Wrightsville Beach History
First know simply as The Banks, and then as Ocean View Beach, the town of Wrightsville Beach was incorporated in 1899, named for the Wright family of Wilmington for whom Wrightsville Sound and the small community of Wrightsville on the mainland side of the current drawbridge were already named.
Accessibility to the beach had improved in 1887 when the Shell Road – following the route of current Wrightsville Avenue – was completed.
Wilmington Seacoast Railroad Co. built rail transportation, known as the “Beach Car” from downtown Wilmington all the way to the “Hammocks” (Harbor Island) with a footbridge to Wrightsville Beach.
In 1889, the rail line was extended across the Hammocks and onto the barrier island, later known as Wrightsville Beach, where it then ran southward along a route which is now South Lumina Avenue. Until the automobile era, the “Beach Car” was the lifeline to Wrightsville Beach.
On July 4, 1907, 8700 passengers traveled to the beach by rail. At the end of the Beach Car line was Lumina pavilion, built in 1905 by the Tidewater Power Co.; Lumina was constructed on 200 feet of ocean frontage at Station 7. Lumina’s 12,500 square foot complex presented visitors with three levels of games and activities including a magnificent dance hall and a movie screen in the surf.
The Great Fire of 1934 destroyed over one hundred buildings on the north end of Wrightsville Beach, including The oceanic Hotel, but not touching Lumina. In 1935, the trolley era gave way to the automobile.
Hurricane Hazel hit Wrightsville Beach, at high tide and with a full moon, on October 15, 1954, destroying approximately 200 houses and damaging 500 more. Hazel continues to be the only documented Category 4 hurricane to make a direct hit on the North Carolina coast.
A new era began in the 1960’s as Wrightsville Beach rebuilt after Hurricane Hazel. Currently, there are 2,604 year round residents, with the population swelling to 45-50,000 in the summer months.
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH HISTORY TIMELINE by Scott McKinnon
1853 Carolina Yacht Club, currently the second oldest east coast yacht club (NY Yacht Club established in 1844), was founded on The Banks, which later became Wrightsville Beach.
1854 Carolina Yacht Club (CYC) constructed the first building on the beach just to the south of Deep Inlet.
1880 Seaside Park Hotel, the first hotel in the area, constructed at Wrightsville Sound.
1887 Shell Road (turnpike toll road) completed from Wilmington to Wrightsville Sound (took 12 years to complete).
1887 Train passenger service began by Wilmington & Seacoast Railroad steam engine, named Betsy, from Wilmington to Wrightsville Sound. Up to twenty five round trips per day were made.
1888 Trestle & train tracks extended from Wrightsville Sound to the Hammocks by Wilmington & Seacoast Railroad.
1888 Footbridge from Hammocks to Wrightsville Beach completed. Separate bath houses for men and women were added the next year (1889).
1888 Island Beach Hotel sometimes referred to as Hammocks Hotel, the first hotel built east of Wrightsville Sound, constructed on Banks Channel on the Hammocks. A 900 ft. long 100 room annex constructed in 1891 established it as the hotel with the longest oceanfront on the east coast. The annex was destroyed in an 1893 wind storm and the main hotel was demolished in 1916 prior to construction of the Harbor Island Auditorium.
1888 Ten-Pin Alley & Shooting Gallery opened on the Hammocks.
1889 A trestle across Banks Channel was constructed to carry passengers from the Hammocks south to Masonboro Inlet by Ocean View Railroad, reorganized from Ocean View Railroad, after leasing sole rights from Wilmington & Seacoast Railroad.
1889 Breeze House, the first hotel on the beach, was constructed at the Masonboro Switchback Station near Masonboro Inlet.
1891 An octagon shaped pavilion, commonly called the Hammocks Theatre, opened just north of the Island Beach Hotel on the Hammocks. Used as a theatre and dance pavilion. The Messenger newspaper called it, “the most unique structure of its kind in America”.
