The Lumber River has a long history of economic significance for the towns that are located along its banks. Deriving its name from the extensive timber harvesting and transporting done in the late 1700s, the river is the primary reason why the towns along its banks were settled.
Princess Ann, the bluff on which the park's current headquarters are located, was chartered in 1796 as the second town in Robeson County. It was also the first inland town established by settlers traveling up the Lumber River from South Carolina. Settlers established the town on the bluff because they knew it would not be flooded and because the area provided an excellent landing along the river. The town is preserved now only as the name of the road that leads to the river.
The 115-mile stretch of river that meanders through four North Carolina counties is divided into three sections: scenic, recreational and natural. The uppermost and narrowest part of the river, from State Road 1412 to Back Swamp, is designated as the scenic section because the land around the river is undeveloped. Accessible by only a few roads, this section provides the chance to experience the outdoors at its most natural state. The middle portion of the river from Back Swamp to Jacob Branch and a smaller area at the Fair Bluff city limits are classified as recreational areas. These areas allow recreational activities and offer scenic value. The river here is easily accessible by many roads. The section from Jacob Branch to the South Carolina border is classified as the natural segment of the river. This area is remote, generally accessible by trails.
The Lumber River is the only North Carolina black-water river to earn federal designation as a national wild and scenic river. The upper river was designated as North Carolina's first recreational water trail in 1978. In 1981, it was established as a national canoe trail, and the lower Lumber River was designated as a state canoe trail in 1984. The persistent interest of the Lumber River Basin Committee and other public interest groups contributed to the park's existence. In 1989, the General Assembly established the Lumber River as a natural and scenic river and also as a state park.