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Welcome to the "Cape of Feare"...

Historic 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 Atmospheric Administration

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"Old Baldy"

Lock #2 on the Cape Fear River

Photo courtesy of the United States Army Corps of Engineers

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Early History

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 from the mouth of the river into the Atlantic Ocean. These sand bars are called the Frying Pan Shoals.  Deadly shipwrecks happened when passing ships ran into these shoals.  Other shoals are found along the capes 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."

Safe Travel

 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 erosion.  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 became a major port for trade in North Carolina.  Three sets of locks and dams 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.  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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