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Part One: The Petersbach

Once upon a time, growing up in Ardmore, my friends and I had a nearly perfect playground…a little creek rose from a spring between Brent Street and Sunset Avenue, flowing southward through the woods…several hundred feet from its start, it ran over a granite outcrop, creating a waterfall about ten feet high and carving out a cliff of clay, which we could pull out by the handfuls and make into useful things which we dried in the sun…farther downstream, the creek had made a cave, which we stocked with essential items to sustain us in our shelter when the inevitable Soviet bombers appeared overhead…the water was alive with crawfish and attracted many other creatures, especially snakes, from black rat snakes to king snakes to copperheads, for us to study…a bit beyond the cave was a gray sand path, maintained by the city, which ran down the hill from Arlington Street (now Ardsley) to the creek, then back up to Sunset and on beyond, winding its way through the woods all the way to Washington Park in the Southside…the path crossed our creek on a sturdy wooden bridge…the older kids told us that a troll lived under the bridge, so when we needed to cross, we would walk well up the hill and get a running start to keep from being captured and eaten…eventually, we figured out that there was no troll, so we told the younger kids that there was one…wisdom must always be handed down from generation to generation…not far beyond the bridge, the creek slid under the barbed wire marking the beginning of Farmer Stone’s pasture…at that point we lost track of its course because Farmer Stone had a large bull which, for some reason, did not welcome boys on his property…our creek had no official name…we called it “Our Creek” because that is what it was…it would be some years before we discovered that it emptied into a bigger stream called Peter’s Creek…

Petersbach was one of the first named waterways in Forsyth County. It rises in north Winston near the intersection of North Liberty and East Eleventh Streets. It courses westward to about the intersection of Northwest Boulevard and Abbatoir Street, then runs southwestward beneath Cherry Street, Chatham Road and Thurmond Street, past the Hoots Mill complex and its mysteriously named Canal Street, under Reynolda Road and through Hanes Park past Brunson School and under First Street to wind through Crafton Heights, then follows its name inheritor Peter’s Creek Parkway to ultimately flow into Salem Creek near Hutton Street.

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Petersbach is thought to have been named for Hans Petersen, one of the original group sent down to the Carolina colony from Bethlehem in 1753. He is identified as a native of Holstein (Denmark), a tailor who also possessed the skills of hogger and carpenter. In his role as tailor he spent a good bit of time wandering around scrounging for cloth to make clothing, which may have led to his discovering the Petersbach.

Among the early problems in Wachovia was a distinct shortage of women. In 1762, the first weddings were held in Bethabara, seven in one day. Hans missed out on that event, but a bit later, other single women arrived. Hans focused in on one Elizabeth Palmer, who had been born in London and “given” by her mother to Count Zinzendorf in some sort of bizarre deal. Hans and Elizabeth were married on September 7, 1762. That same year, Hans opened the first school for boys in Wachovia. Elizabeth volunteered to help with the first school for little girls.

In 1763, Elizabeth got pregnant. But within a few months, Hans died. And a few months later, in 1764, Elizabeth died while delivering their still-born son. In the Bethabara God’s Acre, the graves are numbered consecutively. Hans was number 22. Elizabeth and her unnamed son were buried together next to Hans, in the same grave, numbers 23 and 24.

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Petersbach is first mentioned in 1760 in the Wachovia Church Book in connection with an unwanted  infestation of wild pigeons, which left a field of droppings “shoetop deep” along its banks. It was frequently mentioned a few years later as the Moravians honed in on a site to build the new town of Salem. The Brethren selected several sites on the banks of the Petersbach. But the ideas of man were limited by the ideas of God. The Moravians submitted each site to “the lot”, an interesting device consisting of a bowl and some scrolls, one reading “Yes”, one reading “No” and a blank, which apparently meant neither yes nor no but “not now…rethink and try again later.” For the Moravians, this process represented the will of the Savior, not to be meddled with by mere man. Each site on the Petersbach earned either a “No” or a blank. Eventually, the lot said “Yes” to the current Salem site just above Salem Creek. After that, the Petersbach became a mere outlier.

