The Cape Fear area, which includes the seaside villages of Southport and Wilmington as well as other communities like Oak Island, Bald Head Island, Sunset Beach, Holden Beach and more, is an area rich in history.


Though Wilmington became the major port city for the state of North Carolina, many once believed that Southport would be the city to have that distinction. Southport was founded in 1792 as Smithville, though residents changed its name to Southport in 1887 in the hopes of becoming a southern port city. Though the river and railroad transportation systems of Southport did not turn it into the major port city, Southport still thrived with a variety of railroad and river steamer routes into the 1900s.

Southport was also one of the first towns in the state of North Carolina to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday. Known by many as the "Fourth of July Capital of North Carolina," Southport began this tradition in 1795 with a 13-gun salute on the holiday, with one gun representing each of the 13 colonies of that time period. Southport continued the Fourth of July tradition through the years and introduced fireworks to their annual celebration in 1813. Today, Southport is home to the annual four-day North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, which was first presented in 1972 and is still a popular festival attended by many visitors and locals each year.

Southport is filled with Victorian-style homes with unique architecture, as well as several historic cemeteries. The rich and beautiful history of Southport found the village a spot on The National Register of Historic Places. A few historic sites in Southport that are worth visiting are The Indian Trail Tree in Keziah Park and Bonnet's Creek. If you want to learn more about the history of Southport, you may enjoy a self-guided walking tour of the area.


Though the city of Wilmington began with names of New Liverpool, New Carthage, New Town and Newton, the official name was decided in 1729 and Wilmington was incorporated as a town in 1740. Wilmington became the major port city of North Carolina because of its great location near the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River. In addition to its major port industry, Wilmington also had a large shipbuilding center and produced pine forest products.

After the Revolutionary War, the success of Wilmington increased as estates and plantations were built and industry increased. Though Wilmington faced some challenges with inadequate roads, bridges, medical services and sanitation facilities in the early 1800s, they overcame these obstacles and became the largest city in the state by 1840.

After the Civil War, the trading business in Wilmington was rejuvenated with cotton, rice, peanuts, lumber and naval stores. Though the business in Wilmington was booming at this time, tobacco and textile industries were also booming inland, and by 1910, Wilmington was no longer the largest city of North Carolina.

During World War I, the shipbuilding industry increased and exports of cotton grew. Though The Great Depression of the 1930s forced Wilmington to face more hardships, shipbuilding efforts needed during World War II brought Wilmington to success again. In 1945, the shipyards of Wilmington were transformed into a modern port facility.

Today, Wilmington continues to be an active port city. The location of Wilmington near the Atlantic Ocean mixed with the unique culture and history found in the area draw thousands of tourists to the area each year. Whether they come to visit museums and historic sites, take kayaking trips on the Cape Fear River or attend local theatre performances, visitors continue to frequent Wilmington for its great atmosphere and character.

Area Forts

Because of the unique location of Wilmington, the port city was involved in the American Revolutionary War between 1765 and 1781 and the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Today, a variety of historic sites and forts in the Cape Fear area mark famous battles and fights that took place during these wars.

Fort Caswell was built in 1838 in Caswell Beach and is one of the strongest forts that was built during its time. Fort Caswell was built on 2,800 acres of brick-and-masonry and played an important role in area history. Though a large part of the fort was damaged in 1865 during the Civil War, its remains still stand today and are open to self-guided tours.

The Fort Fisher State Historic Site is located south of Kure Beach and was conquered by Union forces during the Civil War. The last major Confederate stronghold, For Fisher was the largest and strongest Confederate fort. Today, visitors can enjoy the walking trail around the fort, a variety of exterior history exhibits, a visitor center, a museum, a theater and a gift shop.

Fort Johnson was built in Southport in 1754 as the first military fort of North Carolina. The role of Fort Johnson during the Civil War was to defend the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Though the main structure of Fort Johnson was destroyed, some of the original structures are still standing and are accompanied by historical markers that tell the historical story of Fort Johnson.

