Modern Warfare

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

Reconstruction after the war was, here and throughout the South, a matter of figuring out how to get along without all that slave labor. Some of the region's grandest plantations fell on hard times, and the county courthouse saw a flurry of bankruptcies and foreclosures. Wilmington's fortunes ebbed and flowed over the next century like the surf that pounded its shores.

Eli Whitney's cotton gin—not a happy hour cocktail—is the subject of many an elementary school essay, but it was Wilmington's resident inventor, James Sprunt, who created a steam-driven cotton-compacting machine that allowed him to cram anywhere from three to five times as much cotton into the holds of sailing vessels bound for the ports of Europe.

His cotton-baling facility between Front and Water streets today is known as the Cotton Exchange, still a center of trade and one of the city's prime examples of historic preservation. Opened in 1976, it is an interlinked complex of eight vintage structures, a labyrinth of about 30 high-personality shops, restaurants and boutiques. Its exposed walls are made from ships' ballast and its 40-foot-long wooden beams are hand-hewn. Gigantic lamps that once lit Wilmington's customs house flank the entrance.

Sprunt also bought and expanded Orton Plantation, had a community college named after him in Kenansville, and played a role in defending his black employees during the race riots of 1898. Two historic markers in the downtown district illustrate two of the above points: one for Sprunt himself at Nun and 3rd streets, and another for Alex T. Manly at Church and 3rd streets, editor of the black newspaper Daily Record and allegedly the author of an editorial that ignited the riot.

Since 1834 Wilmington was a railroad town, but the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad permanently pulled out of this station for Jacksonville, Florida in 1960. It was the city's largest employer and it took a quarter of a million jobs with it, leaving vast buildings standing vacant and forsaken.

"That left a big hole in the downtown economic mentality," said Mark Koenig, executive director of the Wilmington Railroad Museum. "A lot of deterioration came about after that. Civic leaders launched a revitalization to attract new businesses and by and large they were successful. A lot of what used to be railroad property is occupied by Cape Fear Community College."

Only three railroad buildings are still standing, including the one that houses the railroad museum. For many years urban renewal meant bulldozing historic structures, and a lot of venerable homes and businesses were toppled until historic preservationists started to run interference in the 1970s. To this day that war rages on, with casualties on both sides.

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Terms: Cape Fear Recent Military History

Cape Fear Recent Military History

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