Before Interstate 77 arrived in the 1970s, U.S. 21 snaked through the center of Charlotte, south to Pineville and across the Catawba River to Rock Hill and beyond.
Now, I-77 and U.S. 21 share the same pavement, slicing through central Charlotte but bypassing the places that once lined the historic path of U.S. 21.
A trip along U.S. 21 through the heart of the region reveals peaceful rural scenes, small-town life, urban vigor. The highway holds reminders of the rich history of the Carolina Piedmont: a centuries-old American Indian ford, remnants of the Industrial Age, ruins of 1950s Americana and today’s urban development.
Indian trading paths and later wagon roads crisscrossed the land. Documented as early as 1650, a major trading path that originated in Petersburg, Va., crossed through the N.C. Piedmont and what became Charlotte, then headed for a shallow, hard-granite crossing of the Catawba River near today’s Fort Mill, S.C. The crossing was known as Nation Ford after the nearby Catawba Indian nation. The path crossed the river and led on to Augusta, Ga., or west to Cherokee lands. In the 1770s it became known as the Great Wagon Road.
In 1852, above the historic Nation Ford, a railroad trestle was built. Eventually a 1917 road bridge about a mile upstream made the ford obsolete. That bridge was replaced in 2012 with a four-lane span with bike lanes and wide sidewalks on both sides. It invites one to pause and gaze downriver, imagining Lord Cornwallis and his British troops – leaving Charlotte after the pivotal British defeat at Kings Mountain – camped at the ford in late 1780, waiting for flood waters to recede so they could retreat across the Nation Ford.
When the U.S. highway system was organized in 1926, U.S. 21 was created as a straight shot from Cleveland, Ohio, south to Beaufort, S.C. The road was cobbled together from existing roads, many bearing names created years before. Almost 90 years later, some of those names persist: Harmony Road, Statesville Avenue, Old Pineville Road, Nations Ford Road. From Rock Hill to Great Falls, S.C., U.S. 21 is simply “Catawba River Road.”
In the early 1960s, the Catawba River near Mooresville was dammed to create Lake Norman, covering Beatties Ford, Catawba Ferry and thousands of other landmarks, including parts of U.S. 21.
Events will continue to change the highway, but it will always run through the heart of Charlotte.