Wilmington Trolley Company
How about a bright red made-to-look-like-an-old-trolley-car tour? Without any rails to run on, it's a glorified bus. It seats 25 in an open-air compartment conducive to photography—shooting through a glass window never really does the job—but lacking the air-conditioned comfort you might get on an actual bus.
The eight-mile, 45-minute tour goes through the mansion district, points out all the major historic churches, hits the highlights of Thalian Hall and covers such little-known turf as Hangman's Hill. You'll set out rattling along a bricklaid street with a driver talking on a PA system and not necessarily looking around to see if there are any questions or comments. Which is probably a good thing.
Wes Moore is the usual driver/tour guide, and he supplies information you might not otherwise get. For example, when the riverfront warehouses were renovated, the upstairs condominiums sold in less than a week for a million apiece. "And that's not including a parking space anywhere in town," he said.
Wilmington's first city market was in the median of Market Street, and its second city market—that large building with a big sign that says "City Market"—originally was a three-story building. Why or when they took off the top two stories you'll never know, or at least you won't learn it from this tour.
Wilmington has 45 restaurants in its downtown area, all locally owned, most with menus posted out front. A vintage waterfront building until recently housed the Wilmington Iron Works, the oldest continuously existing business in North Carolina, opened in 1838. The Chandlers Wharf complex was originally a warehouse that stored tar, pitch and turpentine—volatile components that surely contributed to so many of Wilmington's disastrous fires.
The bus—excuse me, trolley car—climbs up the hill to pass by the homes of Riverboat Captain Harper, Governor Dudley, and William Rand Kenan, whose family invested in Standard Oil and made a fortune with Union Carbide. The home of Captain Beery is now a bed and breakfast, and he is famous for burning his own shipyard to the ground rather than allow it to fall into Yankee hands.
You may be fascinated to learn that the historic plaques on just about every house are color-coded. The brownish/reddish color signifies that the home is 75 to 100 years old, and black indicates it is 100 years or older and has some historical significance. One can well imagine that a whole new color barrier has been erected by this distinction.
Moore will tell you about houses that weren't built at their current location, but the historical society gently persuaded homeowners to move them instead of tear them down. In another update on the ongoing struggle between progress and preservation, he tells of the city sending out asphalt trucks to pave over the irregular brick streets, and "a silent army of residents" arriving on the scene with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows to restore the original brick surface. Apparently this has happened more than once.
We hope you will enjoy your visits with Henry Bacon, St. James Episcopal, the Temple of Israel, James Hooper, Mary Baker Eddy, Woodrow Wilson, Whistler's Mother, First Presbyterian and St. Mary's Catholic. Once you clear those hurdles and you're back to Market Street, you have arrived at Hangman's Hill.
"Anyone in New Hanover County committing a capital crime was brought up to this area and hanged," said our tour guide, "and most of them didn't have enough money for proper burials. So they put bodies wherever they could, here, there and everywhere. Every time they do construction in this area they do dig up bones."
Your return to home base will be peppered with stories of Michael Jordan (cut from the basketball team at Laney High School), David Brinkley (born and raised, appropriately, in what looks like an office building), and St. Paul's Lutheran (oddly destroyed during the Civil War when just about nothing else suffered even minor damage.)
Thalian Hall was built to seat 1,500 people in a town with a population of about 5,000. Sets for movie and television shoots are everywhere, and the Cotton Exchange is the home of the steam cotton press. Another word or two about the Cape Fear River, the Battleship USS North Carolina and the federal building where Andy Griffith filmed "Matlock," and you're back at the trolley station—plotting your route back across the terrain to revisit scenes only briefly glimpsed.
Tours start at the top of the hour and mostly run during daylight hours. A special tour goes to Southport and package plans include admission at Bellamy Mansion and Airlie Gardens. Charter tours are also available.