1892 A land survey by the Wilmington & Seacoast Railroad showed 95 available lots (77 accessible by RR) and 12 buildings.
1895 First baseball game on the new Hammocks Diamond at the Hammocks between High Point and Wilmington All Stars.
1895 The Clarendon Yacht Club founded near what was to become Station 6. In 1898, the name was changed to Atlantic Yacht Club. After the Great Storm in 1899, the clubhouse was completely rebuilt and remained in operation until the land was sold in 1911.
1896 Water Works system (500’ artesian well) installed by Wilmington & Seacoast Railroad System drilled to provide water to south end of beach. Windmills were used to pump the water to its destination.
1897 First private cottage built on Wrightsville Beach by Col. F. W. Foster and another fifty cottages were built within a year.
1897 Phone service to the beach available for the first time consisting of only 2 party lines.
1897 Seashore Hotel, considered an early showplace on the island, opened with 180 rooms (150 with fireplaces) on the current site of the Blockade Runner Hotel. Other hotels in existence were Atlas House which burned in 1897 and was replaced by the Ocean View Hotel in 1899. The Seashore Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1919, but rebuilt in 1922.
1897 Shelter of the Silver Cross established to take care of feeble women and children was operated by the Ministering Circle of St. James Church. The Shelter was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1899.
1899, Great Storm, known as the Puerto Rico Storm, destroyed railway tracks and trestle connecting the Hammocks to Wrightsville Sound, the Carolina Yacht Club, Atlantic Yacht Club and many other structures.
1899 Wrightsville Beach incorporated and named after the Joshua Grainger Wright family, large, local landowners. The beach had previously been called Ocean View Beach.
1900 The Hammocks Boat & Fishing Association, located close to the site of the old Hammocks Hotel, opened with races of yachts and dead-rise skiffs, followed by a big oyster roast and entertainment.
1901 Consolidated Railways, Light & Power Company created from consolidation of Wilmington & Seacoast Railroad, Wilmington Gas Light Co. and Wilmington Street Railroad.
1902 “Beach Cars”, the first electric trolley, operated by Consolidated Railroad, Light & Power Company replaced wood burning steam engine train after new tracks were installed. Over a hundred cottages existed on Wrightsville Beach at the time.
1902 The Casino, a vaudeville theatre, opened neat Station 7.
1904 Free electricity was provided to Wrightsville Beach by Consolidated Railways, Light & Power Company. Electricity remained free until 1917.
1905 The Tarrymore Hotel constructed at Station 1 with 125 elegantly furnished rooms with electric lights and a 4,000 square foot dance floor. Two wings were added around 1911 and it was renamed Oceanic Hotel. The Onedaga Tea Room (1912) on Banks Channel and the Round House Tea Room on the ocean front were part of the Tarrymore.
1905 Lumina, “Beautiful Place of Lights”, a public three level pavilion constructed by Consolidated Light & Power Co. for games and entertainment with magnificent ball room with the first scientifically designed band shell on the east coast. It became known as the “Showplace of the Atlantic”. Virtually every “big band” era band played there. The last Big Band to perform at Lumina was Vaughn Monroe in the early 1952. Sadly, Lumina was demolished in 1973.
1906 Direct Pullman train service established from Atlanta to Wrightsville Beach. Round trip took over sixteen hours.
1906 Hanover Seaside Club, originally organized in 1898 in Carolina Beach, formerly opened its new 3-story club on Lumina Ave.
1907 The Little Chapel on the Boardwalk, located on the west side of the boardwalk between Stations 2 and 3, built to serve as a place of worship for Presbyterians and Episcopalians. In 1952, Presbyterian church moved to the corner of W. Oxford St and maintained the name Little Chapel on the Boardwalk. Episcopalians had established St. Andrews on the Sound in 1924.
1907 Tidewater Power Co. was created as the result of a reorganization of Consolidated Railways, Light & Power Co.
1907 Two proper ladies from town were hired as chaperones so that single ladies could come to Lumina unescorted. Lumina started charging 10 cents for dancing after initially allowing dancing for free.
