Bridge-fish controversy not anything new

Published 3:12 am Thursday, February 12, 2009

By Staff
Debate traces roots to early 19th century
Staff Writer
Concerned residents asking state officials to keep a bridge being built at Washington from blocking the upstream progress of spawning fish. Sound familiar? Well, it did in 1812, too.
Authorities differ on when the first bridge across the Pamlico-Tar River was built at Washington, but by the turn of the 19th century it was certainly in place, and when it came time to improve the bridge, fish-fueled controversy surfaced.
In 1812, a proposal was drawn up for a new bridge, and shares in the venture (early bridges in Washington were privately owned, toll bridges) sold for $25 each.
The plan was to charge 5 cents for a person to walk across the bridge, and 50 cents for four-wheeled carts.
But some folks weren’t happy. Their worry, as expressed in a petition they sent that year to the state Legislature: The bridge would rob them of their fish “by scaring and driving back the Fish which annually ascend the River to deposit their Spawn and are caught at various places on the River and distributed so as to become a general blessing.”
The petition, signed by 107 men from Pitt County, warned that traffic on the bridge, or people deliberately trying to scare the fish, would keep the fish from ascending the Tar River.
At the time, rivers were one of the most important means of transit in the region. Roads only became important for commerce as the century progressed.
Gradually, the bridge increased in importance. It was partially destroyed by fire when the Union Army left the town 1864. It became a free bridge when the county bought it in 1879. Over the years, it has been rebuilt many times, most recently in the 1970s.
Now, a new bridge that’s part of the U.S. Highway 17 bypass project is proposed to relieve strain on the existing U.S. Highway 17 bridge, and some folks are worried its construction will disrupt spawning fish.
Cutline for corresponding photo: Washington has seen many bridges over the years and more than one dispute about spawning fish being hindered by spans across the Pamlico-Tar River. (WDN Photo/Ted Strong)