History with ‘Hud’: How crossing the Cape Fear River from Wilmington has evolved

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — There are several options available today to anyone wanting to cross the Cape Fear River into Brunswick County. But that hasn’t always been the case.

When Wilmington was founded in 1739, the only way to traverse the water was by boat, as bridge technology was relatively primitive at the time.

As time went on, a more permanent mode of transportation in the form of a ferry was set up at the base of Market Street to carry people and wagons from Wilmington to Eagles Island. From there, passengers had to board another ferry to cross the Brunswick River and continue west.

Eventually, a pair of drawbridges were constructed in 1929 on the north side of the Cape Fear River. A ceremony was held to celebrate the much-needed crossing, with bottles of river water being used instead of Champaign to christen the bridge due to Prohibition.

The cost was staggering for the time, requiring $1.25 million. The large sum was slowly recovered over the next 15 years through a toll, charging bicyclists and pedestrian 5 cents, automobiles 25 cents and large trucks 75 cents.

But as Wilmington continued to grow, so did the traffic heading over the Cape Fear. City Council expressed concerns in 1952, with over 800 tanker truck crossings per day leading to frequent traffic jams that lasted for hours and stretched for miles.

A campaign quickly began to acquire a modern way to get across the river from Wilmington. An underwater tunnel option was explored, but the exceptional cost quickly eliminated the proposal. Instead, a tall bridge was agreed upon in hopes of not disrupting frequent boat traffic.

Construction on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge began in December of 1965 and wrapped up on October 20, 1969, with a ceremony of people walking across the $16 million, 3,000 foot marvel.

Standing 60 feet above the river, a 408-foot vertical lift allows the bridge height to raise to 135 feet, giving clearance to any larger ships needing to pass through.

11 years after construction was completed, another highly-used bridge opened up down the river where the original twin drawbridges once stood. The 2,300-foot Isabel Holmes Bridge opened for traffic in 1980, seeing thousands of vehicles cross each day.

The 1980s also brought a new paint job to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, with new decking coming in 1996. All the cross beams were replaced in the years following the Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007. But despite the life-extending changes, many feel the bridge is on its last legs.

A replacement has been suggested, as over 100,000 cars are estimated to be moving over the bridge each day by 2035. But no solid plans have been finalized.

Whatever happens next to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the steel structure remains a decades-old, important historic fixture of the Port City’s skyline.

Meteorologist Matthew Huddleston (‘Hud’) has always had two major loves – weather and history. While you can watch him talk about weather each evening on WWAY, he looks forward to bringing you a little piece of history each Thursday on WWAY’s website.
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