1907 On July 4, 1907, 8,700 people arrived at the beach via the Beach Car trolley.
1910 A steel pier, said to be the only one of its kind on the South Atlantic was built in front of the Seashore Hotel. The 700 ft. pier was destroyed by a storm in 1921 after being damaged by a 1920 storm. The steel pier was never rebuilt.
1910 Lumina was expanded to include a 6,500 square foot dance floor along with the addition of a 300 seat outdoor theatre.
1910 The first flight of an airplane built in North Carolina took place on Shell Island. The Wright Bros. plane was built in Ohio.
1913 Lumina enlarged again to 6,400 square foot dance promenade and silent-movie screen in the ocean.
1913 A New ordinance by the WB Board of Aldermen stated all cows and livestock are banned from Wrightsville Beach. Violators were subject to a $50 fine. Many people didn’t even know the livestock was there.
1915 The first Fire Brigade was established and evolved into the Wrightsville Beach Volunteer Fire Department which relocated next to Town Hall on Waynick Blvd. in 1940. The WBFD incorporated in 1987.
1915 New Ordinances by the WB Board of Aldermen stated that gas motor boats must have underwater exhaust to decrease noise. Fine $5.00. Also, it shall be illegal for any person wearing a bathing suit to promenade on the boardwalk. Fine $5.00.
1916 Harbor Island Auditorium constructed by Tidewater Power & Light Co. on the site of the old Island Beach Hotel. Auditorium Circle, which marked the west and south boundaries, still exists today. During WWI, the Auditorium was used for naval training. In 1934, the Auditorium was converted to a talking picture theatre and later demolished in 1936.
1916 Tent City was erected at Lumina on Banks Channel where people could rent a tent with electricity at economical rates.
1917 Trolley Depot constructed at Wrightsville Sound west of the drawbridge by Tidewater Power & Light Co., it also served as a sub-station. This unique Spanish-style landmark was demolished in the 1950’s to make way for a new draw bridge.
1918 A Beach Car carrying passengers from Delgado Baptist and Presbyterian Sunday Schools on their annual picnic derailed and fell onto the mud flats at Wrightsville Sound. Luckily, none of the several hundred passengers were seriously injured.
1919 Robert’s Market opened for business. The name Robert’s Grocery is still alive, but operates mostly as a convenience store.
1919 Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) Club formed and located on Island Avenue with members from as far back as the Civil War.
1920 Babies Hospital constructed at Edgewater, Wrightsville Sound spurred by the 1918 flu epidemic. It burned in 1927, was rebuilt at Wrightsville sound in 1928 near the eventual draw bridge.
1921 The Seashore Hotel destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1922 and the name changed to the Ocean Terrace Hotel.
1922 Inlet Station was created when a spur trolley track was extended north from Station 1 to Salisbury St. at Moore’s Inlet.
1923 Shell Island Beach, called the “National Negro Playground”, established with a pavilion, restaurant and several beach cottages on Shell Island as the first Negro resort in the nation. Accessed by a special trolley spur on Harbor Island and boat, it was abandoned in 1926 due to a series of fires in some of the public buildings, coupled with storm and tidal damage.
1925 The largest parking garage in eastern NC was located on the mainland at Wrightsville Sound for visitors using the Shell Rd.
1925 Pop Gray’s Soda Shop occupied half of the ground floor of the Ocean View Hotel near Station One.
1926 Shore Acres on Harbor Island formally opened after bulkhead constructed and dredging in sand from Grainger’s Creek.
1926 Oleander Drive, a concrete road, known as the “Wilmington-Wrightsville Speedway”, constructed for better access to WB.
1926 “Oceanic Causeway” hard surfaced and the first automobile bridge opened across Wrightsville Sound to the Hammocks. The Causeway toll was 10 cents per person, 25 cents per car and 50 cents per truck.
