A virtual cruise

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley. Photo by Lynn Seldon.

The fear factor may have had little or nothing to do with how the Cape Fear River got its name. Treacherous, hidden shoals lurking just beneath the river's surface, coupled with frisky and capricious winds, tides and currents, could easily be held responsible for a name associated with fearsome and hideous shipwrecks.

Another school of thought floats the idea that the earlier settlers didn't spell or pronounce anything consistently, and that what they were trying to say or write was something more along the lines of "Fair" or "Fare"—which, in this case, may have had nothing whatsoever to do with any observable attributes of the river. It's possible that "Fair" or "Fare" is derived from a sept of the Ross Clan of Scotland, and could have been bestowed upon the river by the 1585 expedition of Sir Richard Grenville.

To add to the muddle, some misguided souls called it the Clarendon River and the Native Americans called it the Sapona.

On these bright and sparkling waters there may be a fine line between fair and fear, and with local accents being what they are, both words sound pretty much the same. Either name could be turned into a two-syllable mutant, something along the lines of "fay-er."

Early settlers botched the name game in many instances throughout the Cape Fear region. That big island at the mouth of the river is shown on maps as Smith Island, while everyone except the mapmakers know this to be Bald Head Island. Smithville is the clearly erroneous name they gave to Southport.

Moving upstream toward a settlement that became at one time the largest city of North Carolina and one of the largest ports on the East Coast, someone who utterly failed to recognize the place called it New Liverpool. In a few years this case of mistaken identity was straightened out and Wilmington was properly identified.

During the early colonial period when misnomers ran rampant, the eternal search for exploitable natural resources turned up some of the most foul and odoriferous substances to be found in an area rich in attractive plant and wildlife. Turpentine, tar, pitch and lumber—collectively known as naval stores, to be used in shipbuilding—were hacked out of the Cape Fear region's abundant longleaf pine forests. Rice is a crop that enjoys murky swamplands, and plantations sprang up along the river. Other crops were brought down from higher ground and shipped off from Wilmington's port to the mother country.

The river's best-remembered steamboat was the Henrietta, built in Fayetteville in 1818 to carry many tons of freight and passengers down the river over the next 40 years. Cape Fear Riverboats built the Henrietta II in 1987, a "true" sternwheel riverboat, and later sold her—up the river, as it were—to buyers in Baltimore. Henrietta III currently launches from Wilmington's historic Riverwalk and carries large loads of the region's newest revenue stream: tourists, boarding and disembarking on never-ending swirls and eddies of dinner and scenic cruises.

Farmers way up near the headwaters—hundreds of miles inland—loaded up small boats that carried small loads down small tributaries. These were offloaded to medium-sized boats traveling down medium-sized arteries that fed into the Cape Fear. Upon arrival in Wilmington, everything was piled onto big boats that made a mad dash across the Atlantic with fleets of pirate ships in hot pursuit.

Cape Fear Riverboats also operates the Captain J.N. Maffitt, best known for its short jaunts across the river from downtown's Riverfront Park to the Battleship USS North Carolina, permanently anchored on the opposite shore of the Cape Fear. The 49-foot Maffitt conducts the Black River Nature Cruise, narrated by the Audubon Society, a photographer's best shot at bagging alligators, bobcats, black bear, river otters, rare birds, and 1,700-year-old bald cypress trees lavishly draped with Spanish moss.

Further confusion

Two major arteries flow into Wilmington's port and by all rights you really shouldn't be allowed to call them both the Cape Fear—though that's what you're likely to see on most maps. One angles in from the northwest, originating north of Greensboro near the Virginia state line, and that is the one unfailingly known as the Cape Fear. The other flows down from the northeast and, for that reason, is sometimes called the Northeast.

A third river flows into the mix and joins the Cape Fear (shall we say the Northwest) roughly 14 miles north of Wilmington. This one is aptly named. Take a mask and a snorkel into the Black River and look around to see anything at all—your own hands, for example — and then you can start worrying about swimming in this kind of water quality.

Like other blackwater rivers of the world, the Black River flows slowly through ancient forests, and decaying vegetation leeches tannins into the water, staining it like coffee or tea. This in no way causes what might technically be considered water pollution. Environmentalists insist this is some of the cleanest water in the state, and never mind that you can see the difference from an airplane.

Of the various watersheds in North Carolina, the Cape Fear is the only one that originates and ends within the state's borders. Driving westward up I-40 from Wilmington, you'll pass into the Neuse River Watershed District before you get to Raleigh and, continuing west, you're back in the Cape Fear Watershed District once you've cleared Durham.

The watershed encompasses 9,100 square miles and takes up about a quarter of the state. A quarter of the state's population is within the watershed as well as a quarter of its counties.

The Cape Fear River empties directly into the Atlantic, the only large river in the state to do so, allowing seafaring vessels to come directly into Wilmington's port. The Neuse, Alligator and Columbia rivers all empty into a sound, requiring a bit more big-ship maneuvering through famously troubled waters.

The Outer Banks and adjacent areas to the north aren't known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for nothing, and ancient mariners readily plotted their courses toward Wilmington's ocean-friendly deep-water port.

More Information:

Terms: Cape Fear River

Information on Cape Fear River.

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