More touring in style
Story and photo by Lois Carol Wheatley
Wilmington Adventure Walking Tour Company
No web site, no voicemail, no reservation-tracking mechanism whatsoever plays any part in this enterprise. Bob Jenkins sits on the Riverwalk with his signature straw hat and walking stick—just like a vaudeville act—every morning at about 10 a.m. or so. People passing by say, "Hi, Bob," and he knows their names too. If nobody shows up in the next 45 or so minutes to take his locally famous walking tour of the historic district, he'll just get on home and see what's for lunch.
The man is in his 70s and has been doing this for a quarter of a century. He still has plenty of sparkle and mischief in those old blue eyes, and he leans in to whisper the misdeeds of some of Wilmington's leading citizens, like this is something he wouldn't want the neighbors to hear. The nearby visitor's kiosk treats him like an additional source of obscure information, calling on him on an as-needed basis, and he keeps his stuff—maps and old black-and-white photos and such—stashed back behind the kiosk counter.
He says the intersection of Market and Water streets, from whence all tours launch, is the natural hub of Wilmington. "This is the ferry landing going back to 1734." This was also the birthplace of the preservation movement that called a halt to what he calls "urban removal."
"I restored the first building, at 12 Market Street, in '77 and '78, and I lived upstairs. A local family had started two or three of them." Then he said a family took on an entire square block and created the Cotton Exchange, and another family bought "what was left out of five major railroad lines, which was just two old buildings."
Four local families formed the historical society-the Wrights, the Murchisons, the Jewels and the Asburys. "Our city council had begun a few years before that trying to save things and that's how the concept developed, of not only the residential area and then the old central business district, but the waterfront."
His tour begins as he hauls out his maps and photos, essentially Cape Fear River memorabilia. The map is the big picture, including distant headwaters, and the photos are of old steamboats that once frequented this port. He'll point out something not many people notice on their own—that the river runs both ways, in opposite directions, at this particular spot.
"From right there inland 170 miles is fresh water. From right there to the ocean 30 miles is tidal salt water, and it all meets right here. It's a 160-foot elevation drop from 170 miles inland to here, and the normal rise and fall of the tide right here is four to six feet, but it can come right on up in the street."
The river has been the lifeblood of the city, pumping all sorts of diverse elements through its arteries. "My tour is history, culture, commerce, architecture and preservation," he said. "What keeps downtown viable is heritage tourism."
When the National Preservation Society arrived on the scene, he and a handful of others hoped they could get the original 65 blocks on the National Register, "help control that range from bridge to bridge to Fifth Street." At the conclusion of that survey, 200 blocks of vintage structures were added to the National Register, "because of all the examples of architecture by American architects. We have an abundance. Today it's over 300 blocks."
A church on almost every corner is unfailingly an example of very formal architecture, relentlessly gothic, in many ways a vivid illustration of Wilmington's role as an international port.
"When railroads came in the 1820s and '30s, that brought all the old families who had been dealing for hundreds of years by sea. They'd send a member of the family and open up a branch of their business." Evidence of that sprang up all around, Russian Orthodox, Byzantine, Caustic, and two Jewish congregations, "one Sephardic from Central America, and the Germanic sect known as the Ashkenazi."
"My tour is translated into 22 different languages and every translator will be a native of Wilmington and the Cape Fear region, and the reason is the port."
Even more amazing than that is what's left after three major fires that pretty much wiped out everything in the vicinity—in 1778, 1819 and 1840. "Those fires really destroyed the city, but you'd have a fire in a block that destroyed the entire block." He said the First Presbyterian church is in its fourth building, the first three having burned. Then, leaning in for a bit of a whisper, he'll tell you the same number of infernal flames also engulfed the Methodists.
In the course of what he calls "a casual stroll discussing the families and the businesses," he pauses on 3rd Street in front of St. James Episcopal. "This is the same architect who put the cast iron dome on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C." Walk a block further to where Henry Bacon grew up, and he tells you this is "the architect of Lincoln Memorial. The architect of the Jefferson Memorial's wife was a Wilmington girl."
Normally his walking tour takes about two hours, but he's had them go as much as four hours, especially in the heat of the summer. "A lot of that is going in where it's air conditioned and sitting down and having a cold drink."
The beauty of this is there is no next tour stacked in behind this one. This is just a great old guy who loves this town and tries to keep everybody connected with its history. "I don't know how much longer I'll do this, but it's the longest-running tour. It starts at ten o'clock every day from April 1 until November 1, and it hasn't changed in 25 years."
Call Bob Jenkins at 910/763-1785 and, if he happens to be around, he just might answer.