Wilmington Facts from the Historian Bob Jenkins

The Gift of HistoryWalking tour - 1

On January 19th, area historian and Downtown Wilmington tour guide, Bob Jenkins shared with Intracoastal agents many interesting facts from Wilmington’s History.  From the early beginnings through current day, Bob delivered his key storytelling notes with humor and incredible detail. We tried to capture the essence in the highlights below. Pick out just a few to have on hand – you’ll be glad you did.

  • There are 320 miles of coastline in North Carolina – and the only main river feeding from the north of the state to the ocean is the Cape Fear River. The river is over 200 miles long!
  • The first 170 miles drop in elevation by 160 feet – delivering huge amounts of water down to where it meets the last thirty miles of water heading to the ocean – this last thirty-mile leg is tidal water.
  • While many river settlements along the east coast developed in the late 1600’s, the settlement of Wilmington was a late-developer. Even with all the great resources to be had (rice and timber), there was something to “fear” about the Wilmington location.
  • The term “Cape Fear” evolved due to the continual shifting of sands and navigable bottom changes presented by “Frying Pan Shoals” at the base of the river’s delta.
  • Only when the British desired another deep-water port along the coast between the Chesapeake Bay Settlement, and the Charleston, South Carolina, settlement (both were founded in the late 1600’s) was it worth the risk of the shoals to establish Wilmington.
  • The area around the river was ripe with opportunity for two key agricultural offerings – RICE and TIMBER.
  • The settlement of Brunswick Town was the first in our area to founded in 1726. British landowners originally from South Carolina, Maurice, and Roger Moore, established the first rice plantation. ORTON Plantation. The manor house was constructed in 1735.
  • There were approximately 120 RICE plantations along the river – not cotton as some would expect.
  • “Cape Fear Pines” were an available and grand crop for harvesting and for the production of turpentine and pine tar. Both became a huge resource as export items to the British in England. The pine trees were “boxed” to capture the natural pine-oil from them. Similar to capturing sap from maple trees in New England to make syrup.
  • Heart-Pine was treasured as the hardest wood for the keels of British ships, and Pine Tar kept the ships afloat – thanks to coating the bottoms of ships. Pine tar was plentiful and gooey; hence, the TARHEEL moniker given to North Carolinians, by locals and British Colonists.
  • In colonial times sixty-percent of all naval stores in England came from the Cape Fear region. Rice production was huge! One acre of ground could supply 75 bushels or rice, annually: hence, the term Carolina Gold.
  • The Port of Wilmington was developed by a Scot – John Martin – as he was given a land grant to focus on the development of a major seaport vs. agriculture.
  • The choice of the name “Wilmington” was bestowed on the town in honor of the Earl of Wilmington, Spencer Compton, a patron of the then current governor of North Carolina, Gabriel Johnston – and chartered in 1740.
  • The Cotton Exchange became the largest exchange in the World. In the 1870’s. It grew from agents of the company traveling to cotton farms in the area – and providing incentives for the southern farmers to work in partnership. The business included some fifty European agencies.
  • Over time – Wilmington became a major shipbuilding port and produced 243 “Liberty Ships” during World War II. There were five major railroads coming into and out of Wilmington due to the industry and the war economy. They started leaving in 1950.
  • Side Note – Masonboro Sound got its name from the Grand Masons (Masonic Lodge of the era).


Bob Jenkins Reference Resources:

Cape Fear & Frying Pan Shoals
Cape Hatteras and Outer Banks

Harpers Weekly 1876 – turpentine production graphic and more!