Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dan River Float from Milton to Paces


The Dan River Basin Association’s June 7 outing is a 13-mile float on the Dan from Milton, North Carolina to Paces, Virginia, with a lunch stop at the site of historic Barksdale Depot. Participants are asked to meet at 10:00 a.m. at Milton Wildlife Access at the Route 62 Bridge.
This “First Saturday Outing,” an easy flat-water float taking advantage of the summer’s long daylight, should be interesting to railroad buffs, students of navigation, and African-American historians as well as boating enthusiasts.
Trip coordinator Paul Johnson, Outings Chair of the Association and former director of the Halifax County Library, has arranged a journey through some remarkable river history.
Eight miles downstream from Milton, at the invitation of Mr. Jack Butler of Danville, paddlers will stop for lunch at the site of Barksdale Depot on the now abandoned Richmond & Danville Railroad. It was here in October, 1864 that Henry L. Estabrooks, a captured Union officer, escaped from a train carrying Union prisoners from Staunton to the Confederate prison in Danville.

Lt. Estabrooks spent 40 days as a fugitive before rejoining Grant’s army at the siege of Richmond. During his flight he was fed, led and hidden by an unofficial Underground Railway of slaves and freedmen.

Arriving back home in Massachusetts, he wrote an account of his ordeal. That account, Adrift in Dixie: A Yankee Officer among the Rebels, was reprinted in 2007 for the South Boston-Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts and History.

Much of Estabrooks’ odyssey took place in a leaky dugout canoe that he appropriated in Milton, with the help of African American boatman John Randolph. A novice canoeist, Estabrooks taught himself to handle the dugout and managed to float past the point of his earlier escape before leaving the river and heading northward.

According to The Dan River Book, by Forrest Altman, the Richmond & Danville Railroad was in operation in 1858, “in time to be of vast strategic and tactical importance in the Civil War.” Besides transporting soldiers and prisoners, it handled tons of freight for the Confederacy.
Paddlers will launch at Milton (mill-town), established in 1796 after a batteau voyage opened the river to commercial traffic, and pass immediately into Virginia near the confluence of Country Line Creek, so named because it joined the Dan where the two “countries” of Virginia and North Carolina met.

For the next three miles the river bends around the Virginia International Raceway, located in Virginia but accessible only via Milton, NC. Boaters will then see three impressive stone piers that supported the trestle of the Milton & Sutherlin Narrow Gauge Railroad as it crossed the Dan.

US 58/360 passes over the Dan at the site of Sutherlin’s Ferry, about two miles above Barksdale Depot. From the site of the depot, the abandoned Richmond & Danville Railroad bed may be seen on the north side as it parallels the river to the take-out at Paces (Route 658).

Participants in the outing should supply boat, paddles, life jackets, drinks and lunch, wearing water-shedding artificial fabric or wool (not cotton, and certainly not blue jeans) and providing a back-up change of clothing. All participants will be asked to sign a waiver form.

Three Rivers Outfitters of Eden, NC will rent boats and provide shuttle for a limited number of participants. For information, call 336-627-6215 or email

To reach Milton Wildlife Access from the north, take US 58 to NC 62, about five miles east of Danville. Take NC 62 South to the Wildlife Access. Turn right into the Wildlife Access parking lot just before crossing the Dan River.

From the south, follow NC 62 North. Alternatively, take NC 57 to Milton where it intersects NC 62. Cross the bridge over the Dan and turn left into the Milton Wildlife Access parking lot.
Meetings and outings of the Dan River Basin Association are free and open to the public. For information about the outings program, contact Paul Johnson, Outings Chair, at 434-579-7599 or For information about the Dan River, communicate with Forrest Altman at 336-234-8556;

Membership information, and more details about Lt. Estabrooks’ escape, are available at

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