Free walking tour of historic Southport, half an hour between Wilmington and Sunset Beach

Nestled on the mouth of Cape Fear River, Southport is one of the most charming cities along the North Carolina coast, with an incredibly rich naval and military history.

Oak Island Lighthouse

Southport Ferry to Fort Fisher on Cape Fear River

In 1500s and 1600s European explorers such as Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon and William Hilton discovered its riches; in 1700s ruthless pirates like Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet ravaged its canals.

During the Civil War, cunning river pilots defied the blockade, and in 1900s businessmen tried in vain to make the city a prominent railroad center. Nowadays, movie directors have “conquered” the city and shot more than 50 films for the last 20 years.

This post highlights some of the attractions you can enjoy along Southport’s self-guided walking tour. Most data comes from historical markers and outdoor exhibits, and the walking tour brochure you can grab at the Visitor Center.

Any visit to Southport must include a stop at the NC Maritime Museum (free admission) and a family fun ferry boat ride to Fort Fisher ($5 per car one way) and the exotic NC Aquarium ($8 adults, $6 children 6-17, free for kids 5 and under).

Stocks and Pillory at Old Brunswick County Jail

Funny punishment Old Brunswick County Jail

Walk the walk, talk the talk at Old Brunswick County jail

Built in 1904 for $6,738, the Old Brunswick Jail served the county until 1971, when an annex was completed. Both buildings were discontinued in 1978 when the county seat was moved to Bolivia.

The 1st floor provided living quarters for the jailer and his family. The 2nd floor had 2 cell rooms containing 4 bunks, a commode and washbasin and a small runabout.

Sissy Spacek is considered the jail’s most famous “criminal”! She stayed here in the summer of 1986, during the shooting of Crimes of the Heart.

The jail is now a museum and also home to the Southport Historical Society. The annex is home to the Southport Friends of the Library.

The museum is opened April through October.

The Railroad’s Come to Town…Willing, But Slow
Between the Civil War and the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904, local residents and investors desperately sought to surpass Wilmington in building the railroad link to the Appalachian coal fields. Smithville will become the railroad first refueling stop, thus bringing fame and fortune to the small fishing village.

Happy Southport Residents welcome the new train station

Willing, but slow...the short lived Southport train service

So in 1890, with much fanfare, a huge coal dock was built on Rhett Street and the town proudly changed its name to Southport, the “Port of the South”.

For 20 years, 15 rail companies failed to build the railroad, until Wilmington, Brunswick and Southern finally succeeded in 1911.

By then, technology has changed and ships had begun to burn oil and not coal, causing some investors to lose fortunes.

On November 25, 1911, a huge celebration marked the train’s arrival with bands, speeches, boat races and picnics. The trip from Wilmington took 2 hours and 36 minutes. Nicknamed “Willing, But Slow”, the passenger service continued until 1933. The station burned in 1940, never to be rebuilt.

Nearby is the 18th century Old Burying Ground, peaceful resting place to prominent families ship captains, soldiers an driver pilots. Note “The winds and the sea sing their Requiem and shall forevermore” obelisk mark honoring river pilots and seamen lost in the 1872 and 1877 storms.

Fort Johnston – Cape Fear River Guardian and Civil War Blockade Runner
Established as a British port in 1748, Fort Johnston was the first commissioned fort in North Carolina and the state’s only fort to serve under 3 different countries! Until 2004 it was considered the smallest working U.S. military installation.

The outer fortification was built of tabby rock, a mix of oyster shells, sand, lime and water. Some sections are still visible at low tide. On July 19, 1775, unable to defend the fort against British troops, NC militia destroyed the fort.

On January 9, 1861, an armed body of civilians overwhelmed Fort Johnston’s lone occupant, Ordinance Sgt. James Reilly, and demanded the keys. Reilly quickly surrounded them and received a receipt in return. However, North Carolina Governor John W. Ellis ordered few days later that Fort Johnston and other strongholds be restored to the Federal Government.

