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Before the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was constructed, how did travelers cross the Cape Fear River into Wilmington?

Merton Vance

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replaced an earlier drawbridge, which was demolished after the new bridge opened. But before that, there was a long history of ferry boats carrying passengers across the Cape Fear River.

The earliest known ferry across the river was established in 1727, running from Brunswick Town over to a landing near Big Sugar Loaf on the east side of the river. It operated until at least 1776, but was apparently abandoned after British warships carried out periodic raids in the area during the Revolutionary War.

The earliest ferries were flatboats, usually towed by rowboats.

According to “The Big Book of the Cape Fear River,” by Claude V. Jackson III and edited by Jack E. Fryar, Jr., ferries began running from a landing at the foot of Market Street in the 1880s and continued to operate from that location until 1935.

The early oar-powered ferries carried passengers, horses and wagons to a landing on Eagles Island, where they disembarked to cross a road across the island before boarding a second ferry that carried them across the Brunswick River.

For a while, a second ferry known as the “Haul Over” operated south of Wilmington, but it eventually shut down because stronger currents made it a slower crossing than the one from downtown Wilmington.

Other ferries also operated along the Cape Fear River. Among them was the Hilton Ferry, which ran across the Northeast Cape Fear River just south of Smith Creek. It was named after a plantation on the eastern shore. Another was Blossom’s Ferry, operated by Capt. Sam Blossom, which ran across the Northeast Cape Fear River at Castle Hayne, near where a bridge stands today.

The Elwell Ferry in southeastern Bladen County continues to operate to this day, making short trips across the river every day except Christmas.  For more information: www.ncdot.org/doh/operations/division6/Organization/FAQMaint.html

By 1890, a bridge had been built across the Brunswick River, eliminating the need for a second ferry to travel between Wilmington and Brunswick County.

In 1916, the fare for a horse and wagon was 44 cents.

In 1919, Wilmington city engineer J. Newton Johnson designed plans to replace a wooden bulkhead at the end of Market Street with a concrete one and a public ferry service was formed that purchased what had been a privately owned ferry service, the Brunswick Bridge and Ferry Co.

The publicly owned ferry service set out to expand and in 1920 it began operating a new 80-foot-long gasoline-powered ferry, the John Knox, which was named after a Brunswick County commissioner who had worked hard to bring a ferry service into operation.

The Knox began making runs across the river about every 30 minutes and in 1924 was joined by a second ferry, the Menantic, which was 98 feet long.

There had been discussions for years about building a bridge across the Cape Fear River at Wilmington, and frustration over the time required to cross by ferry began to cause concerns that the lack of a bridge was hurting commerce and farmers who needed to bring crops to markets.

By the mid-1920s, plans were being made for a bridge.

A Wilmington Morning Star article on April 3, 1925 reported that the ferry Menantic had broken down the day before, causing a delay for travelers, including George P. Applewhite, a Wilmington real estate agent who said cars were delayed for about an hour.

“That shows one of the needs for a bridge, and I am certainly glad that the survey for the span has started,” Applewhite said.

In 1928, contracts were signed to build a pair of bridges for $1.25 million, financed by bonds that would be repaid from tolls.

One crossed the Northeast Cape Fear River from the end of Parsley Street on the north side of Wilmington to Point Peter on the western side of the river. A second bridge crossed the northwest Cape Fear River and a causeway connected the two bridges.

The twin bridges, as they came to be called, were both 2,036 feet long and had a central double-leaf draw span. The Cape Fear River bridge had a 185-foot opening for ships and the Northeast Cape Fear River bridge provided a 124-foot opening for ships.

The bridges were officially dedicated on Dec. 10, 1929 in a ceremony attended by Gov. O. Max Gardner.

At the time, the toll was 25 cents for cars, 5 cents for pedestrians or bicyclists and 75 cents for large trucks.

The plan called for tolls to be charged until the bond debt to finance the bridges was repaid, then to allow vehicles to cross for free.

