The 6th-order Cape Fear River is North Carolina’s largest river basin that is completely contained within the state’s borders, with its headwaters stretching from northwest of Greensboro to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean at Bald Head Island. The basin covers an area of over 9,000 square miles, larger than the state of New Jersey, and there are over 6,000 miles of tributaries including four major ones: the Deep River, Haw River, Black River, and Northeast Cape Fear River (see Appendix III, Figure 1). Over one third of North Carolina’s population lives within the basin. The Cape Fear is also the state’s most ecologically diverse river basin, with some of the highest biodiversity on the eastern seaboard of the United States (Hall et al. 1999; Stein et al. 2000).
The Cape Fear basin is the only major river basin in North Carolina to empty directly into the Atlantic Ocean. This direct connection to the Atlantic was important for early settlers who used the Cape Fear as a way to move the natural resources found in the basin down-river, where they were loaded onto oceangoing vessels for shipment overseas. These goods included naval stores derived from the longleaf pine forests that blanketed the basin, rice from the plantations of the lower Cape Fear and timber. The port of Wilmington was a major blockade-running port during the Civil War, and later, steamboats plied the waterways of the Cape Fear connecting the many towns along its banks. As trade on the river increased so did efforts to make navigating the river easier. Over time, the river was dredged and channelized and locks and dams were constructed to facilitate navigation.