The middle Lower Cape Fear
Traveling north up the river from its mouth, Brunswick County is on the left bank and New Hanover County on the right. Close your eyes and think of Paris, the Seine, and the twinkling lights of the right and left banks, because you won't get that here. A total lack of lavish waterfront mansions along this stretch is entirely explained by the Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal on the left, the largest ammunition port in the nation. Sitting on 16,000 Army-owned acres, this facility handles worldwide trans-shipments of explosives and ammunition for the Department of Defense.
For that reason, the entirety of the riverfront on the right-hand side is also federally-owned property and equally devoid of development. Locals call this the "blast zone," while the military prefers the milder "buffer zone."
Fort Fisher is at the southern tip of Pleasure Island, a slender finger of land between the river and the ocean, with a ferry landing, a state historic site and a state aquarium. Once upon a time there was an inlet here called Corncake and its shoals ran out into the ocean for 20 or 30 miles. During the Civil War when the Union blockaded the coast, their big ships had to avoid those shoals, leaving a gap that allowed small blockade runners to run down the coast and zip right on into Corncake. The Union ships not only feared unseen underwater obstacles but also had to stay out of range of Fort Fisher's cannons.
Wilmington became the largest blockade-running port of the Confederacy, actually larger than all the others combined, until Fort Fisher fell. That cut off supplies to Lee's army in Virginia and that pretty much ended the war.
More than a century later, Hurricane Floyd closed off Corncake Inlet and completely rearranged all those shoals.
At the northern end of Pleasure Island, a man-made canal known as Snow's Cut connects the river to the sea via a 1.75-mile passage that is 100 feet wide and 12 feet deep. It was named for Major William A. Snow, district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1931, when the project was completed.
That was many years before there was any such thing as an environmental movement, but local citizens protested the cut, thinking the introduction of salt water at this juncture might be a bad idea in terms of the availability of fresh drinking water. They foresaw maybe about half the problem. Erosion immediately became a larger concern and currently continues to eat away at the cut's banks. You won't see too much in the way of development on these shores either.
Snow's Cut has proven itself useful as part of the Intracoastal Waterway, which didn't exist back when they did all that blasting. Before Pleasure Island became an island it was a peninsula known as Federal Point, with Carolina Beach, Wilmington Beach and Kure Beach all in a neat line that ran down the ocean-side coast.
Let me now redirect your attention—on this pretend boat ride traveling northbound—back to the Brunswick side of the river, where houses and docks and such are reappearing to our left, beyond a long and cautious buffer zone after the military installation. Orton Plantation, a vast 19th-century rice plantation, has for many years been a prime destination for garden enthusiasts and horticulturalists. In 2010—the 100th anniversary of the gardens—it was sold to a descendant of the original owner, and is now under renovation, hopefully to reopen to the public sometime in the near future.
Brunswick Town is an adjacent tourist attraction, a major pre-Revolutionary port that was razed by British troops in 1776 and never rebuilt. Fort Anderson was built on top of the old village site during the Civil War, and visitors are treated to crumbling foundations and half-walls of varying historical significance along with several special events during the summer season.