ROANOKE BUZZ: Expanding to include our Underground Railroad history

Published 6:20 pm Tuesday, November 6, 2018

As many of you know, for over twenty years we have worked with community leaders from the North Carolina counties connected to the Roanoke River to build a regional paddle trail. This 137-mile trail now features twenty-four camping platforms/sites — the first platform on the edge of Halifax and the last campsites being on the Albemarle Sound.

Our river trail has attracted paddlers and campers from across the country as well as from outside the states. In 2017, along with marking our twentieth anniversary, our trail set an all-time high record of over 1400 overnight reservations.

In addition to promoting our natural assets as a destination for paddlers and campers, over the past several years our network of partners has been learning more about the rich history found along the Roanoke – particularly as it relates to the Underground Railroad.

What we have found makes us very grateful to Wanda Hunt McLean for her research and documentation, which in 2008, resulted in the National Parks Service designating the Roanoke River as a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. We remain indebted to Ms. McLean for this great gift through her scholarly pursuits.

So how do we build on our existing trail to include this rich history? Our partners have been thinking about just that. We have envisioned adding elements of our cultural history to our existing trail – and we have thought about how it might all come together.

We thought about a series of signs at all our public boat ramps to inform users about this cultural heritage – the beginning of our Roanoke River Underground Railroad Trail. We thought about mimicking the National Park Service’s passport/stamp initiative to draw visitors to our river towns to get their passport stamped and to learn more about our river and its role in the Underground Railroad.

We thought about developing new maps and educational materials including mobile units that would help us “tell our river story.” And we thought about working with local communities along the river to plan and conduct community events that would be opportunities to learn more about both the natural and cultural assets—particularly as related to the Underground Railroad— found throughout our river region.

To mobilize our plan, we did what grassroots networks do … we wrote a grant to assist in fulfilling our vision of a regional network of partners coming together to learn more about, and to share, our river story.

And now, we are happy to share the good news that we were recently awarded a Ribbon of Hope Grant to do just that! Special thanks to Rose Railey, with US Fish and Wildlife Service, who was instrumental in developing our vision and in our grant application.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be contacting community leaders to share more about this regional initiative and it is our hope that many of you will want to be a part of this exciting project. Broad community input is being sought for this project.

This is just one more way we can draw visitors to our beautiful region to explore both our natural and cultural assets. And it is the hope of the participating partners that you and your town will get involved in order to reap some of the benefits to be gained through this innovative, rural development.

Contact us to learn more!

Carol Jones Shields is the Executive Director of Roanoke River Partners, Inc. You can contact her at (252) 798-3920 or You can learn more about Roanoke River Partners at