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What are “The Rocks”?

Ben Steelman

A massive engineering feat of the 1800s, also known as the New Inlet Dam, “The Rocks” constitute a gigantic breakwater, or rock jetty, at the tip of Federal Point. The rocks extend from the mainland and beyond Zeke’s Island for more than 3 miles.

The project was begun after the Civil War to close New Inlet, which had opened below Federal Point after a major storm in 1761. New Inlet significantly changed the main, or “Bald Head” channel of the Cape Fear River; between 1791 and 1839, the depth of the main channel to Wilmington decreased from 15 feet to 9 feet. While blockade runners often used the New Inlet during the Civil War, under the umbrella of nearby Fort Fisher, the inlet threatened to silt up the Cape Fear and close Wilmington as a seaport. Calls for change became more urgent after an 1871 storm further deepened the New Inlet.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers labored on The Rocks project, intermittently, from 1870 to 1891. A 4,400-foot rock dam from Federal Point to Zeke’s Island was completed by 1873. Beginning in 1874, a group of wooden “mattresses,” composed of logs and brushwood, were sunk in the channel in 36-foot-by-36-foot sections. Then, beginning in January 1877, crews dumped loads of riprap stone on top of the mattresses. Henry Bacon (the father of the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington) was the engineer in charge of much of this work.

By 1879, the dam had been built to the high water mark for its entire length of 5,300 feet, and a small central section that had been left open for navigation had been closed. More than 122,000 cubic yards of stone had been dumped on the dam to this point. Even more would be added to raise the dam’s level to 2 feet above sea level. At Bacon’s suggestion, heavy granite capstones were placed on top of the rock dam. By the summer of 1888, Bacon reported to the War Department, the total length of the dam was 11,700 feet, or some 2.5 miles; the connection to the Zeke’s Island dam added another 1,092 feet.

By 1891, New Inlet was officially declared closed, and the name disappeared from local charts after 1901.

In 1975. the Army Corps of Engineers listed “The Rocks” as the “best-ever” project ever conducted by its South Atlantic Division.

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