By the time the tolls were lifted in 1935, two million vehicles had crossed the twin bridges.

While the bridges began to carry traffic, ferry service across the Cape Fear River continued, but demand quickly fell.

The Menantic was sold in 1933, but the John Knox continued to operate until it made its last crossing at 1:15 p.m. on Feb. 6, 1935, the day a truck was the first vehicle to cross the twin bridges toll-free.

The John Knox was sold in 1936 and was moored on Eagles Island. It sank in the river during a storm in June, 1937.

After the current Cape fear Memorial Bridge opened in 1969, the twin bridges continued to operate.

The Cape Fear River bridge was closed on Oct. 18, 1978 to prepare it for demolition. The last ship to pass through it was the Stolt Lion, loaded with 18,000 tons of fertilizer bound for Europe.

The Northeast Cape Fear River Bridge continued in use until 1979, when it was replaced by the four-lane bridge that was later named the Isabel S. Holmes Bridge, after a Wilmington native who became a deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation and an advocate for replacing the old bridge. The Northwest Cape Fear River bridge was replaced in 1984 and named for S. Thomas Rhodes, a former state representative and state Secretary of Natural Resources and Community Development from 1985 to 1988.

User-contributed question by:
Bill Bryan
Bill Bryan

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7 Responses to “ Before the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was constructed, how did travelers cross the Cape Fear River into Wilmington?”

  1. On March 31, 2010 at 9:45 am David Staebler wrote:

    This is a nice history, but it’s missing the S. Thomas Rhodes Bridge over the Cape Fear River. When was it built?

  2. On April 4, 2010 at 11:14 am marthajane wrote:

    Thanks for such an informative article. We enjoy our time we spend in Wilmington and explore the historical sites often. On our last trip to Wilmington we decided to locate the Isabel Holmes Bridge—it was an interesting trip around Wilmington.

    This article answered our questions about the Old Cape Fear River Bridge as we knew it back in the 1960’s, with the big boats lining the river as we came over that big bridge into the beautiful town of Wilmington…….

  3. On November 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm Travis Wells wrote:

    You state that the Cape Fear River Bridge was closed on 1-18-78 to allow for demolition. The Cape Fear Memorial bridge is still there and the Isabel Homes bridge was replaced with a new model in 1979 and the S Thomas Rhodes brodge was replaced with a new model in 1984. So where is the Cape Fear River Bridge that was demolished in 1978..It sounds to me like you are talking about a fourth bridge that never exited. Explain!

  4. On March 21, 2013 at 9:49 pm Cynthia Heath wrote:

    My family has lived in this area since before there were any bridges. They took a ferry across the Brunswick River, travelled to the Cape Fear River near the Battleship to catch a ferry into Wilmington,
    In the 1930’s two bridges were built; one across the NW Cape Fear River where the Rhodes bridge now stands and the other where the Holmes bridges stands. The NW Cape Fear River bridge was not nearly as high as it is now. The ferries tried to survive but why pay for a ferry when the bridges were free…so the ferries went out of business.
    I’m not sure when the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was put in place but the bridge was bought second hand a restored in it’s present location. After this was accomplished the Rhodes bridge was rebuilt and then the Holmes bridge. Somewhere in the middle of all this activity the Brunswick River Bridge was built in it’s present location and the old bridge torn down.
    In the 1930s the road on Eagle’s Island was dirt and heavily rutted. In the 1960s prior to bridge rebuilding Highway 17 was a two-lane road all the way into Wilmington; a far cry from the traffic there now.

  5. On May 26, 2015 at 6:19 pm William Buckley wrote:

    Why is it a memorial bridge who is it memorializing?

  6. On August 10, 2017 at 2:32 pm Jean Irving wrote:

    My question was, which street did the old cape fear bridge come into Wilmington on from Brunswick County before the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was built? Was it Market Street or which street. And what was the name of the bridge that Cape Fear Memorial Bridge took the place of ?

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