Nautical Map (1917) showing the deadly Frying Pan
Shoals. The Frying Pan Shoals are sandbars that
stretch southward from the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Map from the Image Archives of the
Historical Map & Chart Collection, Office of Coast
Survey, National Ocean Service, National Ocean and
Lock #2 on the Cape Fear River
Photo courtesy of the United States Army Corps of
A Spanish explorer
named Giovanni da Verrazano discovered the Cape Fear
River in 1524. Sailors named the river the "Cape of Feare" because
so many ships wrecked there. Shallow
sand bars stretch
of the river into the Atlantic Ocean. These sand bars are called
the Frying Pan
Deadly shipwrecks happened when passing ships ran into these
shoals. Other shoals are found along the
of the Outer Banks. North Carolina was a very
dangerous place for ships to travel. This is why the North
Carolina coast is nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."
The first lighthouse was built at the mouth of the Cape
Fear river in 1795. The lighthouse was built to safely guide ships past the shoals and up the river.
It was located on Bald Head Island. This
first lighthouse was threatened by
It was replaced by the
current Bald Head Island lighthouse, known as "Old Baldy." Built in
1817, Old Baldy is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina.
Old Baldy is no longer used to guide
ships. It is still standing and is open for visitors to
climb. The Oak
Island lighthouse now directs ships away from the deadly Frying Pan Shoals.
It is located on the other side of the river, on Oak Island.
Lighthouses made it safe to travel into and out of the Cape
Fear River. During the 1800's, the
mouth of the Cape Fear River
major port for trade in North Carolina. Three sets of
were built to allow ships to travel far up the river.
These locks and dams raise the water level of the river,
making it deep enough for ships to pass.
Trade and Industry
The port city of Wilmington was founded at the mouth of the
Cape Fear River in 1739. It was home to a thriving
shipbuilding industry. Wilmington also exported products
such as rice, peanuts, flax, cotton, and
Naval stores are the materials that were used to build ships.
They included lumber, tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine. Wilmington
prospered with all of this trade. For much of the 1800's,
it was the largest city
in the state.
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