1926 “Northern Extension” created when Moore’s Inlet was moved north by filling in between Asheville and Salisbury streets.
1928 Original drawbridge constructed over ICW connecting Wrightsville Sound and the Hammocks.
1928 “Villa Margarita”, a Spanish style house on Live Oak Dr. was the first house built on the Hammocks and still stands today.
1928 A gigantic, 50 ton sperm whale washed ashore and caused quite a commotion with onlookers coming from all around. The over 55 foot skeleton was sent to Raleigh where it remains on view today at the NC Museum.
1929 Dredging started for the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) Wrightsville Sound area. This was part of a major government project to provide inland boat access from Boston the southern tip of Florida. Dredging from Topsail to Snow’s Cut took several years to complete. The original idea of the ICW was said to have come from George Washington.
1929 Pomando (Pormando?) Walk Cottages, a less expensive alternative to large hotels, was established between Lumina and Banks Channel where Tent City once stood. All twenty units included kitchen with sink, bathroom and shower.
1929 Harbor Island Club, later known as the Pink Club, was founded on Banks Channel by prominent area citizens as a private social club. It became a summer annex to the Cape Fear Country Club. Upon foreclosure, the land and building was auctioned and purchased by Roger Moore who sold it to The Salvation Army USO in 1941. It later became a Methodist Church Youth Center before it was purchased by the Harris Ligon family for their residence in the 1950’s.
1931 Harbor Island Tavern & Hotel remained open all year for the first time. It was reportedly operated by the Newell family.
1933 Harbor Island Casino located just north of the Harbor Island Club (Pink Club), on Banks Channel, opened and was a popular dance pavilion where many famous big bands entertained. The Casino closed in 1937 and was demolished.
1934 “The Great Fire” started at the Kitty Cottage and destroyed the Oceanic Hotel (formerly Tarrymore Hotel) plus over 100 cottages, representing about half of all existing cottages, mostly on the north end.
1934 Newell’s Soda Shop was moved from Harbor Island to the Station 1 terminal at Wrightsville Beach where Bud Werkheiser had previously operated a soda shop.
1934 Talking pictures were shown for the first time at the Harbor Island Auditorium.
1935 The Seashore Hotel was renamed the Ocean Terrace Hotel upon being leased by the former owners of the Kitty Cottage where the Great Fire of 1934 started.
1935 Lumina Avenue paved.
1935 The first automobiles accessed Wrightsville Beach upon completion of a wood, 2-lane, automobile bridge constructed across Banks Channel from Harbor Island with a walkway adjacent to trolley trestle.
1936 Waynick Blvd. constructed on sand dredged next to Banks Channel west of Lumina Ave.
1937 Ocean View Pier and Hotel constructed. In 1942 it was renamed Johnnie Mercer’s Fishing Pier after the new owner.
1938 Sixteen creosote-wood and rock jetties one thousand feet apart were constructed on the beachfront.
1939 Mira Mar Fishing Pier with bowling alley, restaurant and tackle shop constructed over the shipwreck of the Fanny & Jenny. It was later renamed Luna Fishing Pier and then Crystal Fishing Pier. Currently it is called Oceanic Restaurant and Pier.
1940 North Shore Development moved Moore’s Inlet north of Mallard Street from Salisbury St. by filling in the original inlet.
1940 North Lumina Ave. extended nearer to Moore’s Inlet from Salisbury to Mallard Street.
1940 Trolley service ended to Wrightsville Beach and the tracks were removed. The impact of cars and busses led to the demise of the trolley. Much of the steel was used in WWII to build ships.
1940s More roads were paved and parking was added at the beach.
1940 Town Hall was moved to Waynick Blvd. from Wilmington and handled the town’s affairs with a full-time Town Clerk.
1941 United Services Organization of the Salvation Army (USO) purchased the Pink House, formerly the Harbor Island Club on Harbor Island. The Harbor Island USO was said to have the best USO facilities in North Carolina.