The Confederates reoccupied the fort on April 16, after the fall of Fort Sumter, and again took possession from Sgt. Reilly. He soon resigned from U.S. Army and joined the Confederacy as an artillery officer. Ironically he had to surrender the fort once more in 1865, this time to the Union forces!

Home to successful Civil War blockade runner

1868 Capt. Thomas Mann Thompson House

During the Civil War vessels running the blockade passed through the Cape Fear inlet en route to Canada, Bermuda, Caribbean and Cuba.

They returned to Wilmington carrying military supplies, which railroads transported north to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Eventually the Union blockading squadron sealed ever Southern port, except Wilmington which was protected by Fort Fisher and Fort Johnston.

One of the most successful blockade runner and river pilot was Captain Thomas Mann Thompson, now buried in the Old Ground cemetery. His 1868 house was Southport’s first home with a cupola and a Widow’s Walk.

The NC Oldest and the US Brightest Lighthouses
From the serene Southport Waterfront Park you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Cape Fear River Canal, bustling with big ships, ferry and fishing boats, and noisy seabirds. The jewels are the two lighthouses:

Southport Waterfront Park

1958 Oak Island Lighhouse brightest light in US

Bald Head Island Light built in 1817, is the oldest in the state.

Oak Island Light built in 1958 is one of the youngest in the US (only the one on Sullivan Island was built since) and features the country’s brightest light:

On good conditions it can be seen from 24 nautical miles.

The Oak Island Light is made of black, white and gray color concrete blocks thus it will never require repainting…You can reach Bald Head Island by ferry and Oak Island Coast Guard Station on Caswell Beach by taking Hwy 133.

Tony the Ghost, Quarantine Office and the Oldest House in Southport
Not far from Fort Johnston, on beautiful Bay Street, is the 1859 Brunswick Inn, a prime lodging spot for the high society. Its 30 rooms rented for a whopping $5 per month!

The Inn’s most famous resident was “Tony the Ghost” aka Antonio Caseletta, an Italian musician, who drowned while sailing. The following morning his harp was found with all strings ripped out. To this day people believe his spirit roams the building and can they still hear mysterious sounds.

Besides Brunswick Inn is the Quarantine Office built after the Civil War on pilings in the middle of Cape Fear River and used to decontaminate ships and personnel in the 1930s.

Next is the 1800 Walker-Pyke House, Southport’s oldest surviving house made of ballast stone from sailing ships.

Keziah Memorial Park and the Indian Trail Tree

Cape Fear Indians sites

Magnificent 800 years old tree, the start of the old Indian Trail

Named after local newspaperman Bill Keziah, the park is home to the Visitor Center and the Indian Trail Tree.

Cape Fear Indians, members of the Siouan Nation, have lived in this area (they called it “Chicora”) for centuries.

By 1720 none remained in the lower Cape Fear region.

Legend has it they bent the tree when it was sapling as a trail marker. The tree is estimated to be 400 to 800 years old.
Sixty years ago children could easily crawl under its arch.

Movies and TV Series
Southport’s peaceful marina, exquisite Victorian architecture and oak-lined streets make it a perfect setting for movies and TV filming. Here are just a few:
• TV Series – One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, The Runaway and Matlock
• Movies – I know what you did last summer, The Secret Life of Bees, Pirate Kids I and II, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Domestic Disturbance, Lolita, The Butcher’s Wife and Raw Deal

Be forever enchanted in Southport North Carolina, where history comes to life!

in the summer of 1986


3 Responses

  1. […] boat models lovers unite at the NC Maritime Museum in charming Southport! Here you can admire over 40 artisan crafted, model ship replicas spanning the entire world […]

  2. What is the building that you have posted as Fort Johnston ? It’s is not what is on the Southport water frount..

    • You’re right! Thanks for correcting the post. Honestly I don’t recall about that building. We visited many places that week. Anyway I took it out.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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