CELEBRATE: Looking back at 275 years in the Port City

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Wilmington is celebrating its 275th anniversary. The Port City has gone through quite a bit over that time.

It was first incorporated in 1739 as a township.

Then officially named a city in 1866.

We spoke with several historians who shared the ups and downs of the port city.

The hoof drawn history lesson in Wilmington starts almost three centuries ago.

“We’re called tar heels for a reason,” said Cape Fear Museum historian Janet Davidson. “Tar was the major export out of our port. It was what built the beautiful houses, what fueled the economy. “It created a slave economy,” she said. “You needed workers and people and trees, and that combination of things really founded Wilmington.”

A combination that would build homes like the Mitchell-Anderson house, Wilmington’s oldest building, finished in 1738.

“This truly is an old, old house anchoring a critical block of the city,” said Historic Wilmington Foundation’s George Edwards.

In the 1740s, Wilmington grew into the main trading hub in the Cape Fear.

Some 400 people called it home. Cape Fear Museum historian Janet Davidson walked us through the very beginnings.

“By the time the Revolutionary War breaks out, a quarter of the region lived in the city, so it is a center of activity surrounding what to do with the american revolution,” said Davidson.

Then the Antebellum Period…

The railroad would come to town.

“Starting in 1834 and lasting until 1990, when the last tracks of downtown were removed,” said Wilmington Railroad Museum’s Mark Koenig. “They furnished a way to connect Wilmington to the rest of the state and capitalize on the trade and commerce along the riverfront in wars and warehouses and tank farms and tankers.”

War. The civil war.

The Port City was booming and big business for confederate forces.

“It’s one of the last ports open to trade, so folks are getting caught up, say, in England, shipping to Caribbean islands, and making a quick dash to the port,” said Davidson.

Davidson went on to say “There were two ways in at that point. There was new inlet, which is now dammed off, and the regular mouth of the Cape Fear, and it made it hard for the US Navy to block the port and keep people out, so Wilmington became this bustling town of speculators and rogues.”

The port was captured by union orces in the Battle of Wilmington in February 1865.

Davidson said “There is this period of great transformation in social and cultural fabric of the region, and Wilmington is a big spot for that, because half the population was African American at the time. We struggled to deal with the changing social and political activities.”

Struggle led to the Wilmington Insurrection… the race riots of 1898.

A mob of angry whites attacked the blacks in various locations around the Port City.

Davidson said “What the riot of 1898 did was set up a democratic party-ruled North Carolina. And what that leads to is the disenfranchisement of African Americans and rise of segregation.”

The 20th century would become a boom for Wilmington.

World War 2 created a center of economic production with the ports.

Davidson said “The town just explodes. There are (estimated)hundreds of thousands of people coming in from Camp Davis and bases on the weekend. Wilmington (population) was about 35,000 at the time.”

Edwards added “We had military bases here. We had training facilities here. We’re standing right across the street from the USO, which was a place of joy and excitement for veterans and military who were about to be shipped overseas. There are so many things in this community that are important.”

In the post war era… Wilmington had a different battle of sorts. No more railroad.

But… the film industry moved in and big business with the addition of companies like PPD to boost the economy as well.

275 years old.

More than 6,000 registered historic homes and buildings still standing and moving right along.

Happy birthday, Wilmington.

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