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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Looking back: Carolina Beach in 1897

I’ve come across an intriguing piece of propaganda put out 10 years ago by the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society. Entitled “Carolina Beach: The Mecca of Excursionists and a Delightful Ocean Resort,” it was published in 1897 by The Wilmington Messenger, and features facts and figures and observations about everyday life in our area back then. Written in an overly formal, almost Elizabethan style, some of the data is debatable, but maybe readers can weigh in with their opinions.

In 1896, it says here, the steamer Wilmington, “which conveys passengers to the beach,” sold 32,000 round-trip tickets. But the following year, Captain John W. Harper bested that figure by nearly 20,000. The beach was in vogue. Among beachgoers about half were from Wilmington and half “from other sections of the adjoining states.” Children under 10 were admitted free, so the total number of passengers was significantly higher.

Carolina Beach was “opened” in 1885 and Captain Harper and the town were “associated together in the public mind.” That remains true to this day since Harper Avenue is a main access street to the ocean, and lies at the very heart of today’s central business district. Harper appears to have been a small-town robber baron of sorts — “a man of executive capacity and experience,” – and most likely associated with big NC names like MacRae, Kenan, Cameron, Jones and Trask. He not only owned and commanded the steamer between Wilmington and the beach; he also organized the New Hanover Transit Co., which constructed the railroad, and “located the resort at the lower end of Masonboro Sound immediately on the Atlantic Ocean.” Not surprisingly, he also owned a controlling interest in the beach.

The Wilmington was 135 feet long, double decked and could carry 600 passengers per trip. Beachgoers boarded the steamer in downtown Wilmington, at the foot of Market Street. Soon they were swiftly gliding down the river, a “broad and beautiful stream, passing on either side scenes of historic interest and natural attractiveness.” Invigorating sea breezes swept up the river while “passing ships, steamers, tugs, both domestic and foreign, engaged in local, domestic, and foreign commerce.” The trip was 15 miles and ended at the pier of the New Hanover Transit Co. Passengers road by railroad car for three miles “through woodland scenery” until landing at Carolina Beach, “in jumping distance of the great Atlantic ocean.” The excursion from Wilmington took one hour and 15 minutes, roughly twice the amount of time it takes today.

Carolina Beach was well selected, “a stretch of 20 miles of wide, hard, smooth beach sloping gently to the ocean, extending northward to Masonboro inlet, which divides the beach at Wrightsville, and southward as far as the celebrated Fort Fisher.” The temperature of the ocean water is discussed in great detail and compared favorably to those to the south (“too warm and insipid”) and further north (“chilled, one can remain in it but a few moments”). Carolina Beach, on the other hand, is the Goldilocks of resorts, with water that is “neither too warm nor too cold.” In fact, “it is nothing for surf-bathers to remain in the surf for an hour, with impunity, and as in this time one is undergoing continuous active exercise, accompanied by the pleasure of bathing, the benefit is greater than where his bathing is made necessarily short by the discomfort of the water.” With impunity!

And the weather? It’s just perfect! People flocked to the beach to breathe the “pure air of the ocean” and for the sea breezes that “make it always cool and refreshing … [Visitors] to Carolina Beach need never expect a temperature that would exceed 78 degrees.” True, possibly, before the days of motor cars and aeroplanes and other man-made things that have contributed to our era’s Planet Microwave. But temperatures today regularly exceed 78 degrees (sometimes, to the delight of locals, even in the winter months), and July and August highs are typically in the 90s. Those cool and refreshing sea breezes can sometimes feel more like a blow dryer on a hot and humid summer day. Shoot, even summer nights can be in the low 80s. That's why we have air conditioning.

The fish “usually landed by sportsmen” were sheep-head, pigfish, drum and sea-trout, and all might be on the menu at the august Oceanic Hotel restaurant, along with soft shell crabs, “shrimps,” and oysters. The proprietor, however, “does not undertake to serve Delmonico meals” (a swipe at the highfalutin north?) and would gladly accommodate a “limited number of transient boarders.”

In 1897 there were 40 cottages at Carolina Beach, most owned by residents from Wilmington, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Siler City. “The housewife has comparatively little trouble in keeping house.” It doesn’t sound like there was much to do, which would positively paralyze today’s visitors. “Time passes not in the nervous and enervating excitements of fashionable life, but in the quiet, peaceful life and occupation suggested by the fresh air and the natural environments of the place.” The management is praised for preserving order, “although there are few temptations to invite on the part of anyone the least disorderly conduct.”

And, it must be said, this is not the boondocks! “One is not here out of the world; for the papers are delivered by 7 o’clock in the morning and there are two mails a day each way to Wilmington.”

What did the future hold for Carolina Beach? More visitors and more development, naturally. “Captain Harper realizes that in another year he will be under the necessity of running two instead of one boat to the beach.” Ka-ching. “Carolina Beach is no longer an experiment … Enlarged hotel facilities will come … The prospect of this pioneer of seaside resorts along the Cape Fear shores is bright, and is destined to become one of the famous resorts of the Atlantic seaboard.”

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