Picturing the Wilmington Waterfront

Explore the History of the Wilmington Harbor with "Main Street, Carolina"

The New Hanover County Public Library houses one of the state's oldest North Carolina Collections. Included in the over 100 year old collection are over 20,000 photographs of the Cape Fear Region. The images chosen for this site represent the Wilmington Harbor from 1837 to present day.


Historical Waterfront

Historically, Wilmington's busiest main street was the Cape Fear River.  The Wilmington Harbor included the area south of the city where the NC State Port of Wilmington is today and north just beyond the railroad bridge.


The town (founded 1739-40) was located at the junction of the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers in order to facilitate trade between the Atlantic Coast and the state's interior. The commercial and industrial area that developed along both sides of the river became the engine that drove the economy of the region. Waterfront property was highly valued due to the attached wharves, the center of all shipping activities. Ownership of a wharf, whether public or private, provided lucrative docking fees, leases and rentals. Larger companies generated enough business to fill their docks year-round. Near the wharves were row upon row of warehouses where incoming and outgoing products were stored. Railroad companies occupied a large portion of the northern end of the waterfront. The U.S. Custom House and Marine Revue Cutter Service (Coast Guard) represented Federal government interests on the waterfront. Ships from all over the world docked in Wilmington Harbor and gave the city a cosmopolitan atmosphere.  In 1895, the Chamber of Commerce claimed that the "City by the Sea" was the leading trade center of the state. Wilmington Harbor was the crossroad of that trade.


Waterfront After 1960

By 1960, Wilmington was no longer the headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Urban Renewal began to take its toll on the working waterfront. In 1961, the USS North Carolina Battleship found a permanent berth on the west side of the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington and the waterfront turned from industrial to recreational. Pedestrians now look to the waterfront as a place to stroll and enjoy nature, eat good food, visit museums and galleries and enjoy exciting nightlife.

Using this Website

This website allows the viewer to look at the Wilmington Harbor over time through maps dating from 1884 to 1973. Each image is linked to the time period of the map and the location on the waterfront. Clicking on any given marker will display a thumbnail and short description; clicking on "more information" will bring up the full size image along with some basic details.

This website was created by the staffs of the New Hanover County Public Library and the Carolina Digital Library and Archives at The North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.