The Catawba River book cover 001

Recently I wrote about two voyages made down the Yadkin-Pee Dee River by canoe. One was made in 1928, the other in 1982. The story of these journeys is in the book, “Yadkin Passage” (Winston-Salem Journal, 1982), which can be checked out from our county library.

How could I not follow that up with one on the Catawba? Our county lies between the Yadkin-Pee Dee and the Catawba, an area referred to by early explorers as “Mesopotamia,” Greek for “land between the rivers.”

Several books have been written about the mighty Catawba River. One of the first to write about the river and its people was the Spaniard Hernando de Soto. Around 1540, he led his men through the Catawba basin en route to the Mississippi River.

The Englishman John Lawson (1674-1711) hoofed through the Carolina backcountry in 1701, following the Catawba for part of his trip and left a better account of his travels than de Soto. His trek can be read in his “A New Voyage to Carolina,” printed in London in 1709, but you can get a copy of his work published by UNC Press. Lawson traveled upstream on the Santee (Catawba) and then visited native villages near present-day Charlotte. Altogether, he traveled some 600 miles on foot or by canoe. More about Mr. Lawson in a forthcoming column.

A much more recent book is 1983’s “The Catawba River” by Frye Gaillard and Dot Jackson, with photographs by Don Sturkey (Gardner-Webb College Press), which is 53 pages. The three went to see for themselves where the river began :

How far to the river now? we say. “You are in it,” Marvin says. “It is under your feet.” Another few yards and we feel it seep cold into our shoes. And then it emerges near a sprig of purple trillium and a pile of dead leaves, into the dim light, a trickle that is taxed to fill the hand.

Like the Yadkin River, which becomes the Pee Dee at the South Carolina line, the Catawba becomes the Wateree River and later downstream becomes the Santee River when the Wateree joins the Congaree River. Later it changes its name again to the Cooper River. The total river’s length is around 450 miles from one of its sources some 20 miles east of Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another source is in Buncombe County near Evans Knob, close to the Baptist Ridgecrest Camp: a trickle of cold water beginning a long journey to the sea and a union with other tributaries.

The two text authors and the photographer did not travel the length of the river by canoe, but by boat, car, foot and airplane. This book is more about the people living near the river than strictly about the river itself. Among others, Jackson and Gaillard interviewed a member of the Catawba tribe, from whence the river gets its name, a former McDowell County sheriff, several fisherpersons, some mountain folks and lowlanders and some energy executives and engineers, to get views on the river.

Much of the river, by whichever name, has been impounded by dams for erosion control and the generation of electricity. The dams created lakes; the one at Cowan’s Ford created Lake Norman, the 365-billion gallon reservoir bordering Iredell’s southwestern corner, of which you may have heard.

I seem to recall the Catawba being called “the most electrified river in the world” by a spokesperson for Duke Energy (formerly Duke Power), which did much of the electrifying. When the book was published, there were 13 dams on the river; there may be more by now.

According to a retired South Carolinian hydrogeologist friend, originally the Catawba River became the Wateree River, joined the Congaree River, became the Santee River and entered the Atlantic Ocean north of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge just south of Georgetown.

As modified by electrical power companies, the route to the sea is as follows: the Catawba River enters Lake Norman, then Lake Wylie, then Lake Wateree. The Wateree River joins with the Congaree River, enters Lake Marion, then enters Lake Moultrie, is redirected to the Cooper River, where it joins with the Wando River, then joins the Ashley River, and enters the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston, or as the locals say, “joins the Ashley at Charleston to create the Atlantic Ocean.”

Perhaps these columns about the Yadkin-Pee Dee and the Catawba-Wateree might inspire someone to mount their own expedition and trek, as closely as possible, the route the water takes from the mountains to the sea. In doing so, that person would probably learn a thing or two and gain an appreciation of the importance of these two streams that border Iredell County.


The main branch of the Iredell County Public Library has a copy of “The Catawba River” in its reference section, but it may not be checked out. You can, however, examine the book and if you want a copy, you can get your copy from for $60 plus tax and shipping. Less expensive sources may be available.

O.C. Stonestreet is the author of “Tales from Old Iredell County,” “They Called Iredell County Home” and “Once Upon a Time .... in Mooresville, NC.”

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