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
Geography and Geology


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 over a thousand years before  Europeans arrived. It is believed that their population was severely weakened by European diseases brought through trading contact. As their land was overtaken by colonial European settlers, the survivors joined tribes to the north and south and today, live on through the Occoneechi Band of Saponi Nations 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’d 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, with sediment pollution -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 1972, 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, Mebane, Chapel Hill, Durham 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. In January, 2014, the City of Burlington had a major rupture of its force main sewer line, sending 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage into the Haw River.  The Haw River Assembly filed a legal action (Notice of Intent to Sue), that resulted in extensive repairs and line replacements to prevent future problems.  Such failures are dangerous to aquatic life and can pose tremendous risks to recreational users of the waters.  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. Industries in the upper Haw cities, particularly Reidsville, Greensboro and Burlington send their wastewater to municipal treatment plants and are the source of industrial chemicals such as PFAS and 1,4-dioxane, often in high amounts.  These chemicals are a public health threat to downstream drinking water users of the Haw and Cape Fear rivers as well as to aquatic life.

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, dirt from building sites 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 1800’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 continued to run for many years, they are now closed down and stand today as quiet reminders of another era. A few have been renovated for new purposes.

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. The mill closed operations completely in 1986, and was destroyed by a fire in 2001. The town of Bynum is still a strong community with an historic church, the Bynum General Store and a one-lane pedestrian bridge crossing the scenic river. The old mill site has become part of the Lower Haw River State Natural Area.

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. Since then the old buildings have been transformed into new uses for residential and commercial use, including apartments, a concert venue ( the Haw River Ballroom), restaurants and more. It has become 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, and is now demolished. The land it sat on is owned by the Town of Swepsonville.

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. Granite Mill is being converted into apartments and retail as the Lofts on Haw River.

Hopedale Mill
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. In 1941, the mill began operating as Copland Fabrics and produced curtain materials, but is now closed.

Carolina Mill

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 closed.

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. A National Historic Industrial Site, NC Preservation spearheaded historic renovation of the mill houses for residential use and part of the old mill has been renovated as a new event center. There is also small museum on site with the history of the mill and its workers.

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 was used for many years 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

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 over a thousand 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 a palisade enclosing it.

They hunted the abundant wildlife of the watershed, including deer, raccoons, possum, turkey, fish, and shellfish (both mussels and crayfish).  They built weirs in the river to trap fish, some can still be seen today. 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.

Crafts and Tools
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. Much skill went into making arrowheads, hammers and other tools.

It is believed that the entry of European diseases, and their dispersion through trading contacts severely weakened the People of the Haw. In the 16th century, the Sissipahaw made first contact with Europeans, as noted by the Spanish explorer named Vendera, who called them the Sauxpa. By the late 1600’s, their population was diminishing. John Lawson, an early English explorer of the Piedmont, wrote of seeing their lands and hearing about them in 1701. Sissipahaw warriors joined many other tribes in the Yamasee War of 1715 against British colonialists, to try and stop the invasion of lands in the Carolinas.   By the mid to late 1700’s colonial settlers were increasingly taking over the lands of the  Sissipihaw people, sometimes by violence. The surviving Sisissipahaw joined related tribes, including the Catawba, and the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, who shared the same root language. Many live today in Alamance, Orange and Caswell counties.  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 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, a prominent Quaker organizer 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, and danger for those who assisted them, 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 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. The theater, also home to “Sword of Peace” the Revolutionary War drama, is currently closed for major renovations, but hopes to reopen in the future sttps://www.snowcampoutdoortheatre.com/

New Garden Friends School, 1128 New Garden Road, Greensboro, NC. Phone: 336-376-6948
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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.  About 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 to the east of Kernersville in Forsyth County. These small streams join together into a river 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 fast 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.  A few miles downriver from the Jordan Lake dam is the confluence of the Haw and the Deep Rivers, now becoming the big Cape Fear River, journeying on to the sea, past Fayettelville and Wilmington – out to Southport and the Atlantic Ocean.


What created the rock outcroppings in the Haw? What kind of rocks are they?  How old are they? These and many more questions are answered in the new  Haw River Geology Guide. Phil Bradley, Piedmont Geologist with the North Carolina Geological Survey has just released a  geologic guide to the Lower Haw River State Natural Area.  This is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the ancient history of  the Haw River,  and includes maps and photos.

This field guide looks at two separate stretches of the Haw River within the Lower Haw River State Natural Area in the vicinity of the Hwy 64 bridge crossing in Chatham County. with interpretations of various outcrops and landforms along the river.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the fascinating story Phil Bradley shared with us.

In the Beginning….Volcanoes off of Gondwana

The large rocky outcrops and boulders and rocks we see exposed along the Haw River, especially in Alamance and Chatham counties, were once part of a volcanic island arc formed off the coast of the ancient continent Gondwana (near what is now western Africa) around 630 million years ago. This volcanic island arc, called the Carolina Zone, was formed by the subduction of an oceanic plate causing magma to rise to the surface.   As these volcanic islands emerged above the ocean surface, erosion of the volcanic and intrusive rocks created sediments. that were carried down into the sea (evidence of ocean marine sediments are found along Morgan Creek in Chapel Hill.) Over the next 50 million years these volcanic islands erupted, eroded, and collided with another island arc, all the time creating volcanic (igneous), sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. This ever changing violent beginning of our Haw River lands can be seen in the outcrops, and angular rocks in the river today. Their fractured shapes and joints break open to reveal rocks made from magma, lava and tuff, that were heated, folded and pressured into new rocks and minerals over hundreds of billions of years.  How did they end up here in North Carolina?

Ancient Worlds Collide

Approximately 450 million years ago, the Carolina volcanic island arc slammed into ancient North America (part of the continent called Laurentia), forming a coast range of mountains and deforming and folding the rock layers into metamorphic rock. Then, approximately 300 million years ago, the ancient African continent Gondwana slammed into Laurentia forming the 1000 mile long Appalachian Mountain chain and the supercontinent Pangea. Our Carolina Zone was now in the middle of Pangea!

…And Are Split Apart

When the supercontinent Pangea began to split apart, approximately 245 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean was formed, as well as a system of rift basins all along the east coast of North America. The Triassic Basin is one of these and is located along the eastern side of the Haw River watershed. These rift basins filled in with sediments from eroding lands on either side – you can see these reddish sandstones, siltstones and claystones on the eastern banks of Jordan Lake. Over 170 million years, the Carolina Zone mountains were worn down to hills by erosion, and the Coastal Plain was formed.

The Haw River is Formed

The Piedmont continued to erode, but starting about 66 million years ago, the land was uplifted due to forces in the earth’s crust. The streams and rivers became entrenched in their floodplains and caused them to down-cut their channels as the land surface slowly uplifted.  A large part of the Haw River is just such an incised river with steep banks in many places, with erosion continuing today. The headwaters of the Haw, in Forsyth, western Guilrock and Rockingham counties are different than this. Here the river is a small meandering stream through upland swamps heading slightly northeast before beginning the faster and rocker descent through Alamance and Chatham counties. Some geologist have wondered if this was once a tributary of the Dan River, captured through geologic forces millions of years ago (stream piracy!) to become the headwaters of the Haw.

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