MIKE WAGONER

MIKE WAGONER

Do you believe in magical mermaids? They are important figures in North Carolina’s coastal legend and lore, but “Mermaid Point” is found far inland in the Piedmont Crescent.

Geographically, the spot is exactly where the Haw River joins the Deep River in Chatham County to form the Cape Fear River. The closest town to Mermaid Point is Moncure, which has about 710 inhabitants.

As early as the 1700s, patrons leaving Ambrose Ramsey’s riverside tavern often reported seeing a “splash” of mermaids – not a pod, gaggle or school.

The mermaids had wriggled their half-human/half-fish slender bodies out of the river to sit on a sandbar. They basked in the moonlight and combed their long, flowing tresses after having “washed the seawater from their hair,” reported Heather Leah, a history buff and journalist in Cary, N.C.

The mermaids swim, swam, swum up the Cape Fear River to preen in the freshwater, Leah said. That’s a long way to travel just to get a shampoo. But freshwater was essential, because mermaids are vain. Washing the salt from their hair made their manes shiny and beautiful.

Ramsey’s tavern was destroyed by a ravaging flood in the late 19th century. About the same time, capitalists began constructing dams and locks along the Cape Fear River, denying natural access to Mermaid Point. As a result, the mermaids were forced to find other locales.

Many swam up the shoreline from Cape Fear to settle in Carteret County, finding “happy places” along Shackleford Banks in clear, sparkling waters of Back Sound. New formulas have been introduced into the production of modern mermaid shampoos, eliminating the need for long journeys from saltwater to freshwater locales.

The most thriving community of present-day mermaids is found in Florida at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

Weeki Wachee Springs is the deepest naturally formed spring in the United States at a depth of 407 feet. Each day, more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 74-degree water bubble up out of subterranean caverns.

“Weeki Wachee” was named by the native Seminoles. It means “little spring” or “winding river.” Flowing from the spring, the Weeki Wachee River bends its way 12 miles to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

Within the springs, people can sit in an aquarium-style, submerged “underwater theater” to watch mermaids swim, frolic and perform synchronized ballet routines about 20 feet below the surface.

In 1947, Newton Perry opened his roadside attraction. His mermaids used camouflaged underwater breathing hoses. Oxygen was pumped from an air compressor, rather than from a tank strapped to the back of each mermaid.

Perry was a natural swimmer and showman. In the 1920s and ’30s, he found a niche in the film industry. Perry helped legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice diversify into “Sportlights,” a series of short films about sports figures. Perry was involved in about 150 productions. A reel titled “The Human Fish” featured Perry. Rice proclaimed him as the “best swimmer in America.”

Perry became a go-to consultant for Hollywood movies that involved on-location water scenes, and Florida’s crystal-clear spring waters provided nearly ideal underwater filming locations.

Perry was the stunt double for actor Johnny Weissmuller in six Tarzan films, “diving off cliffs and out of trees when the script called for such dramatics.”

One of the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids in the 2021 cast is Lydia Byrd. She is a North Carolina native who is making a big “splash with the splash.” We’ll need to meet her.

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