Natural and Cultural History of the Haw River

Past and Present
Sources of Pollution
A Look at the Old Haw River Cotton Mill Towns
The Sissipahaw People of the Haw
The Underground Railroad in the Haw River Watershed


Haw River at Saxapahaw

Past and Present

Almost a million people live in the Haw River watershed. The oldest settlements along the Haw were small Native American villages. The People of the Haw (the Sissipihaw) spoke an Eastern Siouan language and lived bountifully off the land through hunting, fishing and farming. They lived here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. It is believed that their population was severely weakened by European diseases brought through trading contacts. Few remained to see their land overtaken. The survivors joined tribes to the north and south and live on today through the Occoneechi and other Native Americans who live in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

German, Scotch-Irish, and English immigrants came in the late 1700’s building farms and settlements. Grist mills for grinding grains sprung up along the Haw and its creeks where drop-offs made good dams and mill races. Forests were cut down at an amazing speed for lumber and farms. One by one the larger animals declined or disappeared — wolves, bears, beavers, otters, eagles. Although most settlers were yeoman farmers, there were also some large slave-holding farms or plantations.

Due to the large number of Quaker people, especially in Guilford and Alamance Counties, the Underground Railroad had many stations (safe houses) in the Haw watershed. Escaping slaves used the Haw River and its tributaries as landmarks on their way North to freedom and to put off trackers. However, the river could hinder an escaping slave as crossing was often dangerous.

During the Industrial Revolution, dams and mill races became the sites for textile mills, especially in Alamance and Chatham Counties, where water powered the looms and machines. Entire mill villages were built to house workers who left hard times in farming in search of jobs. The Haw became more and more polluted as factories and towns emptied their waste into the river.

Piedmont North Carolina is very much a part of the new South. The declining textile industry has been supplanted by a surge of new economic development. People have moved here from all over the country, and the world. Modern cities live side by side with an older rural way of life. And still the Haw flows on, through farms and forests, abandoned textile mills and new suburbs. The forests have grown up where old farms once stood and the beaver, otter and eagle have returned.

However, the mark of a more industrialized culture has been left on the River. A growing population has meant more runoff and wastewater. Without real changes in the way we treat our natural world, pollution will continue to impact our watershed.
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Sources of Pollution

Dry Creek into Haw, photo by Jerry Markatos

Dry Creek into Haw, photo by Jerry Markatos

Point Source Pollution: This is the term for pollution that enters a stream at one identifiable source, like a factory or municipal waste treatment discharge pipe. The federal Clean Water Act, passed in the early 1970’s, has made a tremendous difference in cleaning up the Haw. Industries and waste water treatment plants were made to comply to much stricter standards and we have seen the river recover from its worst days. It’s very important that this law not be weakened by Congress. Continuing problems with industrial waste usually result from factories that are out of compliance with their permits or are not pre-treating their waste.

There are many cities and towns in the Haw River watershed, including Greensboro, Reidsville, Burlington, Chapel Hill and Pittsboro that empty their treated wastewater into the Haw River or its tributaries. Although modern treatment plants are capable of discharging cleaner water than in the past, problems arise when equipment fails or when factories discharge unacceptable pollutants (including high nutrient levels) into the wastewater before treatment. Such failures can result in short toxic bursts into the river, which are dangerous to aquatic life. Some scientists believe this source of pollution is a major cause of continuing extinction of endangered species of mussels and other river life. Excess nitrogens and phosphates in the water provide nutrients for algae blooms–never good for a river.

Non-point Source Pollution: This is the catchall name for runoff from the land, which may contain pesticides, fertilizers, metals, manure, road salt, leaking gas and oil from automobiles, and other pollutants. Sources of these pollutants include farms, lawns, paved urban areas and roads, construction sites, timbering operations, golf courses and home septic systems. Non-point source pollution can quickly kill a stream by introducing organic and inorganic pollutants that can result in decreased oxygen, or poison aquatic life forms.

Erosion of sediment into a stream can smother aquatic life and clog the gills of fish as well as cut off needed light to underwater plants. Fast growth in the Triangle and Triad regions has meant an explosion of road and housing construction contributing to erosion problems. The growing popularity of golf course developments brings its own set of run-off problems when fairways double as waste water effluent sprayfields, inadequate for the job. Furthermore, new chip mill technology in forestry has meant an alarming increase in timbering, including old hardwoods that had been spared until now.
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Saxapahaw River Mill

Saxapahaw River Mill

A Look at the Old Haw River Cotton Mill Towns

In the mid 1850’s, the state of North Carolina promoted the building of hydro-powered textile mills along the rivers of the Piedmont. These mills would create new jobs and money while utilizing the cotton grown in the state. Many factories were built along rivers in the settlements where older gristmills (to grind grain) had been. Rural people from failing farms, women, and children, made up much of the early work force, and textile jobs were usually open to whites only.

As times changed, new mills were developed that did not depend on water power, and were built away from the river. Although some of the first cotton mills were modernized and are still running, most have closed down and stand today as quiet reminders of another era.

