Wilmington Historic District

Wilmington City, New Hanover County, NC

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The Wilmington Historic District [‡] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Wilmington, long North Carolina's chief port, is the most distinctively urban of the state's towns; in a state historically rural) only Wilmington exhibits the character of a nineteenth century city. The grid of streets extending back from the waterfront is densely filled with commercial, governmental, ecclesiastical, and domestic buildings of consistent scale; the townscape is enhanced by the retention of early paving materials, large trees, and street furniture including ironwork and statuary. The architecture of nearly every period is characterized by a boldness and directness that place grand effect over precision of detail, seeming to express the energy and forcefulness of the merchants, shippers, and politicians of the bustling port city. There are a number of structures of outstanding merit, including works by Samuel Sloan and Thomas U. Walter, but the architectural fabric is dominated and unified by an apparently indigenous bracketed, vented Italianate idiom that was popular throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially during the antebellum boom period. As a major center of political, cultural, and commercial activity and as the most significant concentration of urban architectural fabric, Wilmington is of prime importance to North Carolina. It is nationally significant as a major Southern port — the last remaining open to support the Confederacy — and a city where local efforts are actively preserving a townscape notable for its unique character and architectural distinction.

For two centuries before permanent settlement took place, Europeans had explored the area where the Cape Fear River leads into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano explored the Cape Fear coast, sending Francis I of France the "earliest description known to exist of the Atlantic coast north of Cape Fear." He was followed by Spanish adventurer's in 1526 and by New England settlers who came in 1662 but departed abruptly, leaving behind a message to avoid the area. In 1663 Charles II of England granted the Carolinas to the eight proprietors, and in the following year a group of Englishmen from Barbados settled along the Cape Fear River, calling the county Clarendon and their town Charlestown. This too was abandoned by 1667, and there followed an unsettled period when the region was plagued by pirates, notably Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach ("Blackbeard").

Permanent settlement along the Cape Fear River finally came in 1725, when Brunswick town was founded by Colonel Maurice Moore; New Hanover precinct was established in 1729, the same year the crown purchased most of the Carolina property from the Lords Proprietors. Brunswick became the trading center and county seat, and the Port of Brunswick was the most important of the colony's five ports; in 1732, forty-two vessels cleared the port and there were some 1,200 people (about two-thirds of them Negroes). The early settlers of the Cape Fear area claimed vast stretches of the best land, thereby hindering newcomers who attempted to settle along the river. Their interests were closely tied to Brunswick.

In April, 1731 Governor George Burrington, who counted the Brunswick clique among his enemies, asked the General Assembly to "pass an act for building a Town on Cape Fear and appointing commissioners for that purpose." To this suggestion the lower house responded by reminding Burrington that "there is a Town already Established on Cape Fear River called Brunswick in New Hanover Precinct...(and) it is like to be a flourishing place."

Nevertheless property in what was to become known as Wilmington was by 1731 already being bought and sold on the west side of the Cape Fear River just south of the junction of the northeast and northwest branches. "Plans for laying off the town were made in April, 1733" and several plans were accomplished. Known by various names — New Carthage, New Liverpool, Newton, and finally Wilmington — the town came to be populated by the requisite artisans and craftsmen but especially by men who derived their livelihood from the sea and the commerce associated with a port.

As early as 1735 the residents of the village instigated petitions to establish formally the settlement, known then as "Newton." Although the new governor, Gabriel Johnston, was sympathetic to the establishment of the new town, the petition was held up by the pro-Brunswick faction until February, 1739, when the General Assembly finally passed the Wilmington Town Bill. The name Wilmington honored Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, the sponsor and mentor of Governor Johnston.

After the new town's incorporation, the important functions of county seat and Port of Brunswick were transferred to Wilmington, and tax intended for a courthouse and "goal" in Brunswick was to be applied toward completing "the court house already erected in the said town of Wilmington, and towards building a goal in the said town." The following year, observing that the establishment of Wilmington had "greatly promoted the trade and interest, and contributed to the ease and convenience of the inhabitants" of the area, the General Assembly confirmed these changes and established the parish of St. James in Wilmington.

