Historic Downtown Wilmington

Historic Downtown Wilmington

When you enter the city of Wilmington, NC, you can almost immediately sense the subtle undercurrents of history that are here and there amongst the modernizations you see today. While driving down a paved roadway, you can suddenly find yourself at an intersection where the roads become cobblestoned or brick for a brief stretch. Amidst the cars that fly down Market Street, you will catch a glimpse of horse-drawn carriages and hear the ding-ding of trolleys that provide tours to visitors and give a nod to transportation methods of the past. Sleek steel and glass office buildings share city space with homes that date back to the late 1700s and commercial buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Over the years, Wilmington has grown from a quiet European settlement into the bustling, modern port city that it is today. Yet much of Wilmington's history has survived and can still be seen and experienced throughout most of the historic downtown area. Thousands of visitors flock to the Cape Fear region every year for vacations at the beach and a chance to tour a city that is as rich in tourist attractions as it is in history.

The Early Years

Wilmington was established on the Cape Fear River in 1739 after English colonists settled in the area. Many settlers from the colonies in South Carolina also traveled to this town in order to call it home and some from as far away as Barbados also sought their fortune in this picturesque setting. Many of these early settlers who traveled to Wilmington brought African American slaves with them, as this was an acceptable practice. As a result, the African American population soon became a prominent presence in the area. They were utilized primarily to harvest the area's natural resources which included goods such as lumber and seafood from the river.

By the mid-1800s Wilmington had grown considerably, becoming the largest town in the state of North Carolina. It became one of the greatest and most important port areas on the East Coast and played a vital role during the Civil War by allowing Confederate blockade runners to use the port as a base while avoiding Union troops. Along with the port, railroads also provided much needed resources to the area during these years and Wilmington continued to be a powerful town of support for the Confederacy. Much of the military action of the Civil War fortunately took place far away from Wilmington and as result, many historical buildings and antebellum-style dwellings are still in existence and can be seen today.

For the remaining years of the 1800s, Wilmington's prosperity continued to grow, thanks to the prominence of railroad and river-related businesses. In 1866, Wilmington shed its small-town status and officially became a city.

World War I and II

Although shipbuilding occurred during the 1700s and 1800s to satisfy the needs of the Civil War and harvesting of the Cape Fear River's natural resources, Wilmington saw a huge resurgence of this trade during World Wars I and II. During World War II, Wilmington was the base of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company. This company was created as part of an emergency shipbuilding program sanctioned by the United States government. Thousands of laborers were employed by this company and during the years of World War II, they built almost two hundred fifty ships. During the Second World War, Wilmington was also home to three prison prisoner-of-war (POW) camps that at one time housed around five hundred fifty German soldiers. One of the camp locations during this time was the Bluethenthal Army Air Base, which eventually became the Wilmington International Airport that we see today.

Post-War years to the Present

After the war, business continued as usual, so to speak. Despite Wilmington's notoriety of being a port city, the railroad industry dominated the area until 1955. It was during this time that the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad decided to move its base of operations to Florida, resulting in many Wilmington families packing their bags and moving south with the railroad. This led to a new transformation in Wilmington's demographics as organizations within the city planned ways to attract more diversified businesses to the area.

With the arrival of huge corporations such as Corning and General Electric, Wilmington began to quickly grow. Several tourist attractions such as the Downtown River Walk and the USS Battleship North Carolina became huge draws for both locals and visitors alike. The city also has the glitter of Hollywood within its midst, becoming home to several movie studio production companies including Screen Gem Studios. Many movies, independent films and TV shows have and continue to be filmed in the area to this day. This has given Wilmington the honor and distinction of being the third largest filming location in the United States, earning this place behind the filming giants of New York and Los Angeles.

Despite being one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and the continuing modernization of the area, Wilmington continues to retain its historic and old-world atmosphere which is visible in many of the original buildings, homes and monuments, especially in the downtown area. Though the remnants of history are great and many, there are several in historic Downtown Wilmington that stand out as magnificent reminders and tributes to the city's rich and colorful past.

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