Wilmington had many names including New Liverpool, New Carthage, New Town, and Newton, before it finally came to be called Wilmington, in honor of the Earl of Wilmington, Spencer Compton. The newly appointed Governor Gabriel Johnston came up with the idea to honor Compton, who had appointed him to the position. The town was established in 1729, but wasn't officially incorporated until 1739.
During the mid-1700s to the late 1800s, Wilmington was one of the state's largest ports. The port city's strong economy was also based on its shipbuilding and lumber production. It was even one of the biggest cotton exchanges in the world and a producer of naval stores (tar, pitch, and turpentine). Nothing significant occurred here during the Revolutionary War, except that the citizens revolted against Britain’s Stamp Act and helped end the use of British stamps. There was also an important battle at nearby Moore's Creek (20 miles north of Wilmington) in 1776. Although the Patriots won this battle, the British overtook the city in 1781. It is believed that General Cornwallis stayed in the Burgwin-Wright House, which still exists today. He surrendered later that year in Yorktown, and Wilmington continued to grow and prosper.
The Wilmington Railroad was built in 1840, and, within ten years, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina. Thalian Hall was built in 1858. The first-rate theatre brought performers and patrons from all over, helping Wilmington achieve significant cultural, as well as economic, stature. Then came the Civil War. The Cape Fear River, Wilmington and Fort Fisher were all vital throughout the Civil War. In fact, Fort Fisher was the most important stronghold, so when it was finally conquered by the Union on January 15, 1865, the war ended less than six months later. In 1866, the town of Wilmington officially became a city.
Like most of the South, Wilmington suffered economically after the war, Cotton production and exportation revitalized the area. Later, the Great Depression took its toll on Wilmington, but economic stability returned when the demand for ships increased during World Wars I and II. The port city was one of the nation's biggest shipbuilders during this time. In 1947, Wilmington College, which is now University of North Carolina at Wilmington, was established. The North Carolina Ports Authority was established in Wilmington in 1952. It was a booming place until the railroad moved its headquarters, just a few years later, to Jacksonville Florida.
City officials turned to tourism to replace previous sources of revenue. The Battleship North Carolina, a World War II battleship, was brought to Wilmington as a tourist attraction. In 1974, much of Wilmington's waterfront area was put on the National Registrar of Historic Districts. In fact, the city has one of the state's largest historic districts- 230 blocks are listed on the register. Wilmington's historic riverfront remains as important today as it was during the 1800s. Freighters, cruise ships and pleasure crafts are often spotted cruising Cape Fear River and tourists are often seen along its riverwalk, enjoying the view. The Fine Coastal Living team invites you to explore Wilmington! Please contact us for additional information and tour brochures today!
Source: Zepke, Terrance. Coastal North Carolina. Sarasota: Pineapple Press, Inc, 2004.