Wilmington has been tied to the Cape Fear River since birth, which was in 1739, many years before the Revolutionary War. With its protected entry to the Atlantic, Wilmington was once a busy seaport. Ships unloaded niceties from Europe and slaves from Africa, and took on raw materials – especially timber.
The Brits had a special interest in a 10-million-acre forest near here with a 2,000-year-old stand of yellow pine. The wood was perfect for building the ships of the burgeoning British Navy in the mid-1700s.
“We pull timbers out of the river even today, still perfectly good that bear the king’s seal – King George II. The long-leaf pine is iron-hard – none better for building ships of war. All the timbers used to ild the Panama Canal came from here. You don’t hear of them rotting away.” Bob Jenkins was giving the prologue to one of his daily “Adventure Walking Tours” to a group of tourists seated in a kiosk on the riverfront.
Bob has lived and worked in Wilmington most of his 73 years. A retired interior decorator, Bob probably knows more about the homes in the oak-lined streets of Wilmington’s 230-block Historic District than any person alive. Indeed, he probably rearranged the interiors of many of them.
Bob, a bachelor, lived in the second-floor quarters above his shop here in the Historic District. He has studied the riverfront’s history and he has lived it during much of the last century. And he talks of it with passion and a stylish wit.
The Cape Fear is the only river in North Carolina that flows to the ocean. Slaves poled barges on the river loaded with produce, rice and tobacco from upriver plantations to be sold on the riverfront. Those same enslaved boatmen used their relative freedom of movement to smuggle their escaping brethren to ships offshore that would take them to freedom in the North.
Dredging the river, to make the port, changed its ecology. Moving with the tide, shifting sand reconfigures the bottom every six hours. The tide now reaches 35 miles up stream. So when having lunch in one of the many riverside restaurants, the river may be flowing in one direction when you sit down, and be flowing in the other direction when you get up to leave.
Few rivers get their names from where they cease to be; fewer if any, from the peninsulas they create.
Bob explained: “The cape, where the river empties into the ocean, was named centuries ago by fearful sea captains who were expressing their sentiments about the waters around it – sentiments that found their way on to navigational charts.
“The wide river made an inviting harbor, but shoals and sand bars made entering it treacherous. The wrecks of sailing ships – and steam ships too – now crowd the ocean bottom around the cape like beached driftwood.”
During World War II, German submarines would lie in wait off the Cape. They torpedoed several ships that joined their wooden-hulled ancestors on the bottom.
With Bob leading, we left the kiosk and walked to Market Street. Using his walking stick as a pointer, Bob said, “I used to live there. The reason these streets stay so inviting and safe is because the business people live above their shops. It’s a neighborhood with an unknown number of eyes watching what goes on. If someone comes out of a bar and causes a noise ruckus in the night, chances are he’ll be by the next day to apologize. This is the South, you know.”
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]