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What is the Cape Fear River?

Ben Steelman

The principal river of Southeastern North Carolina, the Cape Fear is a blackwater river some 202 miles long, flowing through Wilmington into the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Fear, from which it gets its name. Including its longest tributary, the Deep River, the Cape Fear system extends about 320 miles into Piedmont North Carolina, with a total drainage basin of about 9,140 square miles. It remains the primary source of the City of Wilmington’s water supply.

The river was known as the Sapona to early Native Americans, after a tribal group that lived on its banks. The Spanish explorer Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon named it the Jordan River (Rio Jordan) in 1526. English explorer Capt William Hilton, who tried to plant a settlement from Barbados on its banks in the 1660s, called it the Charles River. Under the Lords Proprietors, who created “Clarendon County” in the area, it was known as the Clarendon River, a name that appeared on maps as late as 1729. By 1733, however, mapmaker Edward Moseley was labeling it the Cape Fear.

The river is formed by the junction of the Deep and Haw rivers, between Chatham and Lee counties, just below the artificial Jordan Lake.

The Cape Fear flows southeast through Bladen County, forming part of the boundaries of Columbus, Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties. At Wilmington, it is about 600 feet wide. Its width increases gradually, until it reaches a mile wide at a point just below the mouth of the Brunswick River. At points on the way to the ocean, it reaches two miles wide. Below Wilmington, the Cape Fear forms a tidal estuary some 28 miles long.

In colonial times, it was stated that vessels of more than 50 or 60 tons could not sail more than 6 or 8 miles north of Brunswick Town, on the west side of Eagles Island, the first major settlement in the region. Smaller craft, however, could ascend as far as 20 or 30 miles.

In 1915 Lock and Dam No. 1 was erected on the Cape Fear at East Arcadia in Bladen County (expanded 1934), 39 miles above Wilmington. Lock and Dam No. 2 was added, 2 miles south of Elizabethtown in Bladen County in 1917. Theoretically, this system renders the Cape Fear navigable as far as Fayetteville. Commercial traffic, however, no longer exists, and the locks and dams are now open primarily to assist migratory fish. Discussion is ongoing about eliminating these dams, to return the Cape Fear to its pristine condition; proponents say it would restore habitat to such fish as the Cape Fear shiner (which is endemic to the river system), allow migratory fish to reach historic inland spawning grounds, thus increasing their populations, and to reduce algal blooms. Certain practical problems would have to be solved, though, before any such step could be taken; for example, the primary water intakes for Wilmington, Fayetteville and smaller municipalities along the river lie behind the locks and dams.

The river is often shallow in spots and prone to shoaling. The New Inlet, formed below Federal Point in 1761, had to be closed by a major Army Corps of Engineers project, 1879-1895, to keep the river navigable to Wilmington. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent to dredge and deepen the Cape Fear channel into Wilmington. Currently, the channel is 44 feet deep at the river’s mouth, 42 feet deep at the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and 38 feet at the Hilton Railroad Bridge above Wilmington.

Sedimentation from the Cape Fear River forms the Frying Pan Shoals, a massive sandbar extending for miles into the Atlantic off Cape Fear.

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One Response to “ What is the Cape Fear River?”

  1. On August 19, 2017 at 12:23 pm Charles norris wrote:

    There is a sand bar that comes off land probably 40ft. Do I have the right to camp on it . or does the land owner that the sand bar is adjacent. To own it

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