Discovering Wilmington, NC

Wilmington’s Storied And Tumultuous History

Much of Wilmington’s present-day character and flavor, especially downtown, is derived from a robust, eventful, sometimes-tumultuous-but-always-fascinating history.
Probably the first visitor to explore the Cape Fear region, other than Indians and pirates, was Giovanni de Verrazzano who set anchor near the mouth of the river in 1524. He later described the area to the king of France as “open country rising in height above the sandy shore with many fair fields and plains full of mighty great woods, . . . as pleasant and delectable to behold, as is possible to imagine.” Some of his men encountered friendly Indians on shore, but “Northern winds,” possibly one of our occasional nor’easters, made the mooring unsafe so they left.

The following year, Spain sent a ship to explore the area, and in 1526 ships with 600 settlers arrived from Hispaniola (now Dominican Republic). One of the ships was lost on the shoals, so the group stayed only long enough to build a new one, and then sailed for Winyaw Bay in what is now South Carolina. In 1561, King Phillip II of Spain decreed Spain would make no more attempts to colonize Florida, as the area was known then.

Subsequently, Queen Elizabeth I decreed the right of the British to conquer and occupy land “not actually possessed on any Christian prince or people,” opening the door for English colonization. Eventually, in 1629, the Cape Fear area was incorporated as the Province of Carolina.

A group from the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent William Hilton in 1662 to explore the area for settling. He reported favorably, and in 1663, the group arrived here but were dissatisfied with the land and left a few months later.

In 1664 settlers from British Barbados arrived to establish Charles Town, 20 miles upstream from the ocean on the west bank of the river.

By 1667, a multitude of problems including hostile Indians, mosquitoes, pirates and inadequate supplies forced the settlers to abandon Charles Town and migrate south where they founded Charleston in South Carolina.

Notorious Pirates Take Over In Late 1600s

For the next 50 years no attempts at settlement were made because of hostile Indians and notorious pirates, including Stede Bonnet who ultimately was captured in the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Eventually, all the pirates were rounded up and the Indians driven off and the area was ripe for renewed settlement attempts by the early 1700s.

Brunswick Town was founded on the west side of the river in 1726 (the ruins of which may be visited today), but did not fare well compared with the more favorably positioned and protected area on high bluffs across the river and upstream, now known as Wilmington.

Settled In 1729

Initially settled in 1729 and subsequently known as New Carthage, New Liverpool and Newton, the town was incorporated as Wilmington in 1740 in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington and patron of Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston (possibly an early form of political patronage?).

Shipbuilding Center

During the formative years, Wilmington became an important port, shipbuilding center and processing location for lumber, pine products and cotton. At various times during the 1700s, Wilmington was the seat of government for North Carolina, and by 1760, the population had reached 5,000.

In 1765, one of the American Colonies’ first successful armed resistances to the British-imposed Stamp Act took place in Wilmington. Five hundred men, well fortified from having planned their activities in local taverns, forced the stamp collector to resign. Thusly, Wilmington was drawn into the American Revolution, and by early 1781 British forces occupied the city. Late in the year, Lord Cornwallis arrived to lead the British to Yorktown, Va., where they were defeated.

During the years following the Revolutionary War, Wilmington prospered as an important port, and at one point was the largest city in North Carolina. However, after the turn of the century the city began to decline because of infrastructure problems, navigation difficulties on the river, land transportation obstacles and a number of other problems.

Fortunately, with the advent of steam-powered vessels and the railroads, Wilmington was able to bounce back, and by the 1840s was an important port city for the export of cotton, lumber, naval stores, rice, flax and peanuts.

Civil War Curtails Trade

When the Civil War broke out, much of Wilmington’s export trade was curtailed because of Union blockades, but the port remained active thanks to the infamous and crafty blockade runners bringing supplies in at night from England and the Caribbean for the Confederacy.

Last Confederate Port Open

By 1864, Wilmington was the only Confederate port remaining open, but in 1865 Fort Fisher fell, the city was occupied, supply lines were cut off and the Confederacy was defeated. Following the Civil War, Wilmington prospered and grew socially and economically as a major port and railroad center.

By 1910, the city lost the distinction of being the state’s largest because of more rapid growth of the inland cities fueled by tobacco and textiles.

During the First World War, Wilmington continued to prosper with shipbuilding and a booming cotton export trade, and by the Roaring Twenties was partying with the best of them. However, the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression hit the city hard and it again declined.

243 Ships Built For Use In World War II

World War II brought renewed growth and prosperity to the city. Thousands of workers came to the city to work in the shipyards where 243 ships were built during the war. The North Carolina Port Authority was created and Wilmington’s port was improved and expanded significantly.

Railroad’s Move South

The city continued to develop and thrive until 1955, when Wilmington was struck a nearly paralyzing blow by the movement of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad’s corporate headquarters to Florida. With the railroad’s move went 300 families and much of the underlying strength of downtown, which began to decline as a result.

Downtown’s decline was further exacerbated with the advent of economic growth in the outlying areas, especially around the malls. Shops and stores closed and seedy bars opened. Downtown Wilmington was not attractive.

Revitalization Efforts

However, during the 1960s, a dedicated group of businessmen and citizens formed the Committee of 100, now known as Wilmington Industrial Development, to attract new and diversified industry and businesses to Wilmington.

Then, in 1977, the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE) was formed to retain existing businesses, attract new ones and help preserve downtown’s older buildings and character. That group is now known as Wilmington Downtown. All these efforts are helping residents as well as visitors acknowledge and appreciate what an asset Historic Downtown Wilmington is.