Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce

Overview and History

The Cape Fear River

Native Americans had the Cape Fear region all to themselves until European settlers arrived. In 1524, when Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano took his French-financed expedition into an unknown river in a wild place, he ushered in a new historical period that would lead to European development of the area.

Verrazzano wrote glowingly of the area in his journal: "The open country rising in height above the sandy shore with many faire fields and plaines, full of mightie great woods, some very thicke and some thinne, replenished with divers sorts of trees, as pleasant and delectable to behold, as is possible to imagine."

Despite the explorer's enthusiastic description, very little happened in terms of development at that time.

Queen Elizabeth I paved the way for colonization by decreeing that the British had a right to conquer and occupy land not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. In 1629, Sir Robert Heath, attorney general for King of England Charles I, was granted a large area of what is today named Carolina. Neither Heath nor his heirs did anything to develop the area, so in 1663, Charles II granted the area as a reward to eight men who were called the Lords Proprietors.

Members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, led by William Hilton, attempted to colonize the Cape Fear region in 1663. Their effort failed, but the following year English settlers from Barbados, led by John Vassal, established a settlement. By 1667, that settlement was abandoned because of a disagreement with the Lords Proprietors who backed another settlement, Charles Town, farther south on Cape Fear River's west bank. That effort failed in 1667 because of pirates, mosquitoes, hostile coastal Indians, weak supply lines and other problems that drove residents south. There, they founded Charles Town Landing, later to become Charleston, S.C.

Ironically, the Cape Fear River that sparked initial interest in the area contributed to the settlements' failures. James Sprunt's Chronicles of the Cape Fear River contains settler George Davis' vivid 1879 description of the river's dynamic:

"Looking to the cape for the idea and reason of its name, we find that it is the southernmost point of Smith's Island - a naked, bleak elbow of sand, jutting far out into the ocean. Immediately in front of it are the Frying Pan Shoals, pushing out still farther, twenty miles to sea. Together, they stand for warning and for woe; and together they catch the long majestic roll of the Atlantic as it sweeps through a thousand miles of grandeur and power from the Arctic toward the Gulf. It is the playground of billows and tempests, the kingdom of silence and awe, disturbed by no sound save the sea gull's shriek and the breakers' roar. Its whole aspect is suggestive, not of repose and beauty, but of desolation and terror. Imagination can not adorn it. Romance cannot hallow it. Local pride cannot soften it."

In a reverse of the abandonment of Charles Town, the Town of Brunswick was founded by disgruntled English settlers from South Carolina in 1726. Located on the west bank of the river, it soon withered away as more strategically located Wilmington, on the high east bank, began to prosper. There, river rafters would stop to trade at a place called the Dram Tree.

Wilmington's success says a lot about the tenacity of settlers who managed to tame what was a wild place. They understood, as do their descendants, that the river presented more opportunities than obstacles. Positioning the city on a bluff created a port relatively safe from storms. Later, it provided a protective barrier against invaders from England during the Revolutionary War and Union troops during the Civil War.

The Cape Fear River was a profitable area for trading goods such as tar, turpentine, and pitch, but sailors disliked coming here. The waters were dangerous to navigate and the residents viewed sailors as unsavory. By statute of the time, tavern keepers, retailers of liquor, and keepers of public houses were not permitted to give credit to seamen, and seamen were not permitted to be kept, entertained, or harbored by any resident longer than six hours. In addition, Wilmington did not and would not have sewerage or drainage systems for years to come. As a result, diseases prevailed, including small pox and malaria, and there were few doctors, the first of whom, Armande de Rossett, did not arrive until 1735. It was with trepidation and dread that seamen sailed into the river's waters, and that is how it came to be known as the "Cape of Fear."

Greater New Hanover County

As the second smallest of the state's 100 counties, New Hanover County encompasses only 199 square miles, most of which is the city of Wilmington. The county's 2011 population of 206,000 reflects continuous growth.

The city is diverse in neighborhoods, but its crown is the historic downtown. Pleasantly walkable, the lively streets present restaurants, specialty shops, markets, music stores, art galleries and much more. The Riverwalk is a great place to stroll, grab a hot dog from a street vendor, listen to free music, and watch the river traffic. Nearly a mile long, the Riverwalk stretches from the newly opened Wilmington Convention Center to south of Chandlers Wharf. Complete with wide, patio-style areas and pocket parks with benches, the Riverwalk offers spectacular views of the river, especially at night.

During the day, downtown Wilmington is quaint and charming, but at night it comes alive in a whole new way. Dance clubs, jazz bars, local and touring musicals, venues for rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues and more can be found in the 55-block area of the downtown commercial district.