In 1779, Luke Bynum bought land upon which to build a gristmill and covered bridge. In 1872, the Bynum Manufacturing Co. (Luther and Carney Jr.) built a textile mill for weaving cotton cloth, while continuing to run the gristmill. They also constructed 14 mill houses and a school for workers and their families. The mill burned down in 1916, but was soon rebuilt. In 1922, electricity was installed and 29 more mill houses built. Though the mill closed operations in 1986, the town of Bynum still exists, with an historic church, the Bynum General Store and a one-lane bridge crossing the scenic river.

This town had its beginnings as a settlement around a gristmill on the Haw. John Newlin and his sons built a cotton mill in 1844 for weaving. B. Everett Jordan, who became a U.S. Senator (and is the namesake of Jordan Lake), was an owner and manager of the mill. In 1994, the mill closed due to tornado damage, and since then the old buildings have been transformed into new uses for residential and commercial use, creating a creative new community.

George Swepson, and partner G. Rosenthal, bought the land along the Haw River where Thomas Ruffin had operated a gristmill. In 1868 Swepson built a cotton mill there called Falls Neuse. During its early years, raw cotton was sent on barges downriver from the town of Haw River to Swepsonville, and finished cloth was towed back upriver. The mill burned and was rebuilt twice. A subsequent owner changed its name Virginia Mills. It closed in 1970.

Haw River
The Town of Haw River is rich with mill history. Adam Trollinger and his family moved here from Pennsylvania in 1745, and Benjamin Trollinger built a cotton mill on the river’s rocky bank in 1844. He called it the Granite Mill. The Holt family bought the Granite Mill in 1858 and became known for their Alamance Plaids cloth. A second cotton mill was built across from it (later known as Tabardry Mill). By the late 1800’s, little villages of company mill houses sprung up, with names like Terrapin Slide and Red Hill. In addition, the mill owners built many grand houses that still exist today. Under later ownership, the mills were used to weave and dye corduroy, and denim was produced. The mills have since closed production, though the Granite Mill is still used as a shipping operation. For more information, visit the Haw River Historical Museum (Main St., Haw River, across from Granite Mill open Sat.-Sun. 1-4)

Hopedale and Carolina
In 1840, John Trollinger and Jesse Gant built a cotton mill at the settlement of High Falls. The mill was built on one side of Stony Creek, and mill worker houses on the other. In 1883, a new owner renamed the town Big Falls. Under the next owner, J.N. Williamson, the name changed again to Hopedale. Since 1941, the mill has operated as Copland Fabrics and produces curtain materials.

In 1869 the Holt brothers (James, W.E., and L. Banks) of the Granite mill in Haw River bought land next to High Falls and established the Carolina Mill, which operated into the 1960’s, but is now abandoned.

James Holt bought a tobacco processing plant just upriver from Carolina Mill to expand his textile operations. There he built Glencoe mills, a company store, and mill worker homes. This factory operated as a textile mill under the Holt family until 1968. Now abandoned, this decorative old brick mill and its two story millhouses became a ghost town on the Haw. Now a National Historic Industrial Site, NC Preservation spearheaded historic renovation of the mill houses for residential use.

In 1878, James N. Williamson and sons built the Ossipee Cotton Mill. It, too, had a company store and mill houses, and the houses are still part of a present day community. Although the mill is no longer in operation, it is used by Glen Raven Mills for transport and shipping with their nearby operations.

Just upriver of Ossipee is the village of Altamahaw, the site of earlier gristmills and a tobacco factory. John Gant and Berry Davidson established a textile mill in 1870. During the 1930’s, it operated as a silk mill, and today has become part of the Glen Raven Mills operation. The beautiful Victorian-style old brick office building has been historically preserved and renovated as a conference center.
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The Sissipihaw People of the Haw

Bruce Holt with Peace Pipe

Peace Pipe Ceremony

The Native Americans who lived along the Haw River were part of the eastern Siouan people. They lived bountifully off the land by hunting, fishing and farming for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. UNC-Chapel Hill has researched archaeological sites along the Haw and some of its tributaries in Alamance County. These sites reveal much about how the Sissipihaw (also called the Saxapahaw) lived.

Lacking broad floodplains, the Sissipihaw People lived in small, interconnected villages on ridges overlooking the lower half of the Haw River. They constructed houses and storage huts made of saplings, logs and bark. At least one village site had fenced boundaries.

They hunted the abundant wildlife of the watershed, including deer, raccoons, possum, turkey, fish, and shellfish (both mussels and crayfish). They gathered wild plants, nuts and fruits, and cultivated crops such as corn, beans, and sunflowers. It is believed that peaches were introduced to the Americas by the Spanish and gained much popularity with Native Americans, who were growing them throughout the land long before other Europeans settled here.

Pottery was not only utilitarian, but also an art form with many styles of decoration. From pottery shard samples collected by archaeologists, we know that one such design was made by rolling corncobs across the surface of the clay to create a geometric design. School children who visit the Haw River Festival get a chance to try this technique at our clay station.