Wilmington soon became one of the colony's leading towns and the most important port, serving the rapidly growing population of the long Cape Fear River, including the important Highland Scots settlement at Cross Creek (now Fayetteville). The chief source of the town's burgeoning wealth, however, was the vast pine forest that covered the country and provided tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine — the naval stores vital to Britain's mighty fleet. Many of the plantations were covered not primarily with cotton or rice fields but pine stands tapped by the slave work force; also important were the many subsistence farmers for whom tapping pines on a smaller scale provided a vital source of income. Naval stores were "the most valuable of North Carolina's exports" and "the only industry in which North Carolina held first place among the English colonies." In the eighteenth century the colony produced "seven-tenths of the tar, more than one-half the turpentine, and one-fifth of the pitch exported from all the colonies to England," and it led the world in production of naval stores from about 1720 to 1870. From the Port of Brunswick (at Wilmington) were shipped to England more naval stores than from any other port in the British empire. Also important was the lumber industry, which had large domestic and export markets; in 1764 Governor Dobbs wrote that the Cape Fear River exported "above 30,000,000 feet in lumber and scantlings." The lumber was prepared for export at forty sawmills along the river. Supportive industries such as shipbuilding and repair yards and tar and turpentine distilleries were a vital part of the port city's economic prosperity.

As center for the naval stores and lumber industries and the accompanying trade, Wilmington became a flourishing town of wealth, culture, and political importance. It was the focal point of a remarkable group of opulent plantations that lined the Cape Fear River — now nearly all gone. One account described sixty-six plantations and their proprietors, and reported, "No better society existed in America, and it is but simple truth to say that for classical learning, wit, oratory, and varied accomplishments, no generation of their successors has equaled them.... Their hospitality was boundless and proverbial, and of the manner in which it was enjoyed there can be no counterpart in the present age."

Town life was no less remarkable; a biographer of James Iredell wrote that Wilmington was "noted for its unbounded hospitality and the elegance of its society. Men of rare talents, fortune, and attainment, united to render it the home of politeness, and ease, and enjoyment. Though the footprint of the Indian had, as yet, scarcely been affaced, the higher civilization of the Old World had been transplanted there, and had taken vigorous root."

Cultural institutions thrived in pre-Revolutionary Wilmington. The North Carolina Gazette and Weekly Post Boy was published by Andrew Steuart from 1764 to 1767, followed by the Cape Fear Mercury (1769-1775). Masonic Lodge 213 was granted a charter in 1765 (and rechartered in 1794 as St. John's Lodge No. 1). Parson James Tate came from Ireland in 1760 and established the first classical school in North Carolina under Presbyterian influence. In 1760 the Cape Fear Library Society was founded. In 1759 Thomas Godfrey, a young Philadelphian, came to Wilmington and soon completed a dramatic poem, The Prince of Parthia, said to have been "the first attempt in America at dramatic composition;" it was not performed until 1767, four years after his death in Wilmington. The cultural ascendancy was directly linked to the origins of Wilmington residents, the majority of whom were attracted to the port from other culturally developed colonial cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston and from abroad — the West Indies, England, Ireland, Scotland, and France.

Formal religion, especially the established church, apparently played a relatively minor role in the lives of Wilmingtonians, who were primarily concerned with asserting their economic and political dominance over Brunswick residents. In confirming the Wilmington Charter, the 1740 General Assembly provided for the establishment of the Parish of St. James, but no contribution took place until 1751 when the walls of the edifice were begun. Not until 1770 was the structure completed. James Moir, an Anglican missionary sensing the religious apathy of the citizenry, commented in 1742 that he took "one half of the whites to be Dissenters of various denominations...we have no churches) no Glebes, no Parsonage Houses, nothing so far as I can see, that discovers in the People the least intention of providing even the necessary traveling changes."

With the approach of the Revolution, the rivalry between Brunswick and Wilmington gave way to united and vigorous resistance to the British. On March 1, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, evoking immediate objections throughout the colonies. One articulate attack of the British theory of taxation and representation was printed in a pamphlet by Judge Maurice Moore of New Hanover County. When Governor Tryon asked Samuel Ashe of Wilmington, speaker of the Assembly, what North Carolina's reaction to the Stamp Act would be, Ashe replied that the colony would "fight it to the death." Demonstrations occurred across the colony, but there was violent opposition only on the Lower Cape Fear, centering in Wilmington. Two large-scale demonstrations took place in October, and a visit by the stamp master on November 16 sparked a demonstration by three or four hundred Sons of Liberty, who forced him to resign his office and made the local printer, Andrew Steuart, agree to issue his newspapers on unstamped paper. The following February, several leaders met in Wilmington and agreed that they would "at any risque...unite...in preventing entirely the operation of the Stamp Act." Next day, several hundred men took from Governor Tryon the papers of several ships previously seized by the British for violation of the Stamp Act, and on February 20 forced the release of the vessels. Next morning, led by Cornelius Harnett (who was called "the Samuel Adams of North Carolina), Samuel Ashe and others of the Sons of Liberty approached the governor's house near Brunswick and forced him to give up the comptroller, who is said to have been hiding under Tryon's bed. The comptroller resigned rather than "execute any office disagreeable to the People of the Province," and with all other officials except the governor, swore never to issue any stamped paper in North Carolina. Historian Hugh Lefler notes that the orderly, open resistance efforts of these gentlemen, planters, and merchants were of signal importance effecting repeal of the Stamp Act: "in no other colony," he writes, "was the resistance by force so well organized and executed."

