The Yadkin River is many things in the upper Yadkin Valley: drinking water, wildlife habitat, recreation and simultaneously a symbol of division and unity between Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro.
The river slowed transportation before it was bridged and periodically left devastation before it was harnessed by W. Kerr Scott Dam. There was even a plan to make the Yadkin navigable for commercial vessels as far upstream as Wilkes in the early 1800s.
It also occasionally has been an escape route, as illustrated when a man being pursued by Wilkesboro police officers eluded apprehension by jumping in the Yadkin before daylight one morning last week. He was taken into custody the next Friday morning.
With the Wilkes County Jail in Wilkesboro never more than a tenth of a mile from the Yadkin River to the north until the current jail was completed in 2014, the river and its adjacent brushy corridor were too convenient for escapees to ignore.
All Wilkes County Jail escapees were soon apprehended, with one notable exception – accused murderer Richard Lynn Bare of Ashe County, who escaped in 1985. Bare would be in his mid-50s now and was 20 when he escaped.
Escapees from the Wilkes Correctional Center, a state minimum custody prison in North Wilkesboro, have had the option of using the nearby Yadkin River or a large patch of woods behind the prison.
Early on the morning of June 15, 1987, three men escaped from the Wilkes County Jail when one of them overpowered a jailer and let the other two out. One of the three was in jail awaiting trial for murder, one had been convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for auto theft and assault and the third faced several counts of obtaining property under false pretense.
Another inmate who could have escaped with them but didn’t said their plan was to follow the Yadkin downstream for several miles to a point where they intended to go north to where one of the three had relatives in Roaring River.
On the night of the same day they escaped, Wilkes Sheriff Fred Myers apprehended two of the escapees and Alexander Sheriff’s Office deputies caught the third in the Linney’s Mill section.
“They always went downstream” on the Yadkin, said Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew, who as a deputy helped search for the three who escaped on June 15, 1987. “It provided good cover.”
Shew caught one escapee from the old jail just before the man jumped in the river.
Wilkesboro Police Chief Craig Garris said he has “stood on the river bank many times” looking for people who were being pursued for one reason or another.
Wilkesboro officers are accustomed to searching for shoplifters in the woods between the Yadkin River and the retail area that includes Kohl’s and Walmart on the south side of U.S. 421.
Not too many years ago, recalled Garris, a man being sought for shoplifting in that area jumped in the Yadkin and was caught when he exited the river because of the cold water.
Randy Rhodes, retired North Wilkesboro police chief, said a man at Wilkes Regional Medical Center (now Wilkes Medical Center) to be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility escaped from the hospital and made his way to the Yadkin River near the mouth of the Reddies River.
Rhoades said the man jumped in the Yadkin and was captured when he exited the river over a mile downstream at Memorial Park.
Perhaps the earliest recorded instance of a person using the Yadkin in Wilkes to escape from authorities came just after the Civil War when a group of paroled Confederate soldiers in the area stormed Fort Hamby, a stronghold of bandits and deserters, west of Wilkesboro.
The story told is that all but one of the outlaws was captured - and most of those summarily executed. The one who escaped, a fellow Wade who was the leader, supposedly escaped during the melee and jumped in the nearby Yadkin at a point now beneath the waters of W. Kerr Scott Reservoir.
Wade supposedly remained underwater at the riverbank, using a long hollow reed to breathe, to elude capture.