1941 Surf Club constructed at northern end of Wrightsville Beach at the corner of Lumina Ave. and Mallard Street.
1941 The first U. S. Post Office established at Station 1 where the Trolley Stop Hot Dog Stand is located today at Station 1.
1942 Harbor Island Community Club was founded to promote community civic affairs in the community and a closer cooperation with the fire warden, including installation of fire hydrants on the northern end of Harbor Island.
1942 St. Therese Catholic Church building constructed after holding services in private homes for several years.
1944-45 Modern sewer system installed, replacing old septic tank systems.
1945 Police Department was formed with two officers in the winter and three in the summer.
1945 Wrightsville Beach Lion’s Club chartered with 25 members for civic improvement and community betterment. They were known for their Annual Bread Sale which started in 1949.
1945-47 King Neptune Restaurant (N. Lumina Avenue near Station 1), Nautilus Restaurant (pie-shaped building at Station 1) and the
Marina Restaurant (on the causeway near the draw bridge) all opened for business.
1946 Newell’s, a large variety store at Station 1, constructed and expanded after purchasing a V-shaped piece of land previously occupied by the ABC Store. The ABC Store moved across the street to the corner of Lumina and Stone Streets. WINGS currently occupies the old Newell’s location.
1946 CREST Theatre opened for the summer season. A different movie played every day so visitors for the week could attend daily in case of inclement weather. It operated every summer until 1973.
1947 Dial phones became available. Wrightsville Beach numbers began with 6- _ _ _ _ and later “Alpine 6” (256- _ _ _ _ ) .
1947 Wrightsville Beach Methodist Church organized. Services were originally held at the Methodist Youth Center (formerly USO building) at 10 N. Channel Drive, Harbor Island.
1948 Fire burned to the ground the Atlantic Inn, Judy Inn and four residences on South Lumina Ave.
1950 International Nickel Company (INCO) constructed on Harbor Island for testing corrosion in marine environments.
1952 Dunes Garden Club, sponsored by the Cape Fear Garden Club, was organized.
1951 Little Chapel on the Boardwalk moved to the present location between Oxford and Fayetteville Streets.
1953 Wrightsville Beach School opened with combination grades first/second, third/fourth and fifth/sixth.
1954 Hurricane Hazel destroyed 89 structures, heavily damaged 155 with 375 requiring repairs.
1954 Wrightsville Beach Methodist Church relocated to Live Oak Drive, Harbor Island.
1954 The Seashore Baptist Church, sponsored by Seagate Baptist Church, formed a mission with services initially held in Lion’s Club Building, formerly Little Chapel on the Boardwalk, until destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. The church moved to North Channel Drive, Harbor Island in 1955 and was later renamed the Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church.
1955 The Ocean Terrace Hotel, on the site of the old Seashore Hotel, the largest hotel on the beach, was destroyed by fire.
1955 A new bridge at Salisbury St. across Banks Channel coincided with construction of a new causeway parallel to Lee’s Cut.
1956 U. S. Coast Guard Station established next to the Police Department on Waynick Blvd. It was moved to the southern end of the beach in 1969.
1958 Heide Trask drawbridge (4-lane) built across ICW replacing original drawbridge constructed in 1928.
1960 Home Demonstration Club organized with the motto, “Today’s Home Builds Tomorrow’s World”.
1962 Saline Water Plant, referred to as the Cape Canaveral of Saline Research, constructed as an experimental saline water conversion plant. The Saline Water Plant supplied some of Wrightsville Beach’s water until it closed in the seventies.
1962 The first beach bank, First National Bank of Eastern North Carolina opened where South Beach Restaurant now located.
1964 Blockade Runner Hotel constructed on the old Ocean Terrace Hotel site and become the largest hotel on the beach.
1964 Bradley Creek Marina constructed.
1965 Harbor Island annexed by Wrightsville Beach.
1965 A sand berm, 3.27 miles long, was constructed covering the old wood jetties in order to protect the beach from erosion.