The coming of the Revolution ten years later affected Wilmington almost immediately. Major General Robert Howe (North Carolina's highest ranking Continental officer), and James Moore (brigadier general of the Continental Army), led two regiments of Wilmington troops, and the town prepared for War. At Moores Creek, about twenty-five miles north of Wilmington, a short battle on February 27, 1776, stopped short the inland Tory advance. The aggressive revolutionary spirit in Wilmington had a quieting effect on loyalist residents, many of whom found it convenient to remove to England in order to avoid personal peril. In early May, British forces destroyed Brunswick, which had already been deserted — and which was never rebuilt. After this, it was almost five years before the British returned to the lower Cape Fear. In January, 1780, Major James Craig came up from Charleston and seized Wilmington, followed on April 12 by General Cornwallis, who retreated to the Cape Fear area after his Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse and left eleven days later. Within two months, Wilmington was the only place in North Carolina remaining in British control; Craig and his troops departed in November) after Cornwallis's October surrender at Yorktown. Throughout the war, William Hooper and Cornelius Harnett had been among North Carolina's chief political leaders. Both served as members of the Continental Congress, Hooper signed the Declaration of Independence, and Harnett was president of the council during the Revolution — serving in effect as governor of the state. (Harnett died of exposure after being captured by the British, and Hooper moved to Hillsborough in 1782.)

Peace brought economic recovery; in 1788-1789, "more ships came into the Cape Fear River than ever before." Local production of naval stores and lumber was still important, but Wilmington began to assert herself as a regional center of trade and shipping as well, paralleling improvements in transportation by road, water, and later rail. In 1784 and later in the 1820s and 1830s, efforts were made to improve the navigability of the river. In 1817 came the Prometheus, the first steamboat on the Cape Fear, followed by the 1850s by regularly scheduled steamers between Wilmington and Charleston. A railroad from Wilmington (intended at first to link with Raleigh, but routed in fact to Weldon) was chartered in 1834, begun in 1836, and finished in 1840; at 161-1/2 miles it was the longest single track in the world. At Weldon the rail joined lines to Virginia, becoming part of a north-south system. Edward B. Dudley served as president of the company before resigning the following year to become governor (1836-1840). The name was changed to the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. Other lines linking Wilmington to South Carolina and to western North Carolina were added, increasing Wilmington's importance as a trade and transportation center. With growing commerce came new banks; the Bank of Cape Fear was chartered 1804 (the same year as the Bank of New Bern, the first two banks in the state); and by 1860 four banks flourished in Wilmington. Growth of the bustling port city was rapid — from roughly 1,000 in 1790, to 1,689 in 1800 (second only to New Bern at 2,467), to just under 10,000 by 1860.

Prosperity and cosmopolitan trade contacts naturally nourished the cultural life of the town. Numerous private academies were established, and in 1856 a public school was founded. Several newspapers were published, including the Wilmington Chronicle (later the Herald) and the Wilmington Journal, which became the first regular daily paper in the state. Reading rooms were established as early as 1808, and in 1849 a library was begun. Theater was quite popular in Wilmington, including locally produced performances and traveling groups of national renown. The Thalian Society, formed in 1788, existed intermittently and was responsible for furnishing and equipping the elegant new theater that occupied part of the City Hall built 1855-1858. All major protestant denominations and the Roman Catholics organized and constructed churches. Numerous fraternal orders existed, and two charitable societies were established, notably the Ladies Benevolent Society (1845) and the Seamen's Friend Society (1853).

