Some History of Carolina Beach

Indians, Civil War and the Rise, Fall and Rise of Carolina Beach

by David Paul

Carolina Beach North Carolina is a small town on an island located on the southern end of North Carolina’s coastline. The island is called Pleasure Island and is part of the Atlantic coast’s intercoastal waterway. The island forms the tip of a peninsula between the Cape Fear River to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east and is comprised of two small beach communities, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach.     

Early History

Like much of the history of early America, the first inhabitants of the area were Indians, mainly Tuscarora Indians. They lived all throughout the area hunting game and then eventually cultivating vegetables. As a result of the Tuscarora war (1711 – 1715) the English drove the Indians out and began to colonize the area with the first settlement, Brunswick Town, located on the western side of the Cape Fear River. Shortly thereafter a small town grew on the eastern side of the river called Newton, which eventually became the city of Wilmington, NC. These towns traded goods via ferry across the river and eventually became a major shipping port for goods shipped to Europe and the British West Indies. 

The peninsula between the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean was first called Federal Point in the 1790’s in honor of the US adopting our first Constitution. In 1817 a lighthouse was built at the end of the island to help guide ships up the Cape Fear River.     

The Civil War

Just prior to the Civil War the island had a total population of 72 households made up mostly of farmers and riverboat pilots. It was during the Civil War that the Federal Point peninsula gained importance when the North imposed a blockade of southern ports. The South, desperate for supplies, found that the mouth of the Cape Fear River was almost impossible to blockade due to its shifting shoals and wide opening to the sea. The southerners living here proudly renamed it Confederate Point and built a huge earthen fort, Fort Fisher to protect confederate blockade runners such as the C.S.S Beauregard. After a massive Union Naval bombardment and capture of the fort by the North in 1865, the area was once again renamed Federal Point. The North, never wanting to again have to fight the South for control of the inlet and because of the shifting shoals which were inherently dangerous to ships trying to navigate up the river, hired the Army Corp of Engineers to close a part of the inlet called New Inlet. They erected a jetty that extended to Zekes Island and still stands today.

Carolina Beach Starts to Grow

Between the Civil War battle that took place at Fort Fisher and the newly constructed jetty, people started to become interested in seeing the area for themselves. What they found was beautiful sandy beaches, great fishing, and cool sea breezes. In 1880 Captain John Harper ran a ferry that would take visitors from Wilmington on trips to the area aboard his steamship. They would offload passengers on the western side of the island and escort them by foot the two miles across the island to the oceanside and the beaches. The fisherman who came here established a fishing club and built themselves a clubhouse in 1882. Small fishing cottages began to spring up soon thereafter. There were now two daily scheduled steamship trips to the island to keep up with the demand.

In 1886 Captain Harper, along with some local businessmen, decided to build a small train that would carry passengers across the island so they didn't have to walk. People would travel down the Cape Fear River on his steamer, dock at a wharf on the western side of the river, and then be shuttled by the train called the Shoo Fly to the beach. It became such a popular trip that eventually the number of locals and visitors grew and grew. People just couldn't get enough of the white sandy beaches and pleasant ocean air. This influx of paying customers now demanded more to see and do on their visits so a large dance pavilion was built and the number of cottages increased.

In 1887 the number of people seeking to spend the day or stay overnight was so big that a hotel was built, Byran’s Oceanic Hotel to accommodate the visitors. People would come to collect seashells, see the beached Civil War blockade runners, and bathe in the sea. Two new bathhouses were built and the area started to really take off. Building lots originally sold for $1 per foot!

In 1891 a billiard hall, a 10-pin bowling alley and a grocery store opened. With each passing summer more and more ships docked there and even more buildings were constructed. For the safety of the beach goers, ropes were fastened from the shoreline out onto poles buried deep in the sand out in the water because many people of that time couldn't’t swim.    