1966 Rock Jetty (groin) constructed on north side of Masonboro Inlet. Another rock jetty was constructed on the south side of Masonboro Inlet in 1980.
1967 Moore’s Inlet was completely filled in with sand connecting Wrightsville Beach to Shell Island
1969 Holiday Inn Sun Spree Resort constructed where the Moore’s Inlet was previously located.
1969 Redix variety and clothing store opened near the old Marina Restaurant location near the draw bridge.
1972 A new concrete 4-lane bridge across Banks Channel replaced the old 2-lane wooden bridge at Station 1.
1970’s Channel Walk, the first multi-family homes, constructed on Wrightsville Beach.
1971 Station One Condominiums constructed.
1973 Islander Condominiums constructed.
1982 Doak Apartments fire spread to Hanover Seaside Club. Both were destroyed. Volunteer Fireman, Robert Wynne, died.
Fighting the fire and the municipal dock at Station 1 was renamed Wynne Plaza in his honor in 1983.
1976 Trolley Stop hot dog stand opened in the old, original Post Office building at Station 1.
1986 Shell Island Resort constructed at the extreme southern end of the Wrightsville Beach (formerly Shell Island).
1995 Wrightsville Beach Museum, formerly Meyer’s Cottage built in 1909, opened at current location.
The following sources were used to compile the dates and events shown above:
Wrightsville Beach Museum of History archives; Newspaper clippings from the Wilmington Star, Wilmington News, Wilmington Messenger in the Bill Reeves collection in the North Carolina Room at the New Hanover county Public Library, Bill Creasy Collection and the Al Creasy Collection; Land of the Golden River by Lewis Phillip Hall; Wrightsville Beach, The Luminous Island by Ray McAllister. Various Susan Taylor Block publications, Minutes from Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen.
The town of Wrightsville Beach occupies one of the chain of barrier islands along North Carolina’s southeastern coast. These islands, geologically relatively young, presented prior to urban development a combination of wide sandy beaches, dunes, and marine forests. Westward of the long and narrow barrier islands are the sounds and marshlands where sea water continually flows in and out across waterways and wetlands.
The barrier islands are in a state of constant transition because of natural forces. Hurricanes and storms bring high winds and pounding surf which erode the beach, open and close new inlets, and alter the terrain and the ecological systems on and around it. Current documentation points to a slow, steady migration of barrier islands toward the west.
The island of Wrightsville Beach today is 1,000-5,000 feet in width and stretches almost four miles from Masonboro Inlet to the south to Mason’s Inlet to the north.
Wrightsville Beach’s current configuration is primarily man-made and may not stand the test of time. When North Carolinians named the island it was called New Hanover Banks, or simply The Banks, a sandy barrier cut by shallow Moore’s Inlet. The northern portion was a separate island called Shell Island. Today, Moore’s Inlet is bulldozed and closed, and Lumina Avenue and a magnificent wide beach run the length of Wrightsville Beach. On the mainland side of Wrightsville Beach European settlers encountered a sound nearly two miles wide, a stretch of waterways, marsh and small islands.
Dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway earlier in the 20th century produced sand and clay which were compacted to form a sizable island in the sound that was originally called The Hammocks–now Harbor Island–between the barrier island and the western shore of the sound, which is punctuated by creeks, tidal flats and marshlands.
The entire habitat – ocean and barrier island, sound and creeks – was originally rich with salt water and anadromous fish along with turtles, raccoon and even alligators.
The city limits of the town of Wrightsville Beach today encompass not only the barrier island but also Harbor Island and a small portion of mainland. “The Beach,” or the island itself, was once owned by the State of North Carolina and known as New Hanover Banks. It was transferred into private hands in three separate grants between 1791 and 1881.
Development, however, was slow, impeded by distance and lack of transportation other than by boat. The established port city of Wilmington on the lower Cape Fear River, a municipality founded in 1740, sits ten miles by land to the southwest, but the early owners of portions of New Hanover Banks could only reach the area by traveling on oar-driven skiffs or sailing craft down to the mouth of the Cape Fear River and then northeastward up the sounds or coast.
