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Bristol's Beaver Creek has a long, interesting history

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Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2010 7:00 am

The little stream named Beaver, originally called Shallow Creek, has been both a friend and an enemy of Bristol.

It originates a short distance southwest of Abingdon, Va., and ends a short distance below Bluff City, Tenn. On the way, it follows a sinuous path through the low hills so common to our part of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. In years past, this stream has created some sizeable bottoms, or flat lands, along its course. One of the largest of the rich bottoms is that upon which downtown Bristol is located.

Several miles of this stream pass through Bristol, Va./Tenn. I have been told that in years prior to the beginning of Bristol, and for a short time afterwards, the stream was very clear and pure and was good enough to drink. It abounded with edible fish.

That situation would soon change, as we shall later see.

Another fact that changed over the passing years regarding Beaver is the volume of its flow. I have been told on good authority that at one time it was much larger and flowed deeper than present day.

For some distance, the stream formed the boundary between Baker and Shelby lands (in the earliest days) and between the King and Goodson land later on.

The greatest benefit that Beaver Creek has provided is that it has been harnessed several times at various locations to supply water power for several varieties of milling operations.

Some of these were put into operation long before the city began but would now be located well within our city limits.

In the late 1790s, Col. James King had a mill near the present intersection of Volunteer Parkway and Phillipswood Drive. Beaver Creek supplied power for both his grain mill and his furniture shop.

In the 1830s, his son, the Rev. James King, had a water-powered sawmill where Lee Street now crosses Beaver Creek.

For a few years before, and for some time after Bristol was founded, Elisha Hoffman had a large saw mill operation set upon Beaver Creek some 2.5 miles above what is now downtown Bristol, Va. Most of the lumber used in early Bristol buildings came from this mill.

Early and numerous water-powered mills were set up in Bristol. So numerous were they that J. R. Anderson once wrote that the "water barely left one mill pond until it was in another."

Beaver Creek certainly helped Bristol to become an industrial town. Then came the negative uses of this stream.

Of course, early Bristol had no sewer system or garbage pick-up. Garbage began to be dumped into Beaver Creek. About 1875, there was talk of building a farmer’s market in Bristol, Va.

Editor I. C. Fowler of the Bristol News urged that it be built near the banks of Beaver so that rotten produce could be thrown into the stream. Those living near the creek built outside toilets as near the water’s edge as possible.

A little stream named "David Worley Branch" ran behind two or three of the large hotels that then stood on Front Street. Of course, at the time, those hotels had no inside plumbing, so they laid beams across this branch and upon them laid large outhouses. Raw sewage from them was carried into the nearby Beaver Creek.

Within time, Beaver became a virtual large open sewer. At times, the smell was almost unbearable. The situation did not much improve until a sewer system was put in much later.

At one time, a move was under way to tap Beaver for the town water supply. The plan was to build a dam across the stream just above the present Mary Street Bridge. This would have created a sizeable lake in the little valley nestled between Fairview and Norfolk.

This water reservoir would have been well above the polluted section of the stream.

This might well have been done had not two local psychic women had two identical dreams they called "prophetic dreams" indicating that a big flood would wash out the dam and cause death and destruction.

Locals believed them to the point that pressure was put on the town fathers, and the plan was canceled.

Whether prophesized or not, Beaver had flooded several times since the town’s founding reeking various degrees of destruction. One of those was in 1917. Others have happened in the years before and after that notable day.

Many of my readers will remember the great flood of Oct. 1-2, 1977. Whether for good or bad, Beaver had long been and will long remain a part of the Bristol scene.


A free tour of historic old Pleasant Hill, 214 Johnson St., Bristol, Va., will be given Oct. 9 from 1-5 p.m. Pleasant Hill was erected in 1872 as the home of Capt. J.H. Wood, an early Bristol lawyer and city developer. It is now furnished as a better Bristol home of the period.

BUD PHILLIPS is a local historian and author. He can be reached at (276) 466-6435. For more about Bristol’s history, visit www.bristolhistoricalassociation.com.

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