It is believed that the entry of European diseases, and their dispersion through trading contacts severely weakened the People of the Haw. By the late 1600’s, their population was quite small. Although John Lawson, an early English explorer of the Piedmont, wrote of seeing them in 1701, few, if any Sissipihaw were left to see their land overtaken by the colonial settlers.

Those who did survive joined related tribes, especially the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. Many of these people live on today in Northeast Alamance County. The tribal office of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation is located in Mebane.

Occaneechi Tribal Office, 207 East Center Street, Mebane, NC 27302, 919-304-3723

Ward, H.T. and Stephen Davis Jr., Indian Communities on the North Carolina Piedmont A.D. 1000-1700, Research Laboratories of Anthropology, UNC-Chapel Hill (Monograph #2), 1993.
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The Underground Railroad in the Haw River Watershed

Secret Language
The Underground Railroad was the name given to the secret routes and hiding places that slaves used to escape to the North prior to the Civil War. In order to keep these passages secret and safe, slaves and those who helped them used a kind of “code” language to communicate their plans. Many slave songs had hidden meanings in order to spread the word about the Underground Railroad, and sometimes to specify times and places to escape. Such songs include Go Down Moses and One More River To Cross.

Some key vocabulary in keeping with the railroad theme includes:
Agents: People who helped the fugitives by hiding them in their homes
Stations: Safe houses, or secret hiding places
Conductors: people, many of whom had been slaves themselves, who returned from freedom to lead fugitives from one safe house to the next

Quakers and the Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad had many stations in the Haw River watershed because of the large Quaker population in Guilford, Alamance, and northwest Chatham counties. Many Quakers were abolitionists and some supported the Underground Railroad by acting as agents. Levi Coffin, often called the President of the Underground Railroad, was born near Greensboro, and was a member of the New Garden Meeting, which became a key gathering point on the Underground Railroad.

Hidden Pathways in the Haw River Watershed
Because penalties were severe for slaves who were caught, great secrecy surrounded the routes, and much is still unknown today. There are some stories passed on, however, about hiding places in the Snow Camp (Alamance County) area. One house had a hidden room under the kitchen; another had a large bureau with a false back where people could hide. A huge fallen hollow tree also provided a place for people to hide.

Travelers on the Underground Railroad would mostly hide by day and travel by night using the North Star and Big Dipper (called the Drinking Gourd) to guide their way. The Haw River and its tributaries made well-known landmarks along the way and could be used to put off trackers. But a wide creek or the river could be dangerous to cross. Sometimes rafts were made by lifting a few wood rails from a nearby fence. They were then lashed together with vines because wires or nails would have left a trace. At the end of the river trip, the rafters would be take the structure apart, leaving no clues behind.


The Snow Camp Historical Drama Society presents a play about the Underground Railroad each summer in its Outdoor Amphitheater (located off the Old Greensboro Highway between Chapel Hill and Greensboro). Called “Pathway to Freedom”, the play is based on actual events in this area. Call 1-800-736-5115 for more information.

New Garden Friends School, 1128 New Garden Road, Greensboro, NC. Phone: 336-299-0964
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Haw River near Bynum

Haw River near Bynum


The Haw River is a major river in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Nine hundred and twenty miles of streams feed into the Haw along its 110 mile length. The Haw River basin occupies 1,707 square miles in 8 counties, and over 10% of the state’s population lives in the Haw River basin.

There is also the river under the river — a complex subterranean ecosystem in the groundwater below the river channel and extending as far as miles on each side. Many types of small blind shrimp, primitive worms, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, algae, and various immature insects live most, if not all, of their lives here. This invisible system supports a food chain that includes the larger animals we can see.

The Haw River has its source in the springs arising from the land just to the east of Kernersville in Forsyth County. Small streams join in as it meanders across the top of Guilford County through the wetlands and old beaver dams. It gains momentum as it is joined in Rockingham County by Big and Little Troublesome Creeks. Then, flowing down again through Guilford County it meets Reedy Fork, the creek that carries the effluent and run-off from Greensboro. The Haw then runs down through Alamance County, growing faster and wider as it passes through old textile mill towns and new cities: Altamahaw, Ossippee, Glencoe, Burlington, Graham, Swepsonville, Saxapahaw.

The Haw becomes a favorite white water run for canoers and kayakers as it flows down through the forests and fields of Chatham County fed by clear running creeks, through the old mill village of Bynum, past Pittsboro and into the waters of Jordan Lake. There it’s joined by the New Hope and other creeks flowing out of Chapel Hill, Durham and Wake County. Seven miles downriver from the Jordan Lake dam the Haw and the Deep Rivers become the big Cape Fear River, journeying on to the sea, past Wilmington and out to Southport and the Atlantic Ocean.
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The Haw River Assembly continues its accomplishments to protect and restore the Haw River watershed since 1982.