Going east, away from the river, Wilmington's demeanor starts to change. Besides spreading across the peninsula and absorbing much of northern New Hanover County, Wilmington is now the geographic coastal center for shopping. In numerous malls and plazas, the area boasts national chains such as Target, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Lowe's, Dillard's, Belk, Sears, JC Penney, Kohl's, Home Depot, and many others, in addition to upscale and specialty stores, all of which have considerably enhanced the region's shopping choices.

After a national slowdown, there is improvement in the real estate business in both new homes and resales. Housing choices are as diverse as a golf course condo to a house on the Intracoastal Waterway to Wilmington's several extensive Historic Districts. A stroll through the downtown Historic District, by the way, reveals beautifully restored homes and commercial buildings, many of them antebellum, lining the shaded streets. A number of buildings feature plaques indicating their age: red for 75 to 100 years and black if the structure is more than 100 years old. As more of the city's older homes are restored, and condominiums and townhouses are added, both the Historic District and the downtown population will continue to grow.

Wilmington has always been the educational hub of the southeastern North Carolina coast, with the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College within its boundaries. Miller-Motte College and a branch of Mount Olive College are also in Wilmington (see our Colleges & Universities section).

The city also holds the distinction of being the cultural center for the whole southeast coast. Performances by touring and home-based theater, dance and music companies enliven the local stages of Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, the oldest community theater tradition in the United States, and Kenan Auditorium, the Cultural Arts Building and Trask Coliseum on the campus of UNCW. Writers, artists and musicians are evident in abundance. Private galleries abound. Cameron Museum of Art offers a showcase of regional and international artists (see our Arts section). The Community Arts Center is constantly enhancing the arts scene by offering classes and sponsoring productions for adults and children, and numerous theater groups are active throughout the year. Museums, such as the Cape Fear Museum and the Wilmington Children's Museum (see our Attractions and Arts sections) add to the mix.

The film industry lends an exciting opportunity for spotting the occasional celebrity or just watching the process of making movies. For many years, filmmaking accounted for a significant portion of the local economy and it still has the potential for growth because of Wilmington's well-established film industry infrastructure. The cornerstone of the local film industry, EUE/Screen Gems Studios, is complemented by a seasoned crew base, an active regional film commission, and a large talent pool. Since the first movie filmed here in 1983 (Dino DeLaurentiis' Firestarter), Wilmington has been home to more than 300 movies and seven television series.

Another major economic influence lies just south of the city on the river. It is North Carolina's principal deep-water port, the North Carolina State Port at Wilmington. The port and some of the industrial complexes north of downtown host hundreds of ships and barges from many nations every year. The river recently has been dredged and deepened so that larger cargo ships and some cruise ships can now dock in Wilmington.

Previously called "New Liverpool," "New Carthage," "New Town," and "Newton," Wilmington was incorporated in 1739. That same year, St James Parish was founded and still exists today as St. James Episcopal Church at the corner of 3rd and Market streets. The city's name was finally chosen when Governor Gabriel Johnston took office. He was so excited and thankful for the prestigious appointment that he named the city in honor of the man who gave him the job - Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington.

The city grew and prospered. During part of the 1700s, Wilmington functioned six times as North Carolina's capital, because at that time the Colonial Assembly moved about and was usually located where the governor lived or where legislators met.

In keeping with its English heritage, many streets in Wilmington, such as Red Cross, Castle, Walnut, Chestnut, Princess, Market, Dock, Orange, Ann, Nun, Queen, and Church Streets, are named after streets in Liverpool, England.

Wilmington flourished as a major port, shipbuilding center, and producer of pine products. Tar, turpentine, and pitch were central to the economy, and lumber was a lucrative resource. At one time, Wilmington hosted the largest cotton exchange in the world. The waterfront bustled with steam ships crowding together to pick up or unload precious cargo.

Involvement in the American Revolution began for Wilmington in 1765 when the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act. Reaction and vigorous resistance were immediate and colorful with much of the activity taking place at night and emanating from the taverns. Eventually, the local Stamp Officer was intimidated into composing a letter of resignation, whereupon the residents gave him three cheers, carried him about the town on a chair and treated him to the finest liquors. Subsequently, the colonists refused to receive the stamps from the British and forced officials to abandon the use of stamps. In 1775, Wilmington residents signed a pledge supporting the Continental Congress.

