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Fall Line

by Jim Fowlkes, 2006

The Fall line, or fall zone, in North Carolina is defined in geological terms as the line of erosion between the piedmont and the coastal plain regions at which hard, erosion-resistant rocks descend into softer, eastern rocks. Running through Richmond, Montgomery, Moore, Lee, and other counties, the fall line is particularly apparent in rivers as the place past which boats can no longer navigate because of the occurrence of natural falls or rapids. The fall line has thus greatly influenced transportation, settlement location, population distribution, and industrial development in North Carolina.

Water transportation was the cheapest and most reliable method of moving goods and persons in the early years of the state's development, so it was natural that areas near fall lines in rivers often became population centers. These fall lines also became known as "break-in-bulk points" because at them large shipments coming in on water vessels would be rearranged into smaller lots for further land transportation. Points on rivers adjacent to the fall line also provided a source of energy to run water mills and other important commercial ventures; consequently, the state's early development was concentrated at the fall line along its major eastern rivers. The towns on the fall line of the Tar River were Tarboro, Greenville, and Rocky Mount. On the Neuse River, Kinston, Smithfield, and Goldsboro were developed on the fall line. Weldon was formed on the Roanoke River fall line, Hillsborough on the Eno River fall line, and Alamance on the Alamance Creek fall line.

The fall line remains important in the modern day for the measurement and management of pollution in North Carolina's rivers. The difference in soil types and water flow on either side of the fall line allows scientists to study the effects of pollutants introduced into the rivers, serving, in part, as the basis for various pollution-related regulations.


Cordelia Camp, The Influence of Geography upon Early North Carolina (1963).

J. Wright Horton Jr. and Victor A. Zullo, eds., The Geology of the Carolinas: Carolina Geological Society Fiftieth Anniversary Volume (1991).

Harry Roy Merrens, Colonial North Carolina in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Historical Geography (1964).

Additional Resources:

Walbert, David. "Natural diversity. " ANCHOR.




I think you are wrong because I went to this river yesterday and it looks nasty.


You name the Tar and Neuse Rivers in explaining fall line because they were used for transportation of goods. But you make no mention of the Cape Fear that carried good up river from the port of Wilmington.


Good question. But I have worked at a paper mill near Lock and Dam #1, which is where navigation stops on the Cape Fear River. And it is really swampy. Our site map of fifteen hundred acres along the river showed huge areas where creeks run into the River on and near the property lines as simply labelled “trees in water”.
So, no real possibility of a town or city developing there.


Hillsborough appears to be a wee bit west of where all the fall lines are drawn on maps I've seen. Unless the "fall line" is actually a region spanning 2 or more counties.

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