Even before Wrightsville Beach was incorporated as a town, those who came over by boat to their cottages by the sea enjoyed it as a beautiful place to spend the summer.
Originally known as Ocean View Beach, the town was incorporated in 1899 as Wrightsville Beach, in honor of the Wright family of Wilmington. Accessibility to the beach improved in 1887 when the Shell Road - now 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 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 rail 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 and a magnificent dance hall.
The Great Fire of 1934 destroyed over one hundred buildings on Wrightsville Beach. 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.
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.
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 on the south to Mason inlet on the north.
This is a man-made configuration that may not stand the test of time. When North Carolinians named the island it was called New Hanover Banks, a sandy barrier cut by shallow Moor's Inlet. The northern portion was 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, raccoons 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.
iling 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."