History of the Deep River
Seated deep in its steep banks (the Deep is named for this, not the depth of its water), mostly narrow and enclosed by forest, the Deep River holds visitors with a quiet, natural embrace. Mature floodplain forests with beech, birch, sycamore and oak tower over the river banks. Buckeye and pawpaw fill in the understory. Trout lily, mayapple, jewelweed and violets cover the forest floor when not overrun by the invasive plant Microstegium.
More plentiful than canoes, river otter, muskrat and beaver ply the river. Elusive coyote and bobcat range the floodplain forests with white-tailed deer and raccoon. Turtles and harmless water snakes abound, seldom distracting keen-eyed anglers who cast for bass, catfish, bluegill and sunfish. A menagerie of birds uses the Deep’s vital nesting and foraging corridors, from great blue heron to osprey to belted kingfisher to bald eagle. Pileated, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers hammer throughout the day, while barred and great horned owls hunt through the night. Migratory songbirds color the spring and summer, visiting from tropical climes to breed. Look and listen for prothonotary warbler, ovenbird, wood thrush, scarlet tanager, Louisiana waterthrush and yellow-billed cuckoo.
Prior to European settlement, several eastern Siouan tribes lived in the region: Eno, Occaneechi, Shakori, Sissipahaw, and Sara. Historians have discovered remnants of their camps and villages and stone fish traps. The arrival of European settlers in the mid-1700s marked the decline of the Native American presence, and much of this history has been lost.
Early settlers lived off the land, farming in fertile bottomlands and building grist and saw mills on the river. They harvested hardwoods for timber and tapped longleaf pines for tar, pitch and turpentine. By the 1850s most of the floodplain forests had been logged.
Mining and related industries came to the region in the mid-1800s. Coal mining dominated, with several mines operating from 1850 to 1930 to exploit the state’s largest coal deposit, the Deep River Coal Field near Cumnock. Mine explosions, flooding and the Great Depression ended the era. Iron production boomed briefly and left a legacy— the Endor Iron Furnace—a charcoal-fired blast furnace on the banks of the Deep that produced pig iron for the Confederate war effort.
Before the advent of a good road system in North Carolina, the Deep was a critical route for transporting goods to market. But the river’s rapids, falls and shallow water made travel to Fayetteville and other downstream markets difficult. From the late-1700s to the mid-1800s several companies attempted to improve navigation by building locks and dams; they abandoned their efforts when the area’s iron and coal deposits proved unprofitable.
To date, Triangle Land Conservancy has protected almost 3,000 acres along the Deep River in Chatham and Lee counties. TLC’s flagship preserve, White Pines, overlooks the confluence of the Deep and Rocky rivers, sheltering disjunct populations of white pine and other mountainous species.
TLC’s Deep River Campaign in 2000 stimulated conservation in the area, raising funds to conserve the 308-acre La Grange Riparian Reserve near Carbonton, McIver Landing Canoe/Kayak Access in Gulf, and 426 acres surrounding the Endor Iron Furnace. In 2003,TLC acquired the 760-acre Justice Lands near Moncure (since transferred to state ownership),and has since added two tracts to bring this conservation assemblage to more than 900 acres.
In 2007, the N.C. General Assembly authorized adding the Deep River State Trail to the State Parks System. A state trail provides an opportunity to link conservation lands with recreational opportunities and cultural resources. This canoe/paddle trail with public access sites may originate near Randleman Lake Dam and continue downstream to the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers, linking conservation lands to recreational and cultural attractions. The trail could eventually be expanded into a regional land and water trail system with connections to the N.C. Zoological Park, Raven Rock State Park and beyond. State-owned property, along with some TLC holdings, could serve as the first public access areas on the state trail.