The city joined the Revolutionary War when Loyalists battled the Patriots some 20 miles north at Moore's Creek on February 27, 1776. Although outnumbered, the Patriots won this battle, but in 1781 British forces captured the city and held it under the command of Major James Henry Craig. Later that year, Craig was joined by General Charles Cornwallis who stayed in downtown's Burgwin-Wright House. Across the street, the British Cavalry occupied St. James Church, using it as a riding school. British troops were withdrawn from Wilmington when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

Following the Revolutionary War, Wilmington prospered greatly, both socially and as an important trading center. Numerous estates and plantations flourished on the outskirts, and many fine homes were built in the city, however, during the early 1800s the city floundered because of poor roads, few bridges, swamps surrounding the city, inadequate medical and sanitation facilities, and navigation problems on the Cape Fear River. With the advent of steam power, railroads and navigational improvements to the river, Wilmington thrived again. By 1840, it was the state's largest city. Thalian Hall, which currently houses the oldest continuously operating little theater company in the United States, was built in 1855 and has since been restored and renovated several times.

During the Civil War, Wilmington was the Confederacy's most important port. Fort Fisher and the Cape Fear River were home to many blockade runners who brought materials from England and the Caribbean islands. Built in 1861, Fort Fisher was the last fort to fall to the Union Army.

After the war, cotton, rice, peanuts, lumber, and naval stores helped Wilmington regain its trading force. A sizable African-American middle class developed, and Wilmington soon became home to the state's first African-American lawyer and African-American physician. In 1866 the town officially became a city, however, by 1910, Wilmington lost its identity as the state's largest city when inland cities grew due to the development of the tobacco and textile industries.

During World War I, a thriving shipbuilding industry developed and cotton exports peaked. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Wilmington hard and once again the city declined. World War II brought a rebirth of local shipbuilding, and 243 ships were built. In 1945, the North Carolina legislature created the State Ports Authority which enabled the transformation of the local shipyards into a modern port facility. In 1947 Wilmington College was established, later becoming the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Over the years, much of Wilmington's growth was facilitated by a strong railroad industry, which eventually consolidated into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, a major employer in the city. Unfortunately, in 1955 the Atlantic Coast Line closed their offices and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, dealing a severe blow to Wilmington. A major effort was undertaken to bring diversified industry to the area, and by 1966 Wilmington had begun to rebound and was designated an "All American City."

After a statewide campaign to save her from the scrap heap, the famous World War II battleship, USS North Carolina, was brought to the city in 1961 and berthed on the west side of the river across from downtown. Today the ship provides a magnificent backdrop for Wilmington's downtown riverfront. During the 1970s, a strong revitalization effort began to reclaim the deteriorating downtown area, which, coupled with an intense preservation effort in the large historic district, resulted in a renewed and exciting central city.

Also beginnng in the 1960s and continuing until today, the city saw another upswing as major companies such as Corning Inc. and General Electric moved in, encouraging other diverse companies, including Applied Analytical Industry and Takeda Chemical Products, to call Wilmington home. Pharmaceutical Product Development, now PPD, became a homegrown Wilmington success story. A major film studio grew here, currently known as Screen Gems Studios, and many movies have been made in the area, earning Wilmington the nickname "Wilmywood."

The downtown revitalization effort in the mid-1980s did much to bring Wilmington into prominence. The successes of Chandler's Wharf shops, The Cotton Exchange and The Coastline Convention Center encouraged other establishments to set up shop. Restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, and antiques stores soon lined the streets. Flourishing nightlife added a trendy setting to Wilmington. Throngs of tourists and residents alike stroll about until late in the evening.

Downtown remains Wilmington's historical core and in many ways still defines the city. Suburbs may flourish, but there is something fascinating about downtown's historic homes and buildings with their intimate proximity to the river. Both visitors and residents are affected by a sense of lingering ghosts. Important events happened here in places still standing - places that have not been obscured by modern architecture or lost in the trends of a constantly changing American culture.

Home to the county's seat of government for more than 250 years, this urban area has been on the forefront of historic changes. The best perspective on Wilmington's rich and colorful history can be found at the Cape Fear Museum.


This northern suburb of Wilmington has grown exponentially over the past twenty years. Approximately 6000 people live in the area that runs north and east of Military Cutoff and Highway 17. Its proximity to Figure Eight Island, Porters Neck and Landfall have pushed commercial growth including food and retai stores, medical facilities and much more. The county's Ogden Park is a relatively new, highly used, facility for organized sports.

Porters Neck

Today Porter's Neck is home to a growing community sitting on the edge of New Hanover County. This burgeoning neck, defined as a landmass connector, has a pre-American Revolution life history and a fertile natural history. John Porter received a Land Grant in 1720 for the acreage. Nicolas Nicols Nixon, the nation's largest peanut producer after the Civil War, purchased and heavily farmed the Porter Plantation. Today the historic isthmus is no longer clearly defined similarly to the divide from Wilmington. A 450-year-old live oak, at the U.S. 17 Bypass exit, harkens to the agricultural past of this transitioned rural to suburb region.

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