For a century after the beach passed into private hands there were no residents, and the only visitors were fishermen, drawn to the area by the great numbers of Spanish Mackerel and Blue Fish, and hunters who used marsh lands to the west to hunt game hen and game birds.
Sailing became a popular pastime in the area, and frequent races led to the founding of the Carolina Yacht Club in April 1853. Club members erected a clubhouse, the first structure on what began to be called Wrightsville Beach (after the Wright family who owned land on the nearby mainland) as their meeting place. The Carolina Yacht Club held dozens of races every year and is now recognized as the third oldest yacht club in the United States.
The Civil War disrupted these events for a few years, as many members of the club and their boats went into military service. The waterways adjacent to Cape Fear were busy with traffic during the war, with blockade runners making their dangerous, usually nocturnal dash from the Atlantic into the mouth of the river on their way to the port of Wilmington.
At least three blockade runners are said to have foundered on Wrightsville Beach itself, one allegedly carrying a sword covered in jewels, meant for the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The inaccessibility of the area began to change in 1875, when a charter was granted for the construction of a turnpike connecting Wilmington to Wrightsville Sound. The passage was completed in 1887, completely topped by oyster shells, thus earning the nickname “the Shell Road.”
Later that year a charter was granted to the Wilmington Seacoast Railroad Company to build a track to extend from Wilmington all the way to the Hammocks. With rail transportation to the Hammocks and a footbridge to Wrightsville Beach, development of the island began to accelerate.
Another yacht club was erected, two hotels and several beach cottages, the first apparently built by Col. F. W. Foster. In 1889 the rail line was extended across the Hammocks and Bank’s Channel to Wrightsville Beach where it then ran southward along a route now marked by South Lumina Avenue. In 1897 the Hammocks attracted a popular hotel, the Island Beach.
Hundreds of visitors from around the state of North Carolina began to arrive each summer. From 10th and Princess streets in downtown Wilmington the train (after 1902, electric trolley) ride to the beach took thirty minutes. Until the automobile era the “Beach Car” trolley was “the lifeline of Wrightsville Beach,” in one resident’s recollection. On July 4, 1907, for example, 8,700 passengers were carried to the beach on the popular line.
On March 6, 1899, the residents incorporated the Town of Wrightsville Beach. The population at this time cannot be determined with accuracy, but probably was not more than 40 or 50, most of them seasonal dwellers.
Their civic commitment was soon tested. The great hurricane of 1899 swept in from the Atlantic and destroyed virtually everything on Wrightsville Beach, including the train tracks that connected it to the mainland. Like Hazel in 1954, the storm struck during the exact hour of high tide, and sent huge waves across the beaches, inundating the island.
The spirit of the people of Wrightsville Beach rose to the occasion. The railroad was rebuilt the very next year, and the electric trolley cars (after 1902) carried thousands of visitors to a beach that was fast becoming a main attraction not only for the people of Wilmington and much of North Carolina but for tourists from New York and other eastern cities.
Hugh MacRae, president of the Tide Water Power Company, the parent company of the trolley line, added to the enticements of sun and sand by building an immense public pavilion at the final stop on the line.
Lumina was constructed on 200 feet of ocean frontage at Station 7, the end of the line, and opened on June 3, 1905. Costing $7,000 to build–a very large sum in that day– Lumina’s 12,500 square foot complex presented visitors with three levels of games and activities.
A bowling alley, shooting gallery and snack shop occupied the ground floor, and a broad staircase led up to the dance hall with balcony for the band and onlookers.
The instantly-popular Lumina was enlarged several times to accommodate the crowds, and a movie screen was erected fifty feet into the surf.
In 1911, over 600 tungsten lights were placed along Lumina’s exterior, and television news commentator David Brinkley, born and raised in Wilmington, remembered in the late 1930s changing light bulbs in the eight-foot high sign LUMINA on the roof, making the facility a glittering landmark easily seen from the mainland or from ships at sea.