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In fact, some began to promote ideas that the Petersbach was a haven of mysterious and even evil doings. An old wives tale says that when President George Washington visited Salem in 1791, some local folks took him to the Petersbach where he entered a cave inhabited by three witches. When George emerged, he walked away, saying nothing. But when the locals investigated later, they found nothing in the cave but three small piles of ashes, the implication being that the Father of His Country had eradicated the evil doers. Of course, we have nearly minute by minute accounting of George’s time in Salem, which eliminates any possible visit to the Petersbach, but people will believe what people will believe.

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The reservoir is #3 , on Old Town Street, just north of Mary’s restaurant on the present Trade Street. 1891 birds-eye view of Winston & Salem.

Sixty some years later, the Petersbach would become the salvation of the new town of Winston, which did not have a ready water supply. Two wells were drilled at the bottom of a steep hill southwest of the town and the Petersbach was partly diverted to provide a spillway to power a pump that brought the well water up to feed the town’s needs.

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The pumping station was near the intersection of Northwest Boulevard and Abbatoir Street. Belo’s Pond, never Lake Belo, had been established in the mid-19th century as the site of Edward Belo’s foundry, where the cast figures that decorate the stairs at the Belo House in Salem were created.

The water was stored in an open semi-pyramidal stone reservoir at the highest point in town where it could flow by gravity to whatever points were necessary. That served for several decades, but at some point people began to worry about the condition of the reservoir. A new source of water was developed north of town at what is now Winston Lake Park, and a modern standpipe was constructed next to the old reservoir. But before that system could be be put into operation, the old reservoir collapsed.

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A bit before 5:30 AM on Wednesday, November 3, 1904 people who lived near the city water reservoir on North Trade Street were awakened by a loud crash. The 30 foot high northern wall of the reservoir had just collapsed, burying the home and barn of Martin Peoples next door and killing his widow. Her son-in-law, Frank Burkett somehow survived. 800,000 gallons of water rushed down the steep hill toward the railroad tracks, sweeping dozens of houses before it.

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The collapsed reservoir wall. The new standpipe can be seen in the background.

William Adams and his wife were asleep in their home near the reservoir. The wall of water demolished their house, but picked up their bed and took them on a wild ride 500 yards down the hill to the railway cut, leaving them unharmed. One man met the freshet at its edge and grabbed a fence post, managing to hold on until the water was gone. An eleven year old boy heard the crash, stepped onto the porch, saw the wall of water coming and ran for his life. He survived. But others were not so lucky. William Southern and his mother had moved into the neighborhood from Greensboro only the day before. Both died. In one house, the surging water smashed a bedroom, killing a woman and leaving a man alive. In all, nine people died. Eight more were injured but survived.

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Part of the huge crowd that gathered at the scene of the disaster

The first on the scene were volunteer firemen, who did what they could to help. By mid-morning, a crowd of thousands had gathered at the scene. At that point, Mayor O.B. Eaton and the Board of Aldermen went into emergency session. Fearing multiple lawsuits, they assured the citizens that the city would absorb all costs to all affected. Even so, there were lawsuits, but the city’s prompt action saved taxpayers from the worst of it.

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The 1907 Sanborn Insurance map shows the remains of the reservoir and the location of the new standpipe

The event was reported by hundreds of news outlets across the US and overseas. The Justice de Biddeford newspaper in Maine printed the story in French. It was, and still is, the worst civil disaster in Twin City history. The next worst has been the explosion at the National Guard Armory near the former city landfill on Silas Creek Parkway in September, 1969. Twenty-five guardsmen were injured, and some of them were evacuated to the armed forces burn center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where three of them later died.

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The Journal printed a map showing the route followed by the water

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The route from the reservoir to Northwest Boulevard. The water stood at the bottom of the hill for months, giving the later Pond neighborhood its name.

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The view from the bottom of Trade Street at Northwest Boulevard

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Next: Part Two…West Highlands to Society Hill

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