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Who is the only U.S. president to have lived in Wilmington?

Ben Steelman

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), although born in Staunton, Va., spent the better part of a year in Wilmington, from mid-1874, when he completed his freshman year at Davidson College, until the autumn of 1875, when he boarded the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad for the journey north to Princeton University.

The 28th president was the son of the Rev. Thomas Ruggles Wilson, who was pastor of First Presbyterian Church (1874-1885). Young Woodrow stayed with his parents at the Parker-Saunders House, 401 S. Front St., Wilmington [Map this], before moving to the Presbyterian “manse,” then located at Fourth and Orange streets.

While in town, he seems to have studied at Tileston School under its formidable principal, Amy Bradley.

Young Woodrow must have made quite an impression during his brief stay. Historian Nancy Cashman reports that he rode the first two-wheeled bicycle ever seen on Wilmington’s streets. Josephus Daniels, his future Navy secretary, said the future president swam in the Cape Fear River with other boys at the foot of Dock Street. He played second base for the local Light Foot Baseball Club; a geography book that belonged to young Wilson, now in the Library of Congress, has his team’s complete roster penciled in the margins, along with the words to several cheers. He seems to have been a frequent visitor at the Bellamy Mansion, 503 Market St., Wilmington [Map this], calling on his young friend John D. Bellamy, a future congressman.

Wilson returned to Wilmington several times. In 1901, local newspapers noted that Professor Wilson of Princeton was in town, visiting his ailing father, who was also in Wilmington, and staying with James Sprunt at the Gov. Dudley Mansion, 400 S. Front St., Wilmington [Map this].

First Presbyterian Church, 125 S. Third St., Wilmington [Map this], has a large memorial plaque to Wilson in its narthex. A letter that Woodrow Wilson wrote back to the church in 1886 is on public display in a room off the southeast corner of the church sanctuary, near the lectern.

(Note: The church building in which the Rev. Thomas R. Wilson presided was burned in 1925. The current church was completed in 1928.)

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