Upper Lower Cape Fear
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge rises high above the river, up to 135 feet when the vertical lift section in the center is raised to let the big boats through. When that happens, the flashing yellow drawbridge lights turn a solid red and vehicular traffic in every direction—U.S. 17 Business, U.S. 76, U.S. 74 and U.S. 421—abruptly stops its incessant scuttling back and forth. This is pretty much the only opportunity to cross the river after that peaceful ferry crossing way back there in Southport.
There is almost no option other than to wait. Beyond this bridge is the much smaller Isabella Holmes Bridge, a newer addition that has taken some of the heat off the big bridge, and that is a last-ditch alternative if it starts to look like bridge traffic will never move again.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was built in 1969, and never for a minute did it imagine that it would take on such a high volume of traffic. Cracks have been mended in its decking and N.C. DOT has deemed it functionally obsolete. The state proposes to build the Cape Fear Skyway, a 9.5-mile mega-bridge that will rise 225 feet in the air and carry six lanes of traffic. With a cost estimated to go as high as $1.8 million, a toll booth will be part of the plan. The project is slated to get underway sometime after 2015.
Moving upstream against the tide, we're seeing more dense habitation and, when the great bridge looms into view, somehow serving as a majestic gateway to "the port city," the state port is on the right.
Enormous cranes clamp their jaws around enormous containers, lifting them from ocean freighters and piling them up on concrete pads. Tractor-trailers come along and the cranes pluck containers from the pile and position them on the trucks. More than a dozen oil and gas tanks, huge and round and squat, are visited by ships arriving from places like Saudi Arabia, having made their way through places like the Suez Canal.
Pass under the bridge and you're there, the USS Battleship North Carolina and Eagle Island on the left and Wilmington's Riverfront Park on the right—shops, restaurants, tall buildings and throngs of people. Historic preservation has kept intact most of the former warehouses and shipping offices, solid and brick and of a certain vintage, and one of them that is now an upscale restaurant was built to extend out over the water, allowing vessels of a bygone era to belly right up to the bar.
Everything that happens in Wilmington happens on the Riverwalk: the Azalea Festival in April, Riverfest in October, a Saturday morning farmers market, the start and end point of scenic cruise and historic horse-drawn tours. The Wilmington Hilton towers over the urban landscape and beyond that, a brand new convention center lurks near the marshlands. The Cotton Exchange, once a cotton mill of mammoth proportions, now houses a network of trendy boutiques and eateries.
It is here the northeast and northwest branches of the Cape Fear converge, and we will strike off to the northwest. Two points of interest take us off in this direction: the old cement plant very close to the site of the proposed new cement plant, and beyond that, East Arcadia, home of the annual Shad Festival.