Upper Pasquotank yields vast historical finds

Philip Madre Diver Pasquotank River Bridge
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Philip Madre prepares to dive into the northern Pasquotank River during his search of the river. Over the last seven years, Madre and his divers have collected artifacts that will be displayed next month at the Museum of the Albemarle.

Pasquotank River Bridge Divers
Museum Pasquotank River Bridge Artifact 1
Museum Pasquotank River Bridge Artifact 2
Museum Pasquotank River Bridge Artifact 3

By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, May 27, 2018

They may seem mundane, but people's everyday items assemble a window into their lives – a window that can endure across the centuries.

Such a window has been hidden under the Pasquotank River, but is now coming to the Museum of the Albemarle.

“Uncovering River Bridge: Sunken Secrets” will open on Saturday, June 16, at 10 a.m. The exhibit will showcase hundreds of artifacts recovered from the northern Pasquotank River near South Mills, a major commercial hub in the 18th and 19th centuries, Curator Wanda Lassiter said in an interview last week.

Lassiter explained that the “River Bridge” area was so named because of a bridge built before the Revolutionary War. The area provided access to a customshouse and warehouses, bringing countless ceramics, clothes, tools, and other items to the area. For one reason or another, many of those items ended up in the river, and stayed there until a diving team lead by Philip Madre started recovering them years ago.

“I think what's exciting about this is, everyone we've talked to … it's like nothing they've seen before,” she said. Madre's team has recovered more than 10,000 artifacts that are diverse and often in good condition. Complete or nearly complete ceramics have been recovered, she said, as have an array of shoes whose leather has been preserved by river conditions. Some of those shoes are very rare finds, according to an expert from Williamsburg, whom the museum consulted, she said.

For Madre, the artifacts' recovery has been a long but worthwhile labor of love.

“The site is probably three miles as the crow flies from where I lived,” said Madre, a 75-year-old native of Elizabeth City now living in Chocowinity. His diving team also rediscovered the Civil War-era CSS Appomattox in 2007, he noted.

Madre recounted that he and his son, Jason, plus their friends Eddie Congleton and Jason Forbes, have been systematically searching the river for seven years. It's not the safest work; the area is rife with water moccasins. The snakes are both venomous and aggressive, but divers have avoided attacks so far, he said.

Madre said some of the most interesting artifacts he's recovered include colonial ceramics, often imported from England, plus smoking pipes, shingles, and shoes.

Madre said he continues searching for artifacts for “the thrill of discovery,” and to connect to the distant past.

“It's like a large jigsaw puzzle,” he said of studying the many artifacts. “When you touch an artifact, you're touching the person that made it.”

Madre's work is far from done. Lassiter said there's probably another seven years' worth of searching to do along the river.

Lassiter also recognized Martha Williams, an archaeologist and museum volunteer, for processing the 10,000-plus artifacts the divers collected.

The exhibit will be on display through 2021, Lassiter said.