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Cape Fear’s Forgotten Fleet:
The Eagles Island Ships’ Graveyard, Wilmington, North Carolina

Sami Kay Seeb
MA Candidate
Program in Maritime Studies
East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina

Introduction:

The city of Wilmington, North Carolina lies on the east bank of the Cape Fear River about thirty miles north of the mouth of the river. Wilmington sits at the junction of the Cape Fear River and the Northeast Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear River and its tributaries flow for miles away from Wilmington in all directions (The Water Resources Support Center 1980: 1). Its access to inland waterways, coastal waters, and open waters of the Atlantic provided an extremely advantageous location for Wilmington to develop as a major maritime center in North Carolina. Settled in 1731, the abundance of products derived from the pine forests surrounding the area resulted in the rapid growth of Wilmington. Naval stores including tar, pitch, and turpentine formed the primary industry with shingles, barrel staves and lumber providing additional export items. In the earliest settlement days, inhabitants purchased property along the navigable streams to enable travel and goods transport. This resulted in nearly all commerce passing through Wilmington or nearby Brunswick Town ( Jackson 1996a: 24). From the beginning of the nineteenth century through the turn of the twentieth century, Wilmington developed and remained North Carolina’s most populous city and only significant port (Watson 1992: 46 and 136).

At the outset of the twentieth century, Wilmington’s economy gradually began to fall behind other cities with more developed industrialization and expanding large businesses (Watson 1992: 139-140). During the period of the World Wars and the Great Depression, the economy fluctuated due to a variety of localized, national, and international circumstances. While the traditional export business dwindled in the twentieth century, Wilmington remained an active port and a regional trade center through World War II. By the 1950s, trade in Wilmington’s port dwindled to little more than a trace of its vibrant past. While history provides remembrances of Wilmington’s importance as a trade center in North Carolina, the landscape of the Cape Fear River augments those memories with the large collection of abandoned vessels, wharfs, marine railways, and associated structural features. These abandoned watercraft and maritime features are a testament to the once thriving industry that endured on both banks of the Cape Fear River in the vicinity of Wilmington.

The abandonment of vessels adjacent to Eagles Island and Wilmington are a result of a number of behaviors associated with disposal. Previous studies show that at least four vessels were true wrecks, lost accidentally at their moorings and not re-floated or salvaged by their owners. Some vessels were pulled out of use and stored for later reactivation. However, these vessels, for a variety of reasons, were not put back into active service. In some cases, vessel owners left intact vessels in actively used areas of the waterway and shoreline. Also, at least nine derelict vessels sit in a designated ships’ graveyard. Other vessels show evidence of abandonment and reuse (Wilde-Ramsing 1986: 4-5).

It is the goal of this thesis to analyze the remains of vessels associated with the maritime activities of Wilmington in order to better interpret Wilmington’s historic past and add important detail to our understanding of the area. The scattered remains in the Cape Fear River are located both on the historic riverfront of Wilmington itself and across the river along the shore of Eagles Island, the now abandoned site of several formerly industrious marine railway companies and shipyards. While to many locals and tourists alike, the derelict remains are an eyesore in their scenic port (Wilde-Ramsing 1986: 1), to the scholars of history and archaeology, the abandoned vessels provide a valuable and tangible means of studying past societies. The abandonment of maritime associated material can be traced to the earliest days of shipbuilding, yet few studies exist on the historical and archaeological importance of such sites (Richards 2002:2). This thesis will demonstrate that the wrecked and discarded abandoned watercraft that form the Eagles Island ships’ graveyard represent a microcosm of the cultural, economic, and technological characteristics and changes of Wilmington and Southeastern North Carolina.