The Contradiction of the Roanoke River

The American Viscose Plant once employed 5,000 people in Roanoke.

An almost idealized view of the river.

Last week Tinker Creek, which feeds the Roanoke River, was the site of a significant chemical spill which killed fish, plankton and other living things for an estimated eight miles, all the way to the Roanoke River.

It is–so far as anyone can tell–an accident, but one that should well alert us to the delicate nature of urban waterways, which were once used for industrial, urban and farm dumps but which today are favored as tourist and residential lures. River walkways are treasured by localities and they bring in the kind of people all those areas prefer: young, educated, professional, committed.

Bikers ignore this.

I took a walk along the Roanoke today, smack in the middle of its most industrial area, and saw a great deal of contradiction: bikers and hikers, people fishing in the shadow of the once-great American Viscose Plant, clear water running into dirty water, riffles and barriers to boating. It is an odd mixture of invitation and toxic warning, one that is hard to figure out.

Greenway promoters like this view.

I am always fascinated by the old American Viscose Plant, which closed in 1958 and put 5,000 people out of work. Today is an ad-mix of industrial and service industries and the smoke stacks are simply reminders of what once was, not working pollution cylinders.

They don’t like this view …

Viscose was built initially in 1919 and employed more than 1,000 young women to make what was then called “imitation silk” and later became nylon. By the time it closed, Viscose was one of the largest plants of its kind in the world–if not the largest. Plant owners had at one point built a large, attractive dormitory for the young women that included many amenities to keep them single and working (married women had a really hard time getting work in the U.S. in the ’20s and ’30s).

… or this one.

I chatted with several of the people fishing (oddly, in couples, men and women) and they all agreed they’d eat what they caught. One woman, fishing with a net (and carrying a big string of bass, blue gill, sun fish and suckers) said she fully intended to eat her catch because “the spill was way down the river.”

I saw no boats on this stretch. The Roanoke River is low this time of the year, but boating has grown more popular there. Problem is that on this particular part of the river there are three just-under-the-water barriers crossing the river, forcing boaters to portage. I can see absolutely no reason the barriers were built, unless it was to impede boat traffic, because that’s all they do.

This is one of the boating barriers.

This is a stretch of greenway where walkers and bikers must live in harmony, but often don’t. Some bikers whiz by without announcing themselves and often hikers simply meander all over the road or walk side-by-side in bunches. They have dogs and children on long leashes or in big strollers dominating the roadway. It can be a mess.

Here are some photos from today. This truly is an interesting walk, not the kind I generally take, but noteworthy just the same.

A fishing biker.

Power lines clutter the view.

The river is clean in spots … apparently.

Bikers often take the whole road.

Beauty and the background beast.

A Roanoke landmark from the greenway.

Runners often come in twos.

Neighborhood store near Jamestown neighborhood.

Wading fisherman …

… and his pal, using just a net (quite successfully).

For some, a summer day of quiet talk beside the river.

2 thoughts on “The Contradiction of the Roanoke River

  1. often run this stretch. To me old plant would be ideal to redevelop…there are some interesting buildings and alleyways in there..put restaurant’s with decks out towards river etc..and if they really want the Roanoke River to be a “blueway” they need to remove impediments to boating and open up
    the banks in spots to make it more friendly to launch boats, fish etc

  2. The whole site is contaminated and needs an EPA investigation. Underneath the main floors are basements with tanks full of who knows what chemicals. The rooftop tanks on some buildings also hold an imagination full of contaminants. With the river right next door, it is doubtful this has remained contained over the past century.

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