Dark Crossing. Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge, Pamlico River, NC.
Dark Crossing. Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge, Pamlico River, NC.

“On a hot summer night, while lying in bed, I could hear a train easing across the Pamlico River bridge at the prescribed 10 miles an hour. I could tell how many cars were in each train by counting the clunks of each wheel as it hit the open joints at each end of the draw span…It was ‘a sound too incandescent to last.’”

Bill Sellers was a boy sleeping in his grandparent’s house when he listened to the trains crossing the river downstream of Washington. The freight trains historically crossed the bridge at night, gingerly, the sound of their wheels rattling over the rails echoed across the dark water, through the dark streets of Washington, through the dreams of generations of children living along the riverbanks.

The Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge, a mile long, spans the Pamlico River just downstream of Washington, North Carolina. At Washington, the river changes from the Mid Atlantic Coastal Plain to the Pamlico Lowlands. The bridge forms a rough border, a fluid boundary between the brackish Pamlico River and the fresh Tar River — a single river with two names, a distinction without much of a difference.

A blunt concrete bridge less than a mile upstream is officially designated as the border between the river’s names but I’d argue that the old wooden railroad bridge more properly deserves the title, culturally if not geographically.

The railroad bridge has stood for more than 100 years. The massive timber trestles have been damaged by hurricanes and replaced but the central draw span is the same one in place when trains first crossed the river in 1907.

Future Made Visible

The bridge was a monument to the ascendance of the machine – the railroad, a form of transportation independent of wind or tide – and the triumph of the timetable. It marked not only a change in the salinity of the water but a change in culture, in attitude, in the town’s relationship with the river.

The river has always been the reason for Washington’s existence. Before the colonies became the states, Washington was a river port. The commerce of deep-water ships and coastal schooners, barges and rafts made some men rich and other men a meager living, but it was the river that kept the town alive. Construction of the railroad bridge was evidence that the river was losing importance.

It was the future made visible.

Not everyone embraced that future. The owners of several sawmills upstream argued that the narrow bridge opening would inhibit navigation of the lumber schooners and barges their mills depended upon and the sediment deposited when the current slowed around the bridge pilings would shoal the channel. They took their arguments all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court and lost.

The railroads, and then the highways, robbed the river of importance except as a sewer. As the river became inconsequential, so did the river ports. Washington languished through decades of decline, too poor even to tear down its old brick buildings and start over. That poverty proved a blessing. When the river again became important, not as an avenue for commerce but as something of inherent value, those old brick warehouses and wooden homes were still standing, waiting to be restored. Washington is once again thriving because of the river. And the railroad bridge that once forecast the town’s decline is just a quaint landmark silhouetted by the rising sun.