Turn of the Century

The first part of the 19th century saw the dramatic growth of Carolina Beach and it’s reputation as a beach resort town. The Ocean view Hotel opened in 1929 and even had running water. Back then swimming was called "surf wading" or "surf bathing". A new, larger pavilion was built along with a power station, streets were laid out, a school was built, and the town was on the move. But what really made the town stand out was the building of the wooden boardwalk. It was considered the heart and soul of Carolina Beach, and provided a fun way to walk along the beach above the sand. The boardwalk had benches and plenty of room underneath to sit in the sand away from the hot sun. In September 1940 a fire devastated the boardwalk but it was quickly rebuilt in time for the summer of 1941.       

The Popularity Continues

It was during the 1940’s that the popularity of Carolina Beach and its reputation as the place to be really took hold. Big bands of the era came here to perform in the Bame Hotel and people came for miles around to enjoy the great seafood in one of the many fine restaurants. Britts Donuts opened on the boardwalk in 1939 and quickly became a favorite attraction. The Palais Royal Hotel was built right on the boardwalk and had a dining room with a dance floor and oceanfront rooms. To take a Sunday drive to Carolina Beach made for an exciting day. People had a great deal of fun at the amusement park rides including the ferris wheel, and strolled along the boardwalk watching other people.

The Carolina Beach fishing pier was built in 1946 (Kure Beach pier was built in 1923). Fishermen had to come in travel trailers and park nearby since there weren't’t too many places to rent on the north end of the island. Hurricane Hazel destroyed the pier in 1954 but it was rebuilt and still stands today. Along the central boardwalk area they built what was known as the Steel Pier in 1955. It was 1,000 feet long, 24 foot wide and made of steel, and had a cable car ride that you could take out to the end of the pier as the main attraction. The cable car fees was $.50 and children $.35. During World War II Carolina Beach was a favorite hangout for the local servicemen on leave. Local children would shine their shoes for $.10 and then hang around under the boardwalk in the hopes of finding loose change!

Deep-sea fishing excursions were popular (and still are) and many local charter boats gladly took people out for a day of fine fishing. Back then you could go out on a charter boat all day for $5.00. In 1955, Robert Harrell the Hermit first came to live on the island and people still talk about him to this day. He became an area attraction all to himself.

The Times Are Changing

During the early 1960’s the old steel swing bridge was replaced with a concrete bridge over the intercoastal waterway and connected the island with the mainland.  As can be seen in many small communities in America, Carolina Beach experienced a downturn in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The attractions seemed to be dated and the younger crowds wanted more excitement then to go to their parent’s favorite beach. The steel pier was taken down and the amusement rides were moved away from the boardwalk area. The wooden boardwalk had been replaced with a concrete walkway and the town’s future was unclear. The beaches were still beautiful but Carolina Beach now had to compete with more modern beach vacation spots like Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Fewer visitors came to our island.     

Carolina Beach Resurgence

Thanks to strong local support by the townspeople and local businesses, a resurgence of energy was again underway starting in the 1990’s and the town started to improve upon both their image and their attractions. When you come to Carolina Beach today you will see many wonderful examples of success. Britts Donuts is still a landmark on the boardwalk and is a must place to visit. You can still drive out onto the north end of the island (if you have 4 wheel drive) and camp out on the beach overnight in Freeman Park. There are live bands playing at the gazebo by the boardwalk every Thursday night during the summer and they shoot off fireworks at 9:00 PM sharp. Stroll over to Squiggly’s for an ice cream and on Sunday night take the family over to the outdoor theater for a fun G rated movie. If you like seafood try The Shuckin Shack, Michaels Seafood, or the Sea Witch Café.

If you’re looking for some local history then head down the island to Fort Fisher, the place of a major Civil War battle and navel bombardment back in January 1865.  Don’t forget to visit the NC Aquarium and see their albino alligator "Luna".

Carolina Beach Vacation Homes and Condos

With so much to offer it’s no wonder that generations of families still come to Carolina Beach year after year. There are plenty of affordable vacation homes and vacation condos to rent and you’ll never forget the time you vacationed at Carolina Beach. These are sure to help your family or group have the best vacation ever!