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What is the Brunswick River?

Ben Steelman

Just 5 miles long, the Brunswick River flows south from the main channel of the Cape Fear River, about 3 miles north of Wilmington. It flows along the west side of Eagles Island then re-enters the Cape Fear at the Brunswick River Shoal.

No record can be found of the Native American name for the river. Explorer William Hilton called it “Hilton’s River” in his published report of 1664 and wrote that he found it “as fair, if not fairer than” the Cape Fear itself.

Throughout much of the 1700s, it was somewhat confusingly called the “Northwest Branch” of the Cape Fear. The name “Brunswick River” appears on maps in the 1820s.

In his “Chronicles of the Cape Fear,” James Sprunt claims that in early colonial times, the Brunswick River formed the main channel of the Cape Fear River, while the present channel, past downtown Wilmington, was only a side branch. According to Sprunt, it was sometimes known in the 1700s as the “Thoroughfare” or “Cut-Through.”

Beginning in 1946, the Brunswick River was used by the U.S. Maritime Administration to park mothballed troop transport ships from World War II. As many as 426 vessels were moored at this “Reserve Fleet Basin” during the subsequent quarter-century. The last of these ships was not removed until Feb. 27, 1970.

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