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In geomorphology, a fall line (at times referred to as a fall zone) marks the area where an upland region (continental bedrock) and a coastal plain (coastal alluvia) meet. Technically, a fall line is an unconformity. A fall line is typically prominent when crossed by a river, for there will often be rapids or waterfalls. Many times a fall line will recede upstream as the river cuts out the uphill dense material, often forming “c”-shaped waterfalls. Because of these features riverboats typically cannot travel any farther inland without portaging, unless locks are built there. On the other hand, the rapid change in elevation of the water, and the resulting energy release, makes the fall line a good location for water mills, grist mills, and sawmills. Because of the need for a river port leading to the ocean, and a ready supply of water power, settlements often develop where rivers cross a fall line.

With the advent of electric power, some places along the Fall Line acquired dams and hydroelectric generators, such as Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia.

The fall line in the United States

A relief map illustrating the United States Fall Line

Along the eastern coast of the United States, the east-facing escarpment where the Piedmont of the Appalachians descends steeply to the coastal plain forms a fall line over 1500 kilometers long. This long fall line (also referred to as the Fall Zone) played a major role in settlement patterns along rivers, back into prehistoric times. It is often referred to simply as "the fall line" or "the fall zone". In some places the fall line may be abrupt, while in others it is a zone that may be many miles wide. Geologically the fall line marks the boundary of hard metamorphosed terrain—the product of the Taconic orogeny—and the sandy, relatively flat outwash plain of the uppers continental shelf, formed of unconsolidated Cretaceous and Tertiary sediments. Examples of the Fall Zone include the rapids in Richmond, Virginia, where the James River falls across a series of rapids down to the tidal estuary of the James River.

There are a few different theories as to how a Fall Line is formed or why they exist, and one in particular, brought forward by American Physiographer W.J. McGee states that a Fall Line is created through monoclinal faulting/flexing experienced in the region. While this theory is accepted by many geomorphologists much of the fall line along the east coast of the United States passes through areas where no evidence of faulting is present.

In the 19th century, the fall line often represented the head of navigation on rivers at points like Little Falls or the Great Falls, on the Potomac River. However, since the advent of flumes for water supply and canals for shipping in the early 20th Century, the most prominent feature of fall line settlement was the establishment of the cities along it. Since those cities were linked by the early highways, U.S. Route 1 was constructed to pass through many of these Eastern cities, roughly tracing the fall line, before breaking away from it and going into Florida.

Cities along the Piedmont – Coastal Plain fall line include, from north to south:

Cities along other fall lines include:

See also




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