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Of Time and the Cape Fear River | By Sara WanderClute

Fayetteville may well owe its existence to the convergence of the Deep and the Haw Rivers, a bit north of us in Chatham County, near Moncure. Together, those two waterways form the beginning of the more than 200-miles long Cape Fear River, which drew the earliest settlements in this area to its banks. The river was the backdrop for what many historians, with a long view into the past, characterize as the “glory days” of Fayetteville, when commerce flourished. Goods were transported on the river, and then dispersed further to the burgeoning western territories via Fayetteville’s plank roads. ‘Economic development’ was not a topic of conversation among the gentry in those days, it was a way of life.

Realtors today stress “location, location, location.” And so it was with towns and cities 200 years ago. Fayetteville’s geographic placement at the head of the navigable section of the Cape Fear River was intrinsic to commercial development. Goods were brought by carriage to Fayetteville from other interior areas of the state, and were then shipped to Wilmington. Likewise, goods arriving in Fayetteville from Wilmington were sent to the interior by carriage. The peak of this commerce took place in the autumn, winter and spring seasons; summertime found the river low, and the living lazy. The goods making their way downstream to Wilmington were cotton, rice, flour, wheat, tar, turpentine and lumber. From there, the goods often traveled much further; cotton and rice, especially, often were shipped directly from Wilmington to England or France.

Almost two hundred years have passed since steamboats began to whistle up and down the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Fayetteville. More than one World War has been fought. Generations of Fayettevillians have come and gone. Yet the Cape Fear River continues its placid flow to the sea, dividing Cumberland County almost in half, geographically and some say politically as well. The river, in the 21st century, divides the more urban areas of the county from those communities that so fervently wish to remain rural and bucolic in nature.

Though the heyday era of river commerce is in the past, the Cape Fear River still has a powerful attraction to local outdoor enthusiasts. Canoeing on the river and fishing are wonderful pastimes, and those people who know the river best can wax downright rhapsodic about it.

Catfish, Canoes and the

Cape Fear River

Ronald “Doc” Nunnery, who directs Cumberland County’s Emergency Management efforts, is an avid fisherman and someone who knows the Cape Fear River well. He enjoys fishing on the river, putting in at the Person Street ramp or further downstream, near Tar Heel.

“It’s got some of the best bullhead catfish, bream and bass,” he says, reflecting on what brings him to down to the water. “But you’ve got to respect it, it’s like a living, breathing creature. I don’t think it will ever be tamed.”

Nunnery offers a plausible explanation for the river’s color, which he characterizes as that of “a strong tea.” The color, he says, is derived from the highly acidic soil of the river’s pinetree-laden banks, and the clay through which the river is filtered once it reaches the clay soil of Harnett and Cumberland County. “They may call us the Sandhills,” he says, “but we got a whole lot of clay in our soil.”

Jimmy Jones is another man who knows the river well.

“There was a time when I was on the river more than I was home,” he says. “I still fish the river all the time.”

Jones operates a guide service to all the best catfish hideouts in the river as “Mr. Jones Fishing.” He enjoys seeing novice fishermen make a good catch, and he enjoys pointing out some of the more interesting sights as he and his clients make their way up the river. Those who don’t want to eat the fish they catch are encouraged by Jones to release them back into the river. His interest in the river is more environmental than economic and he’s convinced that the river is ecologically healthy – and very beautiful.

“Oh, there’s some very interesting and beautiful things to see,” Jones says. “There’s waterfalls, and creeks that feed into the river.” Most of the expeditions that Jones guides put into the water at Highway 87 or down at Lock #3, and they are out on the water for several hours.

Another group of people who trek down to the river at least annually are the fans of the Cape Fear Regional Theater’s outdoor productions staged down at the river. Anyone who has been in the audience on a mild evening in May, happily doused in mosquito repellent, stuffed with a fine meal cooked on an outdoor grill, sipping a cool one, humming along to a tune from “Pump Boys & Dinettes” or some other musical has known one of the finest, most memorable experiences Fayetteville has to offer. You can look up at the stars, so thoroughly entertained and happy that you feel one with the universe.

Fisherman, naturalists and theater-goers aside, most people in Cumberland County probably think of the river only about as frequently as they cross over it. Looking down from one of the bridges spanning the Cape Fear River, one sees the canoes and the fishermen and the deep, dark water. But, whether they know it or not, the Cape Fear River plays a role in every citizen’s life in Cumberland County.