Fort Anderson was built in Southport in 1862 to help defend Port Wilmington. The town of Brunswick was established in 1726 as the first successful permanent European settlement located between New Bern and Charleston. After it was burned in 1776 by Britain, Fort Anderson was created to prevent future attacks. Today, Fort Anderson still intact and is known as The Old Brunswick Town State Historic Site/Fort Anderson. Open to the public for tours, there is also a visitor center, gift shop and research library on site.


Throughout history, there have been several lighthouses located in the Cape Fear area along the 25 miles of coastline between Wilmington and the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Built in the 1800s and early 1900s, these lighthouses played important roles in the history of the Cape Fear area by aiding ships to shore. Beach erosion, hurricanes and other causes diminished structures like the Campbell Island Light, Orton's Point Light, Upper Jetty Light and the lightship at Horseshoe Shoal. However, there are three lighthouses remaining in the area today - the Price Creek Lighthouse, the Bald Head Island Lighthouse and the Oak Island Lighthouse.

The Price Creek Lighthouse was built in 1849 and initially consisted of two beacons. The first beacon was a brick structure, which was damaged during the Civil War but still exists today. The other beacon was the light keeper's house, which was damaged between the late 1800s and early 1900s and is no longer in existence. Though the Price Creek Lighthouse is not open to tours because of its location on private property, you can see the structure from the Southport/Fort Fisher Ferry because of its location on the west bank of the Cape Fear River.

The Bald Head Island Lighthouse, known to many as "Old Baldy," was constructed of bricks and cement and is 109 feet tall. The original lighthouse at this location was built too close to the water in 1795 and had to be torn down in 1810, so the structure that exists today was built in 1817 to replace it. The Bald Head Island Lighthouse offers self-guided tours, climbing, a historic site with a museum and historic tours.

The Oak Island Lighthouse was built in 1958 as one of the last lighthouses built in the United States. The Oak Island Lighthouse is owned by the Town of Caswell Beach and managed by the United States Coast Guard, whose weekly inspections ensure the lights are in working order. The Oak Island Lighthouse is the last lighthouse in the world to be manually operated and its aerobeam lights can be seen from as far as 24 miles out to sea. Though tours of the structure are not available, the Oak Island Lighthouse can be viewed from across the street.


Because the Cape Fear area is so rich in history and culture, there are a number of museums available that will teach you about various aspects of the area. If you are interested in learning about history, you will enjoy visiting some of these area museums. The Smith Island Museum of History, the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport, the Museum of Coastal Carolina and the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science will help turn you into an expert on the history of the Cape Fear area!

The Smith Island Museum of History, located on Bald Head Island, is located in a building that was built to replicate the original light keeper's house at the Bald Head Island Lighthouse. This museum, located near the lighthouse, offers a variety of lighthouse artifacts, as well as a gift shop with souvenirs. The museum also offers lectures and educational programs.

The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport features a variety of displays and artifacts that will take you on an adventure into the maritime history of the area. Old fishing equipment, shipwreck treasures, sharks' teeth and more can be found at this interesting museum, which also has a research library and video collection.

The Museum of Coastal Carolina of Ocean Isle Beach features the largest natural seascape replica in the Southeastern United States. In this seascape, you will find a variety of sea life including sharks, dolphins, game fish, octopus and other sea creatures. A shipwreck from the 1800s is also found in this seascape. The museum also features Civil War artifacts, shark jaws, shell exhibits and wildlife displays. Various educational programs are also presented at the museum.

The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science is located in Wilmington. Visitors to this museum enjoy the long-term and changing exhibits that are on display that feature information about various aspects of the history of the Cape Fear area.

As you can see, the history of the Cape Fear area is quite interesting, and you will enjoy learning more about it when you visit the above historic sites and locations. Come see for yourself what makes the Cape Fear area such an interesting place!

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