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What are the “beach cars”?

Ben Steelman

“Beach cars” was the standard local name for the yellow-orange electric trolley cars (with white trim) that connected downtown Wilmington with Wrightsville Beach before World War II. Passengers could make the trip in slightly more than half an hour. Before World War I, admission was free; afterward, the toll was 35 cents, which included admission to Lumina, the beach pavilion at Station 7, the last stop on the line.

The trolley system was created by developer Hugh MacRae, replacing an earlier rail line to the beach. MacRae extended the line, so that passengers to the beach could board downtown at Front and Princess streets, instead of at the old terminus at Ninth and Orange streets. It was operated by MacRae’s Tidewater Power Co. (later merged with Carolina Power & LIght).

The tracks ran roughly paralled to Wrightsville Avenue (the old Shell Road) and along parts of Park Avenue, where two former trolley stops have been restored. Each car carried 68 passengers, and five-car trains would carry beachgoers during the summer rush. As early as the Fourth of July 1907, the line carried 8,700 passengers in a single day.

The beach cars were important before the 1930s, when the first automotive route was finally built to Harbor Island. Many of Wilmington’s early “streetcar suburbs” — Carolina Heights, Carolina Place, Oleander, Audubon and Winter Park — grew up along its route.

The last car ran on April 27, 1940, although remains of the trolley trestle crossing Bradley Creek were still visible to passing motorists well into the 1990s. Relics of the beach car system are now in the collections of the Cape Fear Museum and Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.

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