Fourteen miles northeast of Downtown Sanford sits an obscure island known mostly to kayakers of the Cape Fear River, local historians and perhaps a few mermaid enthusiasts (more on that later).
McKay Island — a 65-acre, half-mile long island located two miles from where the Deep and Haw rivers meet to form the Cape Fear — is one of the 200-mile-long river’s two natural islands of any significant size between Wilmington and Moncure (it breaks into several islands as it approaches Wilmington and the coast). Maps of both Lee and Chatham counties end their borders on each side of the river, with the official border technically running down its middle.
The island is densely forested with only a few small sandy access points and is home to otters, beavers and a bevy of hawks and other birds. According to Chad Spivey, a Sanford insurance agent who leads kayak tours of local rivers, the area from McKay Island to the Deep/Haw River confluence was first settled in 1796 and initially named Haywood. The area was at one time North Carolina’s most western port for Atlantic Ocean steamboats.
This from the site northcarolinaghosts.com:
The Cape Fear River was one of the early economic drivers of North Carolina. The river was once teeming with Atlantic Sturgeon, a strange-looking, ancient species of fish that spends most of its life in the oceans but, like the salmon, travels up into fresh water to spawn. The sturgeon’s eggs are highly prized as caviar, and because of this it was hunted to near extinction in the 19th Century. With all of this potential for money to be made, the banks of the Cape Fear became a draw for settlers.
Not much has been written about McKay Island itself. Google Maps doesn’t acknowledge it as a tract of land unless you switch over to “satellite view” when searching for it (but a “McKay Island, Lee County NC” search will lead you to it). There is one Wikipedia entry on it, though oddly it is written in German and contains very little information aside from size and location.
There is no online history of the name — a map of the river dated 1853, shows the island, but without a name, while a map from a year prior refers to it as “Hawkins Island” (both images come courtesy of Lee County’s Geographic Information Systems). The earliest mention we could find of the current name comes from a March 25, 1908 story titled “Visit to Buckhorn Falls” in the Chatham Record (courtesy of the ChathamRabbit blog):
The trip from Moncure down the river to the dam was delightful, and was a [?] experience in this county. The river varies in depth from Moncure to the dam from ten feet to thirty feet and is a beautiful sheet of water, being over twice the width of the Cape Fear at Fayetteville.
… Two miles below the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers is McKay’s Island, half a mile long and containing about 65 acres. … The ride down the river was made in less than an hour, and a more delightful spring day could not have been selected. The air was balmy, the water as smooth and calm as a mill pond and with a whirr the gasoline launch churned through the water, leaving rolling waves in its wake.
The reason the island is news to many is there’s no easy way to access it (*unless kayaking is “easy” to you; then in that case, congratulations). Spivey said those wanting to make landfall on the island by boat, kayak or canoe should do so coming in from the east from the Avent’s Ferry boat dock where the Cape Fear crosses N.C. 42.
According to one geocaching site, “The island is very grown up with thorns, poison plants, ticks, etc. I recommend long pants and boots.”
Those wanting to just see the island without a boat will have a more difficult time, as private property surrounds almost every viewpoint.
There is, however, railroad access from both sides. The shortest jaunt is accessible from Lower River Road in northern Lee County. A 10-minute walk on the tracks will take you to an old and rusty — though still very much in use — railroad trestle bridge. The island can be seen from the foot of that bridge— crossing or walking on the bridge is both illegal and nuts. The walk itself is beautiful and quiet, though the several visible deer stands along the way would suggest one would avoid this during hunting season. Also, watch out for loitering bears.
Duke Progress Energy (and before that, its predecessor corporation Carolina Power & Light) has owned the island since 1970, when — along with several other properties in the region — it was deeded to CP&L by the Wolf Summit Coal Company of West Virginia in exchange for “one hundred dollars and other valuable considerations.”
The deed on file at the Lee County Register of Deeds Office is somewhat difficult to follow, but appears to indicate that the properties in question have been held by various energy and manufacturing concerns including the Central Carolina Power Company, the Cape Fear Power Company and the American Iron and Steel Company dating back to the earliest years of the 20th century.
If all of this has inspired you to take a kayak or boat to the Cape Fear, check out the river’s entry point — where the Deep and Haw rivers meet — while you’re at it.
Two miles northwest of McKay Island is Mermaid Point. Before the Buckhorn Dam raised water levels, the confluence of those rivers gave way to a sandbar that — legend has it — was a popular spot for mermaids who’d “swim 200 miles from the coast to relax on the sand and rocks and wash the salt from their hair,” said Spivey. “Old folks would believe anything.”
Northcarolinaghosts.com tells a longer story of Mermaid Point:
In 1740 … Ramsey’s Tavern sat right by the banks of the Deep River, a short distance upstream of where it joined with the Haw. When people left the tavern at the end of the night, this confluence was on the path home, and in the middle of this broad channel was a long, white, sandbar. And it was on this channel that people said they saw the mermaids.
They said that the mermaids would sit on the sandbar at night, combing their long hair in the moonlight. People walking home from the tavern would see them laughing, singing, and playing and splashing in the water. They would dive below the surface if anyone should call out to them or try to approach. It’s from this gathering that the area came to be known as Mermaid Point. Of course, it may mean something that people always seemed to see the mermaids on their way home from the tavern, and never on the way to the tavern.