Take Our Water But Put It Back

Back when the 21st century was just dawning, the state’s Environmental Management Commission was weighing the idea of permitting the fast-growing communities of Cary and Apex, in Wake County, to draw down an additional 11 million gallons of water a day from Jordan Lake.

Fayetteville and Cumberland County officials and many citizens were concerned – to put it mildly! – because they knew that Jordan Lake feeds the Cape Fear River. And the plan being considered by the Environmental Management Commission was to permit the additional drawdown of water, and then permit it to be discharged into the Neuse River basin. Well, that arrangement offended most Fayettevillians’ notions of fair play, Southern etiquette, and just plain good sense. The sentiment was, “Take our water if you must, but please be so kind as to return it to the Cape Fear River!” They rose up united, cynically believing that the decision was a “done deal” influenced by the wealth and political influence of the communities seeking the water transfer, and disappointed that the lone Commission member from Fayetteville had been unable to squash the idea with his 16 fellow commissioners before it got to the point of public hearings on the matter.

About 300 people filled an auditorium at Fayetteville State University on a Wednesday evening in March, 2001 and voiced their strong opinions on the proposal to a contingent of the Environmental Management Commission. The hearing went on for more than three hours, with only 40 of the 60 speakers who’d signed up actually being heard. Never, it seemed, had the community been so fervently united on an issue. Speakers included elected officials, business owners, environmentalists, and just plain folks.

Rudolph Singleton, an attorney from Fayetteville, took an historical and philosophical stance on the issue. He said there’s a good reason why the greatest cities of the world are port cities.

“Throughout history and civilization,” he proclaimed, “people have moved to the water. Never before has there been such an attempt to move water to where the people are.”

Perhaps it was Lee Warren, a county commissioner at the time, who captured the essence of the community’s resistance.

“The Cape Fear River is the heart blood of Cumberland County . . . all we ask is that you do the reasonable thing and have the water put back in the Cape Fear River,” he said.

Well. To sum it all up, the transfer request was granted, just as it had been expected to be. However, Cary is in the process of building a water treatment plant, expected to be complete by 2010, that will permit the return of treated water to the Cape Fear River basin. In fact, the interbasin transfer certificate requires that Wake County return treated wastewater to the Cape Fear River Basin by 2011. It doesn’t appear that irreparable harm has been done to any downstream communities in the meantime. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the Interbasin Water Transfer imbroglio, and how Fayetteville feels about the issue, it is:

Do not mess with our Cape Fear River!

The River and Our Future

It seems that Fayetteville, if ever so slowly, may once again be turning its gaze toward the river. Not for commercial development of the waterway itself, but to envision riverside development that would include a mix of condominiums, single-family homes, parks, offices, restaurants and tourist-friendly attractions. Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, recently celebrating its 50th birthday, has embraced a new logo in which the river is featured.

Some would say a river renaissance is already underway. The Cape Fear Botanical Garden is located on the river. The Cape Fear River Trail, a four-mile paved walking path that’s part of the East Coast Greenway, offers some splendid views of the river.

There was talk a few years ago about a freshwater aquarium; now the city appears to have some interest in the idea of a riverside park. Sol Rose, who owns the Riverside Sports Center, was mentioned in the Fayetteville Observer recently for having plans to open a river-themed restaurant – soon.

Both environmentalists and economic developers share a common interest in the river. But they don’t necessarily agree on the vision of what the future of the river should be. Naturalists laugh out loud at the idea of homes being built on the Cape Fear, knowing how quickly and high the river can rise in a single day. They say homes better have vast expanses of lawn leading to the cliffs above the river, if they want to avoid flooding. Economic developers say that the river has value as a backdrop for not only homes, but other commercial development as well.

“The two ‘greens’ go hand in hand,” says Don Freeman, the Executive Director of the Cape Fear River Assembly. “Both interests – the ecological and the economic – are im the Cape Fear River to the benefit of the population living within its basin. They monitor the health of the river, they educate the populace about the river system and its uses and they work hard – remember the Interbasin Water Transfer issue?! – to develop public policy that will benefit the river and the people who depend so much on it.

If this article has sparked an interest in the Cape Fear River, you might enjoy visiting the website of the Cape Fear River Assembly (www.cfra-nc.org) or you could go take a close-up look at the river under the experienced guidance of Jimmy Jones of Mr. Jones Fishing. He can be reached at 308-7453.