Wrightsville Beach Museum of History
P.O. Box 584
Wrightsville Beach, NC
Monday - Closed
Tuesday - Friday
10am until 4pm
Saturday - 12 noon - 5pm
Sunday - 1pm - 5pm
Wrightsville Beach History
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
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
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
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
Hurricane Hazel hit Wrightsville Beach, at high
tide and with a full moon, on October 15, 1954,
destroying approximately 200 houses and damaging
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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