click for map

The Chowan River has played a pivotal role in North Carolina's history and economy. As a major artery in northeast North Carolina and an arm of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary, the river's health is intimately linked to the well-being of the estuary.


More than two miles wide when it finally spills into Albemarle Sound, the Chowan River has its beginnings far to the north in Virginia.  Rising as dark, tannin-stained streams, Virginia's Blackwater and Nottoway rivers eventually merge to form the Chowan at the state line.  The Meherrin, too, flows southeast from Virginia before it joins the Chowan in North Carolina. In fact, about 70 per cent of the Chowan River's flow comes from Virginia.

The river's drainage basin is vast. It is formed from a network of streams (some 760 miles in North Carolina alone) that feeds larger tributaries, and it drains about 4,800 square miles of land in North Carolina and Virginia. Like the Roanoke River, the Chowan is a major contributor of fresh water to the Albemarle Sound.

The river itself is about 50 miles long, narrow and energetic in its northern reaches. As it skirts Holiday Island, however, it widens and leisurely arcs to meet the Albemarle Sound near Edenton.

Large, awe-inspiring swamps of tupelo- gum and cypress fringe much of the shore and may extend far inland. In spring, fern fiddleheads poke through moss carpets, tree frogs call, and baldcypress sprout fresh greenery. These swamps, rich in wildlife, regulate and purify water flowing from land.

Along the western shore of the river steep cliffs rise, part of the Suffolk Scarp. This sinuous north-south ridge represents the remains of an ancient shoreline created when glaciers melted and sea level rose, flooding Albemarle lands.


“Here was a good country where crops were heavier, forests deeper and trees taller. In the spring the herring and greater fish also swam up in schools to spawn.”  Ralph Lane, 1586.

For centuries, the Algonquian Indians lived on the banks of the Chowan Wapeamoks on the west, Chowanokes on the east. Oak-hickory forests, fertile soils, and productive waters yielded a wealth of food.

Into this goodly land in the late 1600s colonists migrated from Virginia. They lumbered vast acres to establish farms that would later become the great self-sufficient plantations of the mid-1800s.

Surrounded by roadless swamps, settlers used the Chowan River as a highway. Landings with names like Black Walnut, Willow Creek, and Goose Pond invited the weary traveler to rest. Sailing ships, tugs and barges navigated tributaries like the Meherrin and Wiccacon rivers, Potecasi and Bennetts creeks. Until the late 1800s landings on these creeks and rivers were  lifelines for homesteaders.

Edenton, cradle of the colony and first state capital, soon became a thriving commercial center. During a single five-year period in the 1770s, ten million oak staves, 16 million  shingles, thousands of hogsheads of fish, tobacco and corn, and over a thousand deerskins left this royal port in exchange for rum, sugar, molasses and linen. Today, well-preserved old homes and stately trees line Edenton's historic streets.

Protected by shallow off-shore sand bars, the bustling city provided refuge for American ships during the Revolution, and the Chowan River became a vital supply line for Washington's army. By 183l, the first steamships in America plied the river, dispatching passengers and freight for almost a hundred years.


Since colonial times, fishermen would sweep the river from March to May for river herring, shad, and striped bass. Called anadromous, because they journey annually from sea to coastal waters to spawn, these fish teemed upriver each spring. Pound nets, gill nets, or colossal seines, some a mile long, laced the waters. One historic landing in 1890 at Bandon (now Arrowhead Beach) yielded a million herring.

Herring was king on the Chowan River, and the Chowan River was capital of the fresh water herring fishery. Three decades ago, fisheries at Colerain processed over 12 million herring a year.  Once used as currency, the mighty herring, boiled, fried or corned, became a staple of local fare, along with corn- bread, sweet potatoes, and yaupon tea.

In 1972, however, algal blooms, like thick green paint, smothered most of the Chowan River from Holiday Island to Albemarle Sound. Massive fish kills lined the shores, and fishing abruptly died. The summer-long event stunned local citizens and galvanized public opinion and government agencies.

Periodic blooms and steadily declining fish harvests since then have maintained levels of concern. Fishing advisories because of dioxins released during paper production are of further concern to commercial and recreational fishermen.

Cultural eutrophication, or over-enrichment by nitrogen and phosphorus from man-made sources may cause algal blooms that upset normal food webs and affect fish production. Decaying algae  rob water of oxygen needed for survival of fish.

Non-point source discharges, such as runoff from cropland and animal operations, contribute over 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus entering the river basin, along with large amounts of sediment from cleared land.

By the 1970's towns and cities, schools, gas stations and laundromats, lumber and paper companies, and dye, fertilizer, and aluminum industries were dumping their wastes into streams and creeks that fed the river. All told, there were 168 known Virginia and North Carolina point-source dischargers into the river basin.

One discharger, CF Industries' fertilizer plant in Tunis, which was not able to meet the requirements of its permits, released vast quantities of nitrates during the 1970s. The plant site, now closed with sealed holding ponds, is on the EPA  Superfund  List.

A major discharger in Virginia, Union Camp Bleached Paper Division, has worked to improve the quality of its effluent by using holding ponds for sludge, oxygenating wastewater and limiting releases to a period when river flows are high. A new ozone bleaching process will eliminate dioxin from future discharges.

 In response to the river's critical condition,  several actions have been taken:

  • The Chowan River Task Force was created to monitor discharge permits and educate the public.