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What’s the history of Shell Island?

Merton Vance

At one time, Shell Island actually was an island north of the main island of Wrightsville Beach, until Moore’s Inlet closed in 1965 and connected the two islands together.

In the 1920s, Shell Island was a busy resort for black beach-goers who were not allowed in some other area beaches during the days of segregation.

According to “Strength through Struggle” by William M. Reaves, a history of the African-American community in Wilmington from 1865 to 1950, Shell Island Resort was established in 1923 when L.T. Rogers, a white contractor, built a pavilion on the island. Another white man, R.R. Stone, built a ferry boat pier and ran a boat to bring vacationers to the beach.

Music provided the biggest attraction at the pavilion, primarily jazz.

“Color Line in the Sand,” a UNC Wilmington master’s thesis by Jennifer J. Edwards, notes that at one time the resort included 270 lots and plans for 14 streets and attracted visitors from New York to Alabama.

A Wilmington Star advertisement from June 1, 1924 called Shell Island Beach “The National Negro Playground”.

But the resort was destroyed in 1926 by a fire that was described as “mysterious” in Edwards’ research. The resort was never rebuilt.

According to the account by Reaves, Wrightsville Beach began enforcing ordinances in the 1930s that banned blacks from all but a small area of beach and banned them from wearing bathing suits.

Shell Island remained undeveloped for years after that until 1965, when the inlet began closing because of natural shifting of sand along Shell Island and Wrightsville Beach.

That year, the Army Corps of Engineers was working on a beach and berm restoration project and the town and a group of families who owned property on Shell Island worked out an agreement to have the Corps fill in the inlet as part of the beach project, speeding up a natural process that was already in progress.

Once the two islands were united, houses began to spring up in 1968 on what was once the south end of Shell Island.

Early development was hampered by erosion that threatened houses and brought about disputes over the correct location of lines that limit how close to the ocean houses can be built. In addition, some follow-up work to maintain the erosion controls didn’t come about, partly because of budget constraints for the Corps of Engineers.

In 1981, Wrightsville Beach put up $81,000 to help with beach restoration to stabilize the beach on Shell Island.

In1984, plans were set in motion by Shell Island property owners and two development groups that would eventually open up the north end of Shell Island for development.

Wrightsville Beach agreed to extend North Lumina Avenue and public utilities to the north end and in January 1985, the town annexed the rest of the island at the request of the developers.

The development at the north end generated controversy over what type of development should be allowed and what kind of impact it would have. The discussions led to sometimes contentious negotiations between the town Board of Aldermen and developers over zoning and other requirements, leading to several legal challenges that were eventually resolved.

Two condominium projects, a hotel and houses were eventually built on the north end, along with public parking lots and beach access points.

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3 Responses to “ What’s the history of Shell Island?”

  1. On November 7, 2009 at 9:07 am Michael wrote:

    After the inlet was closed and before all the development came, Shell Island was a beautiful stretch of undeveloped beach where one could walk all the way to Mason Inlet, just south of Figure 8 Island. There was a movement to preserve it’s natural state, but not enough state/local funding was available. It was a wonderful place to enjoy.

  2. On November 12, 2009 at 9:26 am Jon wrote:

    Very interesting essay regarding Shell Island. Where would a person find your references? Thanks for a great article.

  3. On April 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm A. J. Mayhew wrote:

    How can I get a copy of Ms. Jennifer J. Edwards’ thesis titled in part, “A Color Line in the Sand”?

    Thank you for any information you may have.

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