The period of growth and prosperity was punctuated, however, by a series of disastrous fires that destroyed much of the early fabric of the town — as they had done throughout history. As early as 1745, commissioners were authorized to eliminate fire hazards, such as wooden chimneys and rubbish on streets and wharfs. In 1791 the General Assembly incorporated a fire company in Wilmington, "to prevent or alleviate the melancholy consequence of fire breaking out in towns." Yet fire plagued the city regularly, with serious fires occurring in 1789, 1810, 1819, 1827, 1840, 1843, and 1846. The block south of Market House was burned three times. Fire in that area was hardly avoidable because of the proximity to wharves, docks, and warehouses loaded with inflammable naval stores and cotton. Epidemics of yellow fever also struck Wilmington during this period, often brought by infected ships and encouraged by swampy "miasmas." Despite fire and pestilence, the energy of Wilmington's merchants, shippers, and tradesmen provided for swift recoveries; the city's blocks were doggedly rebuilt and businesses renewed.

Just as geography had given Wilmington her early preeminence over the rival port at Brunswick, so during the Civil War it made her the most important port in the Confederacy. One of the first Union actions of the war was the blockading of Southern ports, an attempt to cut off the predominantly agricultural Confederacy from sources of essential manufactured goods. The South responded with swift blockade-runners, ships that could slip valuable cargo in and out under the Union guns. Most important of the ports served by the blockade-runners — and held open the longest — was Wilmington; since the Cape Fear had two connections to the sea, plus the protection of the Frying Pan Shoals, it was almost impossible to blockade adequately. The Cape Fear was protected by a series of forts, of which, the key was Fort Fisher, begun in April, 1861, to guard ships entering the New Inlet; it was one of the strongest fortifications in the world, called the "Gibralter of America." Further, Wilmington was connected by the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and other lines to the Army of Northern Virginia — a route that became known as the "Lifeline of the Confederacy." With normal trade interrupted, Wilmington changed almost overnight from a naval stores and lumber export center to the leading cotton port of the Confederacy. Across the river from the town, steam presses operated day and night preparing cotton for export. The town was filled with new money, and speculators came from all over the South; food became scarce and prices inflated, as "outsiders could and did buy the scarce goods that few local inhabitants could afford." Finding town life abruptly changed by brash, free-spending opportunists, many of the old guard retreated to the country.

As the war progressed, Wilmington became more and more important to the Confederacy. By mid-1864, when his army was receiving half its supplies through that port, General Robert E. Lee urged that the port be kept open at any price, warning that "the fall of Fort Fisher and Fort Caswell [nearby] would mean the fall of Richmond;" about the same time, the Union secretary of the navy contended that the capture of those two forts "would be almost as important as the capture of Richmond." In October, expecting an attack on Fort Fisher, Confederate officials placed General Braxton Bragg in command, over Major General W.H.C. Whiting, who had previously been in charge of its fortification and successful functioning. A Richmond paper announced, "Bragg has been sent to Wilmington. Goodbye Wilmington!" Union forces attacked Fort Fisher on December 23 and 24 and sailed away unsuccessful. They reappeared in greater force on January 12, 1865, began firing on the 13th, and continued a steady bombardment for two days; on the evening of January 15, Fort Fisher was surrendered, after being "subjected to the most intense naval bombardment in the history of the world to that time." Union forces then took with some difficulty the nearby forts of Caswell and Anderson, and the town of Wilmington was soon occupied, on February 22. With supplies cut off, the Confederacy could not last long, and within three months of the fall of Fort Fisher, Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865.

As it was for the rest of the South, Reconstruction in Wilmington was difficult politically. Under the new state constitution, Negroes and white Republicans gained control of county and city government in 1868, as they did of state offices. Two years later, the Conservatives began to regain state power; in 1877 a revised charter returned Wilmington government to white control, and Democrats held power for several years. In the 1890s, however, disgruntled farmers and Republicans joined to become Fusionists, and won control of the legislature; in 1895 Wilmington government went to the Fusionists, made up of blacks and whites, with blacks holding several offices, which alarmed the white property-holders. The 1898 election campaign was a bitter one, with inflammatory propaganda on both sides. In Wilmington, tension ran especially high, culminating in a riot on November 10, two days after the election in which the Fusionists were defeated.

Postwar economic recovery came gradually; an 1866 writer observed that "the remnants of the people impoverished, yet not disheartened by the loss of their estates, have resolutely put forth their own shoulders to the wheel...once more...placing themselves on a secure commercial basis." Naval stores and lumber continued to be important, but cotton was beginning to be a major export as well. Alexander Sprunt and his son James were instrumental in the growth of the exportation of compressed cotton; "by 1889 their firm had established some 100 markets by which its compressed cotton could be marketed in Europe." In the late nineteenth century cotton became the most important commodity of the city and Wilmington one of the great cotton processing centers and markets of the world. Rice produced in the Cape Fear was brought to Wilmington for cleaning and shipping to northern ports. Iron foundries along the river supplied shipyards and chandlers, railroad yards, mills, and turpentine stills with castings, boilers, and mechanical parts of all descriptions. The lumber trade with the West Indies stimulated a new fertilizer industry in the 1860s, for ships returning from the islands stored West Indian guano as ballast. The lumber industry also led to the establishment of plants for creosoting wood for railroad crossties and utility poles. Cotton mills, paint factories, two iron works, and a variety of other plants also contributed to bringing the Industrial Revolution to the port city, as did the continued growth of railroads, plus improvement of the Cape Fear River channel and ports.

