From downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina


March 26, 2010

About the Historic Beach Car Line:


The reasons behind constructing a rail line from downtown Wilmington to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean begin with an attraction to Wrightsville Sound. Located approximately ten miles east of Wilmington, this area was once state-owned and called “New Hanover Banks”. Between 1791 and 1881, the land that now encompasses the Town of Wrightsville Beach was transferred to private ownership through three separate grants. Early owners could only reach New Hanover Banks by oar-driven skiffs or sailboats, taking the long journey from Wilmington south, down the Cape Fear River, and then turning northeastward towards Wrightsville Sound.

The land owners at this time were not residents, as the only visitors to the island were fishermen, attracted to the prospect of large numbers of Spanish Mackerel and Blue Fish, and hunters seeking game hen and game birds in the marsh areas west of the island that is now Wrightsville Beach. Sailing, as a sport, became popular in the area around 1853. The Carolina Yacht club was erected in response to this popularity, and is recognized as one of the oldest yacht clubs on the east coast. As early as 1860 summer homes started becoming popular in the Wrightsville Sound area.

Recreation and fishing opportunities provided by the Atlantic Ocean, as well as an opportunity to relax and enjoy sea breezes prompted the need and desire for a convenient means to travel to Wrightsville Sound from Wilmington. Referred to as “Shell Road” due to a layer of oyster shells that topped the roadway, a Wilmington to Wrightsville turnpike was constructed in 1875. In the same year, Sea Coast Railroad was granted a charter to construct a track from Wilmington to the Hammocks, present day Harbor Island located directly west of present day Wrightsville Beach. The turnpike, the steam engine route and a foot bridge created a means to reach Wrightsville Beach from Wilmington, increasing opportunities for growth on the small island.

The Wilmington Beach Car Line started as this steam engine rail service operated by Sea Coast Railroad, carrying passengers from downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach in 1888. Sea Coast Railroad extended its line beyond the Hammocks in 1889 to reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at Wrightsville Beach Vacationers, summer homeowners and those interested in fish market industry were not the only patrons of this steam engine route.

The train was also known as the “gospel train” by participants of the Wrightsville Sound Camp, sponsored by Mt. Zion AME Church of Wilmington and the Wrightsville AME Church. Summer camps were becoming increasingly popular during the latter part of the 19th century. These camps provided an opportunity for Christians to gather and worship by singing, hearing testimonials and preaching. Campgrounds were often remote and large enough to accommodate as many as 1,000 people. It was common for trains or steam boats to carry parishioners to the campgrounds due to their remote locations. The Wrightsville Sound campground was dedicated in June of 1888.

The steam engine route served as a transportation corridor linking Wilmington to Wrightsville Sound, solidifying the relationship these two communities shared. The route had no stops on its east to west journey to the Atlantic Ocean as it traveled from the largest city in the state, Wilmington, through rural communities and deeply wooded areas to reach Wrightsville Sound. Sea Coast Railroad would run its steam engine on the route until it was electrified in 1902 by Consolidated Railways, Light and Power Company.

The Wilmington Beach Car Line, the local historic landmark candidate, is a public right-of-way that follows this corridor from downtown Wilmington to the city limits at Wrightsville Beach Consolidated Railways, Light and Power Company, the company responsible for electrifying the steam engine route, was created with the merger of three Wilmington companies, the Wilmington Street Railway company, the Wilmington Gas Light Company and the Wilmington Sea Coast Railroad. The significance of the merger is seen in the scope of the three companies’ influence in Wilmington.

The Wilmington Street Railway company, responsible for Wilmington’s Streets, converted its rails from animal power to electrical power in 1892. The Wilmington Street Railway company soon foreclosed and was sold to the highest bidder, Dr. Charles P. Bolles, Jr. on behalf of the banking house of Hugh McRae and Co., for a price of $101,500.

Around the same time, the Wilmington Gas Light Company was giving bids to the city to provide light. The public utility provided by the Wilmington Gas Light Company would eventually merge with the Wilmington Street Railway Company and Sea Coast Railroad, the steam engine that traveled to Wrightsville Beach from Wilmington.

These companies merged forming Consolidated Railways Light and Power Company, the company responsible for providing electric service and running the electric streetcars on the public right-of-way, the Wilmington Beach Car Line, in April 1902 In 1907 Consolidated Railways, Light and Power Company formed Tidewater Power Company, with Hugh MacRae as president. The company had the distinction of being the only public service corporation in the South whose common stock was entirely held in its hometown.

Tidewater Power Company sought to enhance the experience and attraction of the Beach Car Line. The Star News reported in October of 1915 that improvements made by Tidewater Power Company to the Beach Line included new stations at Cape Fear Golf Links and a new “modern” station at Wrightsville Sound with H.E. Bonitz as architect and Frank B. Meade as landscape architect.

Beach Car Line patrons not only had a new way to travel but their journey was a pleasant one as Dorothy Perkins roses were planted along the route. The Wilmington Star reported in May of 1915 that Dorothy Perkins roses lined the Beach Car Line, which made the ride more attractive to visitors. The roses were planted around the poles used to support the streetcar wires and would bloom pink and white in the spring. The vines climbed up to six or seven feet attaching themselves to supporting poles. Beach Car Line patrons complemented the Tidewater Power Company for planting the flowers. In May of 1924 another article noted that the Dorothy Perkins roses bloomed from Wilmington to Wrightsville Sound.

The twenty stops on the Beach Car Line were not established all at once, but added one at a time by determining the needs of the community and by enticing home-buyers to invest in new suburban developments. Audubon, Winter Park and Forest Hills were planned communities that benefited from the electric streetcar service stops. Other communities such as Delgado Mills, Seagate and Wrightsville Sound, including the MacCumber Station community were established prior to the electric streetcar stops, but thrived and prospered due to its existence.

Isolated by distance, these communities were considered self-sustaining before the advent of the Wilmington Beach Car Line stops. The stops allowed them yet another means to sustaining themselves, often jobs, conveniences and social interaction not previously available.

Tidewater Power Company owned Lumina Pavilion, a popular destination at Wrightsville Beach enjoyed by Wilmingtonians as well as visitors up and down the east coast. Lumina was the last stop on the Beach Car Line’s journey eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean. Tidewater Power Company also had control through stock of a hotel at Wrightsville Beach.

At one time there were only 75 cottages and 2 hotels on the small island of Wrightsville Beach, but the Beach Car Line, owned and operated by Tidewater Power Co., brought many tourists, stimulating growth in the small beach town. The popularity of Wrightsville Beach and Lumina, as well as Wilmington, prompted growth in the service job sector, providing employment opportunities for locals. The Wilmington Beach Car Line presented an efficient means to commute to places of employment.