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Eagles Island is mostly undeveloped. That wasn't always the case

Developers are pushing for a new zoning rule to allow development across from Wilmington's downtown riverfront. Environmentalists and advocates want to stop new building from happening. But for most of Wilmington's long history, the west bank of Cape Fear was heavily industrialized.

If proposals to bring hotels, restaurants, shopping and housing to Eagles Island succeed, it wouldn’t be the first time the low-lying land directly across from downtown Wilmington was developed.

As downtown Wilmington has grown and flourished in recent decades, the west bank of the Cape Fear River has stayed pretty much the same. The battleship and a handful of businesses are the only occupants of the 3,000-acres of land, made up mostly of marsh, streams, and woods and bisected by U.S. 421. But in the bigger picture of Wilmington’s 282-year history, the mostly undeveloped Eagles Island of today is an anomaly.

From at least the late 19th century to the early 20th century, the island — named for merchant and planter Richard Eagles — was a major part of the area’s maritime industry and home to lumber mills, turpentine stills, warehouses, wharves, and shipyards. It even had rail service — in 1853, the Wilmington & Manchester Railroad began service to Eagles Island, with a terminal on the site the Battleship North Carolina now occupies. While residences did exist on Eagles Island, it primarily was home to heavy industry linked to Wilmington’s maritime economy.

A low-lying tract of land

It’s no accident that Wilmington was settled on the east side of the river. Though separated by a mere thousand feet, the two riverbanks couldn’t be more different — one rising 35 feet or more above the river, the other a mere 15 feet. It was a difference that would direct the evolution of the entire area.

When Capt. William Hilton sailed up the Cape Fear in 1663 to what is now Wilmington, the English explorer observed that both banks of the river were “very desirable,” according to “Voyage to the Carolina Coast,” his account of the expedition.

But when the first permanent colonial community was founded here in the 1720s, the new settlers found the east side of the Cape Fear, where a series of bluffs rose high above the river, far more attractive. And in addition to being higher ground, the east side had a resource not found on the mashy west bank — plentiful streams of fresh water.

Wilmington was established in 1740 with about 400 residents, a number which quickly and steadily grew. But it would be decades before the land across the river played a significant role in the area’s robust maritime economy.

Described in the late 1700s as a “place of elegance” where merchants developed “a taste for living,” by the mid-19th century Wilmington was the state’s most-populous city, home to high society and impressive structures, such as Thalian Hall/City Hall and the Bellamy Mansion.

As the Lower Cape Fear became the center of the longleaf pine-derived naval stores business, city leaders became wary of fires and other hazards on the city’s crowded riverfront. Naval-stores-related turpentine distilleries, tar kilns, and sawmills began to proliferate across the river, as did yards for ship-building and repairs. Eagles Island soon emerged as Wilmington’s industrial district, safely away from the city’s many large, wooden residences and commercial structures.

A key role in Civil War

Soon the view west from downtown was one of wharves, docks, warehouses, and other industrial buildings, a far cry from the mostly barren riverbank seen today.

“We know that Eagles Island was developed for industrial use by the second quarter of the 19th century, as Samuel Beery and his sons had opened a steam sawmill and shipyard on the east side of the island, just opposite Wilmington, by September 1848,” said Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr., professor emeritus in the UNCW Department of History.

Eagles Island would go on to play an important role in the Civil War, Fonvielle said, with the Beery Shipyard becoming “the Confederate Navy Yard.” In April 1864, a fire destroyed much of the shipyard and its resources.

According to local historian and author Beverly Tetterton, the naval-stores industry dwindled after the Civil War and cotton became the area’s primary export.

“Cotton required a different kind of shipping,” Tetterton said.

Less hazardous and less prone to fires, cotton was a good fit for the Wilmington riverfront — a legacy still evident in downtown landmarks such as the Cotton Exchange.

According to Fonvielle, even after the naval-stores industry declined, Eagles Island remained heavily industrialized until World War I, when shipbuilding facilities migrated to the east side of the river, south of Wilmington.

“At that point Eagles Island became a cemetery for abandoned vessels,” Fonvielle said.

Eagles Island in recent years

Old tugboats and other remnants of the island’s past once were prominent features of the west bank. Most have disappeared in recent years, though skeletons of long-forgotten boats and the foundations of buildings and other relics from the island’s glory days are still visible.