In 1935 the trolley era gave way to the automobile, when a two-lane bridge was built across the Intracoastal Waterway to Harbor Island and then over Bank’s Channel to the beach.
The Great Fire of Wrightsville Beach, January 28, 1934, destroyed over one hundred cottages as well as the Oceanic Hotel, though Lumina survived.
Her lights went out during World War II, as naval authorities feared that allied shipping might be silhouetted against the brightly illuminated building, to the benefit of German submarines.
But Wrightsville Beach was far from the sea lanes, protected from submarines by shallow offshore waters. German U-boat Commander Erich Cremer, interviewed in 1984, recalled the waters off Wrightsville Beach as “a shallow grave” that protected the area from the coastal U-boat activity that raised anxieties at other points on the Atlantic shore.
A population of approximately 110 year-round residents in 1930 grew to 1500 in 1945. David Brinkley tells us in his autobiography, David Brinkley: A Memoir, that Wrightsville was not a place only for the rich, like some of the beaches of Long Island, Florida, and elsewhere. “Wilmington residents of even modest prosperity could have a house in town and a shingled cottage built up on stilts on the beach….For a schoolboy with a summer job at the beach making a little money working as a soda jerk…with girls all around in swimsuits that then seemed skimpy, the beach, the surf, Lumina with big bands playing every night, it was heaven.”
Mostly heaven, but nature had a way of punctuating the good life at the beach. On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck the mainland at the North Carolina-South Carolina border, hitting at high tide and at full moon with estimated winds between 125-140 MPH at Wrightsville Beach. A storm surge of 12-14 feet above mean low water mark destroyed between 100-250 houses–estimates vary– and damaged 500 more, again tearing out the Carolina Yacht Club and the town sewer plant.
Again, Wrightsville residents rebuilt. The seven-story Blockade Runner Motor Hotel opened in 1964, reflecting confidence in the future of tourism at the beach. Lumina era, however, was coming to a close. Crowds had diminished with the end of the trolley line, the building deteriorated and was judged unsafe and condemned by town officials in 1972. Historian Rupert Benson reminisced: “The finest orchestras of the country…the Sunday school picnics…pictures over the water in the evening for everyone to enjoy, a grand era of good enjoyment passed on. The auto changed all this and what a mess.”
There was no Wrightsville Beach Preservation Society or other group to mobilize public support for at least the documentation of the famous landmark, if not the preservation of part or all of it, and Lumina was demolished in 1973.
Recent decades have seen a gradual in-filling of development until few vacant lots are left. A towering Shell Island Resort with attached parking garage was constructed at the edge of the inlet on the north end of the island in 1984–too towering, many residents thought of the awkward, ungraceful structure, and too close to the inlet, it was learned in 1996 as Mason Inlet began to migrate southward and threatened to erode the building’s foundations.
Three thousand people now live on the island during the off-season, and the arrival of warm weather greatly increases that number. What brings them to cherish this place, whether as residents or visitors for the weekend?
Wrightsville resident and historian Rupert Benson gave an apt description when he wrote of the mid-century years: “Sky and sea are ablaze with sunset splendor and the snowy crest of the breakers tipped with the colors of the sunset…makes one feel God left his hand here.”
The Lord Giveth, but occasionally, even on the beach, the Lord Taketh Away. In the summer of 1996, two large hurricanes made landfall near the mouth of the Cape Fear River–Bertha, on July 12 and Fran, on September 5. Both the island’s piers were sheared back, hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged, and the imposing dunes topped by seat oats were leveled all along the coast.
Again, Wrightsville Beach citizens regrouped, and rebuilt their community between the broad white beach and the marshes, waterways, and glowing sunsets to the west. Benson captured this resurgent spirit when he wrote in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1934: “Public minded citizens of the Beach rose up and sought a new day.”
Amen, and encore.