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Cape Fear River
Map of the Cape Fear River drainage basin
Other name(s) Tributary to Atlantic Ocean
Country United States
State North Carolina
County Bladen
New Hanover
City Lillington
Physical characteristics
Main source confluence of Deep River and Haw River
about 1 mile southeast of Moncure, North Carolina
154 ft (47 m)
35°35′48″N 079°03′07″W / 35.59667°N 79.05194°W / 35.59667; -79.05194
River mouth Atlantic Ocean
between Oak Island and Bald Head Island
0 ft (0 m)
33°53′08″N 078°00′46″W / 33.88556°N 78.01278°W / 33.88556; -78.01278
Length 191.08 mi (307.51 km)
Basin features
Progression generally southeast
River system Cape Fear River
Basin size 9,120.61 square miles (23,622.3 km2)
Bridges Avents Ferry Road, US 401-NC 210, NC 217, I-295, I-95, NC 24-210, I-95, Tarheel Ferry Road, US 701, General Howe Highway (NC 11), US 17-74, US 17

The Cape Fear River is a 191.08-mile (307.51 km) long blackwater river in east central North Carolina. It flows into the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Fear, from which it takes its name. The river also has several pollutants, ranging from suspended solids and runoff to manmade chemicals like GenX.

Variant names

According to the Geographic Names Information System, it has also been known historically as:

  • Cape Fair River
  • Cape-Feare River
  • Charle River
  • Charles River
  • Clarendon River
  • North East Cape Fear River
  • North West Branch
  • Rio Jordan


In October 1662, the English explorer William Hilton Jr. made a three-week reconnaissance of the lower reaches of the Cape Fear River.

4th Octob. we weighed, and went into the Haven, where was fathoms water, and in a weeks time, spent with the indians, and in sounding the River and the ship turning up alway against the wind, we gott up 15. or 16. leagues into the river; and after in our long boate, half of us went 15. leagues further, till at the head of the river we could not tell, which of the many rivers to take, and so returned to our ship, and as we went and came, we found many faire and deep rivers, all the way running into this Charles River.

Hilton's report contained favorable comments on the fish, fowl, and wildlife of the region. He noted "vast meddows, besides upland fields," "greatt swamps laden with varieties of great oakes, and other trees of all sorts," and the potential for good growing conditions. Hilton wrote that the Indians were "very poor and silly Creatures," that he had observed fewer than one hundred of them, but that they were "very theevish." He wished "all Englishmen, that know how to improve and use a plentiful Countrey and condition, not to delay to posses it...."

Carolina Vintage Map
The "Clarendon River" in "A New Description of Carolina", engraved by Francis Lamb (London, Tho. Basset and Richard Chiswell, 1676)

During his 1664 visit, Hilton remained almost two months on the Cape Fear. The explorers spent much of their time on the Northeast Branch which they felt was the main channel. They anchored their ship, Adventure, and rowed the ship's long-boat on trips up several tributaries. The longest of these explorations was four days' travel up-stream and two back down.

As the Hilton party left the Cape Fear they "made a purchase of the river and land of Cape Fair, of Wat Coosa...." They found a warning near the mouth of the river left by the New Englanders (of the ill-fated colony earlier that year) which disparaged the country and warned against settlement there. Hilton's report concluded with a rebuttal to that warning:

we have seen facing both sides of the river and branches of Cape Fear aforesaid, as good land and as well timbered as any we have seen in any other part of the world, sufficient to accommodate thousands of our English nation, and lying commodiously by the said river's side.

In 2018, Hurricane Florence caused a dam failure which led to the leakage of coal ash into the river at about five miles northwest of Wilmington, North Carolina.


SC CapeFearRiver
The Cape Fear River at Smith Creek in Wilmington, NC.

It is formed at Haywood, near the county line between Lee and Chatham counties, by the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers just below Jordan Lake. It flows southeast past Lillington, Fayetteville, and Elizabethtown, then receives the Black River approximately 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Wilmington. At Wilmington, it receives the Northeast Cape Fear River and Brunswick River, turns south, widening as an estuary and entering the Atlantic approximately 3 miles (5 km) west of Cape Fear.

During the colonial era, the river provided a principal transportation route to the interior of North Carolina. Today the river is navigable as far as Fayetteville through a series of locks and dams. The estuary of the river furnishes a segment of the route of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The East Coast Greenway runs along the River.


  • Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (US 17/US 76/US 421)
  • S. Thomas Rhodes Bridge (US 421/NC 133/US 74)
  • Trooper Harry T. Long Bridge
  • L. Bobby Brown Bridge (I-140)


Of all the rivers within North Carolina, The Cape Fear River has the largest river basin. It covers 9,149 square miles and, with a basin of this size, there is a large amount of land from which runoff can be produced. Cities and farmland that surround the river and its tributaries have the ability to impact the water quality of the Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear River is negatively impacted by point source and nonpoint sources of pollution. Some examples of nonpoint source pollution within the Cape Fear River include: farms, city runoff, and erosion of the rivers banks, this can include things such as harmful chemicals and fertilizers as well as larger sediments like suspended solids. As with any river, the water quality varies in different regions and is dependent on specific abiotic and biotic factors within the region.

Suspended Solids

Suspended solids refers to any particle (living or nonliving) discharged into an aquatic system which remains in suspension. These particles often find their way into river systems via non point source pollution as well as through larger point source pollution events such as Hurricane Florence In 2018. The stress of this storm led to a dam failure causing a mass leakage of coal ash into the Cape Fear River about five miles northwest of Wilmington, North Carolina.

If you notice an abnormal amount of floating sediments or turbidity please report it here

GenX Chemicals

GenX is a chemical in the group of man made per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs. These substances are used for non-stick, water and stain repellent items. GenX is a replacement PFA, since older and more toxic PFAs are being phased out. GenX is made at the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, NC and has gotten into the Cape Fear River from the plant's wastewater. Like other PFAs, GenX does not easily break down and can accumulate in the environment. Because of this quality, Gen-X can cause problems for both people and wildlife.

Since Chemours’ wastewater was being put into the Cape Fear River, this poses a drinking water issue for residents of the Fayetteville area as well as people further down the river. Several groundwater wells in Fayetteville had detections of Gen-X. At the mouth of the river, the city of Wilmington uses the Cape Fear as a drinking water source. Blood samples of a group of Wilmington residents showed detections of Gen-X.

In several studies, Gen-X has been shown to affect wildlife. PFAs were detected in Striped Bass caught from the Cape Fear, and the chemical affected the liver and immune system. In plants, Gen-X reduced the biomass and bioaccumulated in the organism. This bioaccumulation did differ between species.

In a study done to test the ability of retention and how could the GenX chemical be transported in porous materials, results showed that for different forms of the GenX chemical the absorption rate was higher. This research is important to help future researchers understand the tendencies of this chemical. Contaminated sites should be inspected from the water to the soil due to the ability of GenX to travel/transport through porous material such as soil.

The lack of information on the GenX chemical in North Carolina has led to the gap of knowledge about ways in which people may be exposed to these chemicals other than drinking water. Information is also limited on the health effects caused by the GenX chemical, little experiments on animals show liver damage, pancreas damage, etc. There are no federal guidelines regarding the GenX chemical. However, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human services has set a “health goal”, a non-regulated, and non-enforceable low contamination level where no side effects, over time, would be expected.

There is little known information about the effectiveness of GenX and PFEA removal from contaminated waters, methods like, ozonation and bio-filtration. Carbon in various forms can be used to treat water that has been contaminated. Experiments done with this technique showed that shorter PFAs did not absorb.   

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