Wilmington History

Spanning Centuries from Historic Downtown to Island Beaches

In a city known for its historical significance, you can look in any direction in Wilmington and find yourself transported back to a time of struggle, triumph and adventure. Established in 1739, this Port City has survived the ravages of war from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and WWII, with architecture and historical indicators intact, and is still thriving today.

Throughout this time, the Cape Fear River has been the primary influence on the area, providing a pathway for trade and industry. Wilmington gradually made navigational improvements, adopting the tools necessary to improve the city’s industries and overall appeal. The invention of steam-powered vessels and rail services led to further advancements, allowing the city to remain North Carolina’s largest town from 1840 until around 1910.

During the 1800s, cotton was king and so was Wilmington’s port. Home to some of the largest and most active cotton export companies in the world, Wilmington grew its reputation both at home and abroad. The city’s strategic location ensured cotton was not the only good passing through the port. During the Civil War, Wilmington served as the access point for a significant bulk of Confederate supplies, including clothing, munitions and food. The Rebel forces’ supplies were cut after blockade runners could no longer pass through the Union line of defense. In 1865, the Confederacy lost its last open supply line when Fort Fisher fell to its demise, causing Wilmington to surrender to Union forces.

WWII American Heritage City LogoTo commemorate contributions by Wilmington to the World War II home-front war effort, on Sept. 2, 2020 75 years to the day after the war ended Wilmington became the first city in the country to be designated an "American World War II Heritage City." To receive this national designation, the city had to meet specific criteria outlined by Congress, including efforts to preserve WWII heritage, restoration of wartime facilities and recognition of veterans. Wilmington contributed to the war through defense manufacturing, production of foodstuffs and consumer items for the armed forces, war bond drives, volunteer participation and more.

The Battleship NORTH CAROLINA is a reminder of Wilmington’s role in WWII. Credited with 15 battle stars, this ship honors more than 10,000 North Carolina men and women who died defending America’s freedom. Wilmington also helped support the war by building and delivering 243 ships to the Allied war effort and was home to a POW camp and one of the country’s oldest remaining USO buildings, the Hannah Block USO, where today visitors can experience their WWII homefront heritage lobby display. Take a self-guided tour of Wilmington-area WWII sites using the WWII Heritage Guide Map to learn about the many other attractions, facilities and activities commemorating this important era, including Fort Fisher State Historic Site where WWII soldiers were trained and Fort Fisher State Recreation Area where a WWII bunker remains a hidden gem today. Exhibits at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Wilmington Railroad Museum also interpret Wilmington’s role during World War II.

If your favorite pastime is “past times,” explore the Wilmington area with a guided or self-guided tour or with a history app.  With three historic homes open to visitors, seven districts on the National Register of Historic Places, a preserved Civil War Fort and WWII Battleship, sacred grounds where legends and lore live on await your visit.

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  • Wilmington Historic & Archaeological District

With elegant plantation homes, historic buildings, and numerous attractions, Wilmington's historic district is one of the most beloved parts of the city. Bound by Wright, S. 7th and Harnett Sts., and the Northeast Cape Fear River, this largely commercial district has been growing since the early 1700s and features a variety of architectural styles as well as underwater archaeological sites.

  • Market Street Mansion District

Colonial and Classical Revival architecture from 1900 to 1924 are featured, with magnificent homes at 1704, 1705, 1710, and 1713 Market St., including the Kenan House and the Wise Alumni House.

  • Carolina Place District

The Carolina Place neighborhood was built as a streetcar suburb at the turn of the 20th Century and includes 460 acres and 337 Bungalow/Craftsman, Queen Anne and late 19th/early 20th Century Revival homes.

  • Carolina Heights District

This 815-acre district, bounded by Market St., 13th St., Rankin St., and 19th St., features 410+ Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, Prairie style and Queen Anne style homes and businesses. It was developed in 1908 as an upscale suburb of Wilmington.

  • Masonboro Sound Historic District

Homes built between 1825 and 1949 on the east side Magnolia Dr. and from 7301 to 7506 Masonboro Sound Rd. feature styles including Colonial Revival and late 19th/early 20th Century Revival. The district is a survivor of an 18th/19th Century resort and also site of Civil War salt works.

  • Sunset Park Historic District

Envisioned in 1912 as a high-class, planned community with streetcar service, electric lights, gas, sewers, sidewalks and tree-lined macadamized roadways and plazas. The 800+ homes, businesses, churches and parks were roughly bounded by Carolina Beach Rd., Southern Blvd., Burnett Blvd., and Sunset Ave. The structures are primarily in the Bungalow/Craftsman and Colonial Revival styles.

  • Westbrook Ardmore

Built around 1914, Westbrook Ardmore is another neighborhood designed as a streetcar suburb with 500+ homes, churches, stores and a fire station. The district is bounded by Dock St., Wrightsville Ave., Queen and Lingo Sts., and by S. 14th St. and features Bungalow/Craftsman and Colonial Revival architecture.