Actually a group of closely spaced, swampy islands, roughly 2 miles wide and 7 miles long, Eagles Island lies between the Brunswick and Cape Fear rivers, immediately across from downtown Wilmington.
In 1671, it appeared on maps as Cranes Island and was later referred to as Buzzards Island and Great Island. (In 1778, traveler Ebenezer Hazard called it a “dismal, swampy Island … which seems to be a Haunt for Herons and Turkey Buzzards.”)
Its present name comes from brothers Joseph and Richard Eagles, planters who settled in the area in 1725 and held land grants on the island. (Modern maps occasionally shorten it to Eagle Island, but it started off with an “s” on the end — and no apostrophe.)
The south tip of Eagles Island was originally a separate body known as Clarks Island (or sometimes Cat Island). It seems to have united with the larger island around 1929.
Parts of Eagles Island were used for rice planting, and in the early 1900s, two rice plantations, Bleak House and Osawatomie, were still operating there. Bleak House, owned by R.U. Butters in 1899, was leased to the state penitentiary and was farmed for a number of years with convict labor. According to George H. Cannon, the superintendent of the prison farm, rice yields at Bleak House reached 40-50 bushels per acre.
By the 1800s, Eagles Island seems to have functioned as an industrial district for Wilmington, holidng a number of sawmills, turpentine distilleries and similar ventures. City maps from the late 1800s show an elaborate grid of named streets, but it is unclear whether these ever made it past the planning stage.
Ferries — many of them simple flatboats or rowboats — operated between Wilmington and Eagles Island from the 1760s until the completion of the twin bridges over the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers in 1929.
In 1848, Samuel Beery and two of his sons bought property on Eagles Island from Henry Savage for $12,000. Here, they erected the Commercial Mill and Ship Yard, which was turning out 250-ton vessels by 1850. By the time Benjamin Beery bought out his father Samuel in 1852, the site held a steam sawmill, a shipyard and marine railway (a kind of dry dock), along with a blacksmith shop and a rigging loft. In 1861, Benjamin and William Beery began building warships and support vessels for the Confederate government. The most famous of these, completed in 1863, was the ironclad CSS North Carolina, 150 feet long and mounting six 8-inch guns, apparently intended for river defense. Anchored as a guard ship off Smithville (Southport), the North Carolina developed a leak, cracked and sank.
Eagles Island seems to have sunk into a commercial decline about the time of World War I, when the transition from wooden to steel ships eliminated much of the market for naval stores (tar, pitch and turpentine).
The Wilmington Iron Works operated a shipyard and marine railway (known as the “Naul shipyard”) on Eagles Island as late as 1924. The rusted iron gears, used to pull ships from the water, are reportedly still visible. The Hamme marine railway was in operation until the 1960s. Stone Towing Co. retained a presence on Eagles Island with its tugboats until 1982.
In 1910, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building docks and a yard on Eagles Island; these remain in use.
The battleship USS North Carolina was berthed at Eagles Island Oct. 2, 1961, and was formally dedicated on April 29, 1962, as a memorial to North Carolina veterans of the Second World War. The memorial now occupies a 61-acre tract on the island, much of it set aside as a nature preserve.
Today, parts of the island are on the National Register of Historic Places, for the number of wrecks in the “ships’ graveyard” along the west bank of the Cape Fear. The paddle wheel from one of these, the former Corps of Engineers snag boat H.G. Wright, was removed from the area in the 1980s, restored and installed as an exhibit at the Cape Fear Museum, 814 Market St., Wilmington [Map this].
Date posted: May 22, 2009