Rapid depletion of the pine forests resulted in a reduction of turpentine and rosin production in the twentieth century, although the lumber industry continued to be a vital element in Wilmington's economy. The stands of timber which remained and the rate of growth of the trees were sufficient to support the lumber industry. The export of cotton from the port declined in proportion to the growth of the Piedmont North Carolina textile industry.

The trade losses in cotton and naval stores were compensated by the growth of the fertilizer industry. Raw materials such as potash, nitrates, and phosphates were imported from Europe, South America, and Florida and combined with locally caught and processed menhaden fish; the rail connections were invaluable in transferring the fertilizer to inland farmers. The fruit and truck crops of the coastal plains areas were transferred to the port for shipping. Large quantities of molasses, oil, and gasoline swelled the tonnage of imports entering the Wilmington harbor. Two world wars brought prosperity to Wilmington as well, in the form of nearby military bases and shipbuilding activity. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the continuing shift of new industry to the Piedmont midlands, particularly the textile and furniture industries, and the shift away from railroads, began to provide strong competition to Wilmington as an industrial center. It remains chief port of the state.

Wilmington's inner city residents and shopkeepers began to move to suburban subdivisions and shopping centers in the 1950s. The exodus almost ruined the old part of the city; buildings were left vacant and were allowed to fall into disrepair, and demolitions were occurring at an alarming rate. In an attempt to abate and reverse the trend, historic district zoning for a thirty-five-block area was established by the City Council in 1962 and authorized by the 1968-1969 General Assembly. While the ordinance called attention to the value of the old section of the city and allowed preservationists 90 days to find an alternative to a proposed demolition, the ordinance alone did not preserve the city. Observing the deficiency, four Wilmingtonians — Thomas H. Wright, Jr., Kelley W. Jewell, Jr., R.V. Asbury, Jr., and Wallace C. Murchison — banded together in August, 1966, to form the Historic Wilmington Foundation, Inc. The non-profit organization, financed entirely by membership contributions, aimed to preserve the character of Wilmington and especially the Wilmington Historic District. The foundation created a revolving fund to rescue architecturally significant buildings from demolition and to demonstrate to the community by rehabilitation that old houses can be sturdy, attractive residences. Through this demonstration approach and an extensive public education program, the tide has been turned: buildings are being privately rehabilitated and neighborhoods are being revitalized. For its comprehensive urban preservation program, the Historic Wilmington Foundation was given a 1973 Award of Merit by the American Association for State and Local History.


Research by Janet K. Seapker, survey specialist, and Catherine W. Cockshutt survey supervisor; architectural description by Janet K. Seapker.

Archives of Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. Ledgers, photographs, letters, maps: Wilmington, North Carolina.

James, J.T. Historical and Commercial Sketch of Wilmington, North Carolina. Privately printed, N.D. ca.1867.

Kellam, Ida B. Deed research, reports, wills, genealogical records, maps, and extensive miscellaneous information. Wilmington, North Carolina.

Lennon, Donald R., and Kellam, Ida B., eds. The Wilmington Town Book, 1743-1778. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1973.

New Hanover County Records, New Hanover County Courthouse, Wilmington, North Carolina (Subgroups: Deeds, Wills, Court records).

New Hanover County Records, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina (Subgroups: Deeds, Wills, Court records).

Sanborn Map and Publishing Company. Wilmington, North Carolina. New York: 1884, 1889, 1893, 1898, 1904, 1910, 1915.

Seapker, Janet K. Interviews with R.V. Asbury, Jr., Executive Director, Historic Wilmington Foundation, and Mrs. Ida B. Kellam, Archivist, Lower Cape Fear Historical Society.

Wilmington City Directories. 1865, 1871, 1875, 1877, 1881, 1883, 1885, 1889, 1894, 1900, 1912.

Adapted from: Survey and Planning Unit, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Wilmington Historic District, New Hanover County, NC, nomination document, 1974, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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