In 1888, the Wilmington Sea Coast Railroad, under president William Latimer, built a 10.3-mile standard-gauge rail line from Wilmington to “The Hammocks,” as Harbor Island was then there. Its steam trains began running on June 12, 1888; eventually the railroad developed the Island Beach Hotel there as a destination.
The route, in its earliest days, was sometimes known as the “gospel train” for carrying worshipers to Wrightsville Sound Camp, scene of a large religious “camp meeting” sponsored by Mount Zion AME Church of Wilmington and Wrightsboro AME Church.
In 1889, the Nathan and Schloss families built the Ocean View Railway, which connected with the Sea Coast at “Atlantic Station” and took passengers on a 1.5-mile line south to Wrightsville Beach (originally known as Ocean View Beach). At first, there were three stops or stations on the beach, later expanded to seven. This line developed the Breeze Motel.
In 1902, financier Hugh MacRae merged the two small railroads with the Wilmington Street Railway Co. and the Wilmington Gas Light Co. The result was the Consolidated Railways, Light and Power Co. (renamed Tide Water Power in 1907), with MacRae as president. The new company converted from steam trains to electric trolleys, and on July 25, 1902, the first modern “beach car” made the journey from downtown Wilmington to the Carolina Yacht Club.
The beach cars were initially 43 feet long, 8 feet wide, with entry from the rear and seating for 53 passengers. By the 1920s, beach cars were twice as long as the town trolleys: 80 feet long, with entrances on either end, with seating for 68 – although operators and passengers agreed that they often crowded as many as 100 people to a car. The cars were painted in a canary-yellow scheme, a carryover from the Sea Coast Railroad days.
In the early days, the fare was 25 cents, which included the rental of a “bathing costume” once passengers reached the beach. By the time Lewis Philip Hall was riding the line in the 1920s and early 1930s, the fare was up to 50 cents, which included admission to Lumina, Tide Water Power’s giant beach pavilion at Station Seven. On Saturdays, Hall recalled, girls often rode the beach cars in their evening gowns to attend Lumina dances.
Originally, the old Sea Coast Railroad departed from the beach at Ninth and Orange streets, where the rail shops were located. The electric beach cars, however, left from Front and Princess streets downtown, beginning promptly at 6 a.m. Tracks followed Princess Street to 17th Street, then paralleled 17th Street to Castle Street, where the line followed the route of the old Shell Road and much of what is now Park Avenue – where MacRae just happened to be developing the Audubon subdivision. (A replica of a tile-roofed trolley station, built in 1992, stands today at the corner of Park Avenue and Audubon Boulevard.)
Station One, the first stop at the beach, was located about where Wings is located now. In the 1930s, it was notable for the Channel View Hotel and (in the hotel’s southern end), “Pop” Gray’s Soda Shop where local teenagers would hang out. (A young Claude Howell sketched the scene there.) Pop’s main competition was Bud Werkauser’s open-air stand, which sold soft drinks, newspapers and a few souvenirs.
Also at Station One were a number of African-American porters, in white uniforms, who carried luggage in four-wheeled carts to hotels or other rental properties. (On weekends, these wagons would also carry partygoers who missed the last beach car.)
The cars were popular from the start, and five- to six-car express trains would run on weekends, along with locals. On the Fourth of July, 1910, the beach cars carried more than 10,000 people to Wrightsville Beach, a phenomenal number for the time. MacRae had the line plant Dorothy Perkins roses along the route, clustered around the power poles.
Riding the cars was sometimes risky. Passengers in the open-windowed cars were vulnerable to heavy rain. The Bradley Creek crossing could be washed over in rough weather with high tides.
“When the waves washed over the trestle,” Susan Taylor Block wrote, “the trip became a prayer meeting.”
In May 1918, a beach car derailed and overturned into the water while crossing the ‘waterway bridge. Remarkably, none of the passengers – many of them children on a Sunday school excursion – were injured.
The completion of a drawbridge in 1935 – which meant that cars could finally reach Wrightsville Beach – was the death knell for the trolley line. In 1937, Tide Water Power began replacing beach cars with buses. The last beach car ran on April 26, 1940, with W.B. “Tuck” Savage at the controls. Savage, a huge man famed as a Wrightsville Beach lifeguard and floor manager (read: bouncer) at Lumina, thus had the distinction of driving the first and last beach cars on the lines.
Remains of the old beach car trestle could still be seen from the Bradley Creek bridge as late as the 1990s.
For more on the beach cars, see “Land of the Golden River” by Lewis Philip Hall, “Cape Fear Beaches” by Susan Taylor Block, and “Tide and Time: A History of Wrightsville Beach” by Virginia Whiting Kuhn.
Date posted: April 17, 2013
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