan, Greene left Davidson to lead the defense of all fords in the area – or at the very least slow Cornwallis down.
Cornwallis and his forces reached Cowan’s Ford around daybreak on Feb. 1 with the help of a local Tory guide named Frederick Hager. The noise of the crossing awoke the sleeping pickets on the eastern side of the river, and soon militiamen were picking off Cornwallis’ men as they crossed the swollen stream.
Gen. Davidson, for whom the northern Mecklenburg town is named, was shot and knocked from his horse early in the battle. Cornwallis’ forces were eventually able to force their way through the crossing and move on toward Virginia.
Though robbed of clothes and any other belongings by British soldiers, Gen. Davidson’s body was found later on the evening of the battle. He was dressed in a suit belonging to local Revolutionary-era legend Capt. James Jack, and buried that night by candlelight at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, with widow Mary Brevard Davidson standing graveside
Today his grave remains at the church, located in Huntersville on Beatties Ford Road.