Edenton Ropewalk

Written By Mathew Shaeffer

Originally established and owned by Declaration of Independence signer Joseph Hewes in about 1777, the Edenton Ropewalk was the first ropewalk built in North Carolina and was one of the first ropewalks in North America. Josiah Collins, Sr. and his partner Samuel Johnston acquired the rope manufacturing company in 1783 from the Hewes estate. Collins became two-thirds owner and operator while Samuel Johnston was one-third owner and a silent partner. Collin’s son, Josiah Collins II, became the manager of the ropewalk business and would eventually become its sole owner.

Ropewalks are long covered walks, buildings, or rooms where ropes are manufactured. Hemp fiber is converted into yarn, which is then used to make rope, twine, and cord.  During production, an artisan, called a spinner, slowly walks backwards while feeding yarn into a large turning wheel.  The turning wheel tightly twists and spins the yarn into rope. The Edenton Ropewalk covered a massive 131-acre plot of land and produced a variety of rope, twine, cordage, and cables. Skilled slaves performed most of the labor, and a record from 1838 shows that 22 slaves worked at the ropewalk. The slaves included male and female workers ranging from 10 to 79 years old. The Edenton Ropewalk became one of the leading suppliers of superior rope and cordage to the ship builders and Edenton’s thriving shipping industry during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. 

During the eighteenth century, the world’s shipping industry relied heavily on rope. The town of Edenton, officially established in 1712, quickly grew into one of North Carolina’s largest shipping ports and even served as the seat of North Carolina’s colonial government.  In the 1720s and 1730s trade expanded, and an abundance of lumber, tar, and pitch made Edenton an important site for ship building materials.  Between 1750 and 1775, Edenton entered a period of great economic success and was a vital stop along trade routes between New England and the West Indies. Between 1771 and 1776, the records show that 827 ships passed through Edenton and merchants exported nearly ten million staves (wood strips used in barrel making), more than sixteen million shingles, 320,000 bushels of corn, 100,000 barrels of tar, and many other products. Although the Revolutionary War hampered Edenton’s ability to trade, the city still flourished as an important site for revolutionary activity and supplying the American army. It was during this time that Joseph Hewes established the Edenton Ropewalk.

Following the Revolutionary War, Josiah Collins, Sr. became one of Edenton’s leading merchants and established a trade network that spanned the globe and included Europe, the West Indies, and Asia.  He acquired the Edenton Ropewalk in 1783 from the Hewes estate to aid his massive shipping business. The Edenton Ropewalk became an important rope supplier to the shipping and the ship building industries in North America. It provided the rope and cordage needed for the shipping and ship building industries to successfully function. By 1795, the Edenton Ropewalk was said to produce higher quality ropes than imported products.

The nineteenth century was a difficult period for the Edenton Ropewalk business.  During Thomas Jefferson’s second term as president, the United States passed a number of acts including the Nonimportation Act (1806) and the Embargo Act (1807), which placed an embargo on the importation of hemp.  Hemp was the vital resource in rope manufacturing and the Edenton Ropewalk relied on the importation of hemp. The embargo placed a great burden on the Edenton Ropewalk’s business.  Furthermore, the War of 1812 with England caused a collapse in American trade as the British Navy confiscated American ships and goods. However, the Edenton Ropewalk remained successful by becoming a supplier of rope to the United States Navy during the war.

Natural forces also negatively affected on the ropewalk.  Hurricanes and other natural forces closed off a number of important inlets on the outer banks.  These inlets included the Nag’s Head Inlet, the Roanoke Inlet (1795, 1811), and the Currituck Inlet (1828).  As a result, North Carolina’s outer banks created a barrier that limited access and hampered trade in Edenton.  Even before the closing of the inlets, Edenton was difficult for traders to reach and the closing of the inlets made it even more difficult. Therefore, port cities with easier coastal access surpassed Edenton in importance.

Despite setbacks, the Edenton Ropewalk continued manufacturing, but did so primarily for the fishing industry.  Between 1810 and 1850 the fishing industry in Edenton rapidly increased as the mercantile industry declined. The Edenton Ropewalk began producing larger amounts of seine twine, hanging twine, leading line, sinking line, ratline, rope, and other products. When Josiah Collins, Sr. died in 1819, ownership of the Edenton Ropewalk transferred to his son, Josiah Collins II, and operations continued as normal. 

Changes in the economic climate further hurt the ropewalk’s business. The ropewalk faced increased competition from other North Carolina ropewalks opened in New Bern, and Plymouth (1818). However, perhaps the biggest impact to Edenton’s economy came from the opening of the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1805. The Dismal Swamp canal connected eastern North Carolina with Virginia.  Initially the canal was not suitable for reliable commercial traffic, but by 1825 it was widened and began stifling Edenton’s trade.  The Dismal Swamp Canal proved disastrous for Edenton’s mercantile industry because it shifted from Edenton to Norfolk, Virginia. Furthermore, in the 1830s the shipping industry began embracing steam technology. Steamboats required less rope than traditional sailing ships and reduced rope requirements in the shipbuilding industry.  The changes in Edenton’s economy, the reduction in trade brought about by the closing inlets and the Dismal Swamp Canal, and a shift to steam power all harmed the Edenton Ropewalk. However, the biggest blow was the death of owner and operator Josiah Collins II in 1839.  The ropewalk ceased operations shortly after.