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Steamboat era saw Pagan Creek rebranded a river

Second in a series

When does a creek become a river? When it needs to be dredged, according to local oral Smithfield history.

From its earliest mention in Colonial times until roughly 1900, the branch of the James River leading to Smithfield was known as the Pagan Creek.

It was a vital waterway during the late Colonial period, but its successful commercial history is more directly tied to the steamboat era. Steamboats were visiting Smithfield at least as early as 1826, according to historian John Emmerson Jr., who wrote several books about their introduction to Virginia.

Regular steamboat routes, however, weren’t established until after the Civil War when the Old Dominion Steamship Co. began constructing a fleet of steamboats, some designed for river traffic and other, larger ones that traveled the length of the Chesapeake. Together, they brought prosperity to the region.

Smithfield quickly came to rely on the steamboat, but the Pagan was a tough creek to navigate, and the problem was exacerbated by the silt washing off surrounding farmland. By 1880 Smithfield businesses were begging the federal government to dredge the channel to protect the vital steamboat service. The Corps of Engineers stepped in and dredged the Pagan’s channel to 8 feet, but shoaling continued and steamboats continued to battle the run up the Pagan.

“Old timers” of my youth said that’s when the town began referring to the Pagan River. They believed the government was more prone to maintain channels in rivers than in creeks.

In 2002, in anticipation of the town’s 250th anniversary, I spent a lot of time going through Army Corps of Engineers files as well as some town records, but never found any proof to that claim. I did find, however, that between the 1880s and early 1900s, the Army Corps stopped referring to Pagan Creek and began officially calling it the Pagan River. In legal circles, that might be called circumstantial evidence.

During that same time, the Pagan’s channel was widened and deepened to 10 feet. I suspect that’s also when the Corps straightened the channel through Bob Shoal, bypassing the “natural” channel to make an easier run up the newly named river.

There would have been good reason to take the kinks out of the channel. During the 19th and very early 20th century, “range markers,” usually set on the shore, were used to navigate inland channels. When a set of marks were perfectly in line, a pilot would know he was in the channel. When that channel turned, another set of markers would come into alignment and the boat would turn toward them. It required good visibility and very precise piloting.

An Army Corps chart dated 1903 shows five ranges on the Pagan below Smithfield, most of them to guide vessels through Bob Shoal curve. That’s a lot of turning.

I would guess — and I’ve found no letter to prove it — that the straight channel used during most of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st was dredged to accommodate the steamboats. What’s been described as the “new” Pagan channel that is now used was most likely the original, natural channel that was abandoned back then.

The gasoline engine brought an end to the steamboat era. Cars and trucks soon became ubiquitous across the country, including the Chesapeake region, and paved roads weren’t too far behind.

The death knell for steamboats on the Pagan was construction of the James River Bridge in 1928. A state-sanctioned private corporation constructed the bridge, along with bridges across Chuckatuck Creek and the Nansemond River, and built roads connecting them, including a portion of Hwy. 10 (now Benn’s Church Boulevard).

Local investors formed a company that briefly sought to keep the steamboat era alive, but there was no way that river traffic could compete with trucks.

After the last steam whistle blew on the Pagan, the river languished. It was occasionally dredged to allow some modest commercial traffic, but eventually, that died as well.

Recreational boating, spurred largely by construction of the marina at Smithfield Station, led to new calls for dredging.

The Army Corps renewed its dredging program on the Pagan in 1994, but Bob Shoal continued to silt regularly. Then, in 2019, the Corps discovered the natural channel a few hundred feet north of the one it had been trying to maintain. The Pagan was remarked, and today, the course that boaters follow is quite probably the one followed throughout much of the Pagan’s history, up until steamboat traffic demanded a change.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.