Presidents’ Day 2023: Reflecting on the 12 presidents with connections to Wilmington

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — You likely recall the recent visits of Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump to the Cape Fear.

But did you know Wilmington has been visited by 12 presidents before, during or after their time in office?

The city’s first encounter with a president came in 1791, when George Washington came to town as part of his ‘Southern Tour’.

He stayed at a now-demolished home at the corner of South Front and Dock Streets before continuing south.

UNCW Political Science professor Aaron King says early visits such as Washington’s were very noteworthy in the 1700s due to the logistics it took.

“You just didn’t have the communication technology, you didn’t have the transportation technology,” King said. “Washington was so far removed from the everyday lives of citizens in the first place.”

Despite the challenges, presidents continued to visit in the 1800s.

James Monroe was the next Commander in Chief to spend time in Wilmington in 1824, followed by James Polk in 1849 (days after his presidency ended) and Millard Fillmore five years later.

The next big event held in Wilmington for a president came in 1909 for William Taft.

20,000 people turned out for a parade down Third Street.

King says most presidents used visits to become better informed.

“Certainly meeting with important people along the way. See what people sort of thought about and get a little bit of a sense of public opinion even,” King added.

Woodrow Wilson is the only president to have lived in Wilmington, years before becoming president.

Wilson spent several years during the 1870s calling the First Presbyterian Church on Third Street home. He was also rumored to have owned the first bicycle in Wilmington, accidentally riding it down Nun Street into the Cape Fear River one day.

Grover Cleveland passed through a few miles west of Wilmington by train in 1889, making a stop at Maco Station as part of his ‘Whistle Stop’ tour.

The next presidential encounter wouldn’t come for another 70 years when Ronald Reagan took part in the 1959 Azalea Festival, 22 years before being elected president. Reagan also made a campaign speech in front of The Cotton Exchange in 1980.

President Jimmy Carter spoke at UNCW in 1976, with the next new presidential visit not coming for three decades.

In 2008, Barack Obama made a campaign speech in Wilmington at UNCW months before being elected president.

Bill Clinton visited Wilmington in 2016, campaigning for his wife Hillary Clinton at an event outside CFCC’s Union Station.

Former President Donald Trump is the most recent to come to the area.

Trump helped welcome Wilmington as the nation’s first WWI Heritage City in 2020 and made a campaign speech in September of 2022.

UNCW’s Aaron King says no matter your political views, presidential visits should be viewed for what they are.

“It should be something that people appreciate. That politicians, presidents, or whoever would care enough about this region to actually come and visit,” King said.

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