Since Europeans first viewed the area, the river known ominously as the Cape Fear has been vital to the fortunes of both buccaneers and businessmen.
History shows it was the pirate Stede Bonnet – by most accounts a poor sailor who already had been convicted as a pirate and pardoned – who may have realized the river’s name. After returning to piracy, he tried to escape capture in the early 1700’s by hiding up the Cape Fear. But he forgot the first rule of pirates – always have more than one escape route. Bonnet was caught as soon as the British reached the mouth of the river.
Union vessels didn’t have as much luck with the blockade runners of the Confederacy, who continued to escape capture and bring needed supplies back to the port at Wilmington during the Civil War. In fact, Wilmington was the last port open to blockade runners. When it finally fell in early 1865, it signaled the end of Confederate hopes.
Since then, though, most seagoing traffic hasn’t needed an escape route – merely a North Carolina berth. That meant the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, and the deepwater harbor at Morehead City.
Morehead City’s first major port development came during the 1850’s with a pier, warehouse and rail facility known as Pier No. 1. Following the North Carolina tradition, it handled mostly naval stores and salt. Takeover by Federal troops during the Civil War and a damaging storm in 1876 further hampered the development of the Morehead City Port for many years.
The argument for state-owned ports began in the 1920’s, when North Carolina’s economic development was handicapped because of higher freight rates than those charged by Virginia competitors – a situation partly due to the state’s notable lack of adequate ports and water transportation. A referendum on spending $8.5 million to improve the situation was defeated in 1924, with most of the Piedmont counties voting against it.
The value of deepwater ports was recognized by the state legislature in 1945 with the creation of the North Carolina Ports Authority. Its job: to create two competitive ports through the sale of revenue bonds. Its ultimate mission: to create a better atmosphere for the development of North Carolina industry.
The General Assembly in 1949 approved the issue of $7.5 million in bonds for construction and improvement of seaports to promote trade throughout the state. Terminals equipped to handle oceangoing vessels were completed at Wilmington and Morehead City in 1952.
Their positions nearly midway between major competing ports in Virginia and South Carolina have made them more accessible to North Carolina traders. In fact, it was the Wilmington harbor’s location near some of the state’s earliest businesses – pine tar, rice and tobacco – that helped make the city the largest in the state until the early 1900’s.
With ships came rail, and up until the 1960’s, Wilmington was headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad – now part of CSX. During World War II, Wilmington was the site of major shipbuilding efforts – including an operation that built vessels out of concrete.
Now, times have changed, and so have the methods of shipping. And that has meant some major changes to keep the ports competitive. In the mid 1970’s the Ports Authority bought two container cranes, eventually locating both at Wilmington. This multi-million dollar purchase of cranes the size of skyscrapers was deemed necessary because more and more cargo was being shipped in “boxes” – containers the size and shape of small mobile homes.
Morehead City has become a major port for phosphate products. Wilmington, meanwhile, has four post-Panamax container cranes and recently acquired two neo-Panamax cranes even as it ships wood products and other bulk and bulkbreak commodities. At Morehead City, planning for expansion onto Port Authority property on Radio Island. The Wilmington Harbor Deepening Project brought 42-foot deep water the entire length of the Cape Fear River navigational channel, from the ocean near Southport to the Port – readying the port for the larger ships of the future.