After its industrial decline in the early 20th century, little changed on Eagles Island until the 1961 arrival of the USS North Carolina. In photos of the battleship’s arrival, intact structures are still seen along the riverbank.

According to Tetterton, the urban renewal of the late 1960s — including the razing of most of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad buildings on the north end of downtown Wilmington — probably was the final blow for any industrial presence on Eagles Island.

“When large parts of town on the east side of the river were demolished, why would you want to build on the west side?” Tetterton said.

Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has operated a maintenance yard on Eagles Island for over a century, it was the arrival of the battleship that drew the public back to the west side of the river.

While Wilmington became the top pick as the ship’s new home, Capt. Terry Bragg, the memorial’s executive director, said that mooring the North Carolina on the east of the river never was seriously considered, primarily due to the ship’s size.

“They never thought about the east side,” Bragg said. “The ship was just too big.”

At 729 feet long and 151 feet tall (most of the hull is below the waterline), Bragg said the ship would have eclipsed the view of the downtown riverfront.

Even as thousands of people made the trip to the west side to visit the battleship, the area remained otherwise undeveloped, with most people only seeing the area while zipping by on the busy stretch of U.S. 421 that cuts through the island.

Downtown-revitalization pioneer Gene Merritt said the spectacular view of the battleship did draw more visitors to downtown Wilmington’s riverfront. But — reinforcing Tetterton’s view — with so many opportunities for historic preservation downtown, little if any attention was paid to the land across the river.

According to Bragg, Tetterton and Merritt, few, if any, proposals were made to develop Eagles Island until the early 2020s. In 2000, according to Merritt, Walter Wayne “Skeets” Winner flirted with the idea of developing a charter-boat business on the west side of the river, similar to the one he ran for years at Carolina Beach. The project never moved forward and Winner died in 2015. In 2005, an Eagles Island condominium project also stalled.

In 2006, with downtown flourishing, taller, more-modern buildings becoming more common and land prices creeping up, a group of developers proposed a pair of 20-story towers on the Eagles Island land owned by Winner.

A Jan. 5, 2006, StarNews article noted that the “towers would be the first major residential project along the river’s west bank— a seemingly attractive area for development whose potential has been hampered by a lack of utilities.”

(Currently, the Battleship North Carolina and the few businesses on Eagles Island receive water from the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority via small, private lines that run from downtown and rest on the bottom of the river. According to a CFPUA spokesperson, the lines are not large enough to serve other customers, though service could be provided from water lines in the vicinity of Eagles Island).

The developers behind the proposal said at the time that the project was not meant to mimic downtown Wilmington’s historic architecture and waterfront but, rather, would be based on the best of modern design.

According to the StarNews article, the towers were to consist of condominiums, hotel rooms, retail shops, and parking. A marina also was included in the project, which, like Winner’s earlier proposal, never gained traction. For the next decade, as office and apartment buildings continued to rise on the east side of the river, Eagles Island remained out of the news, resuming its primary identity as home of the battleship and one of the few places near downtown that remained mostly untouched by development.

A few projects were proposed from 2015 to 2017, all much smaller in scope than the 2006 proposal and those now being considered. The 2017 proposal collapsed after New Hanover officials determined it did not fit into the county’s long-term plan.

As for what the future holds, Merritt, who once owned a large tract of land on Eagles Island, said he is not opposed to development on the west side of the river as long as it meets zoning and other requirements. With a reputation as a practical-minded developer who has focused on rehabbing historic buildings to meet current needs, Merritt said he believes all proposals for Eagles Island should at least be considered.

Rising tides

Bragg said that the commission that governs the Battleship North Carolina has no official stance on development on the island. Personally, however, although not opposed to development on Eagles Island, Bragg is skeptical of building in an area that not only already is low-lying, but is increasingly seeing the water encroaching farther and farther onto the scant dry land that does exist.

The battleship’s land suffered major damage from flooding during recent hurricanes and is embarking on a major project to elevate the parking area, which is seeing more frequent flooding, essentially cutting off access to the ship. Bragg said significant hurricane and flooding damage is still evident on Eagles Island.

Geologically, the island, which is bounded by the Cape Fear River to the east and the Brunswick River to the west, has never been solid land — it was formed by sediment from the confluence of the rivers that flow into the Lower Cape Fear. Bragg said that with the deepening of the shipping channel, there is more room for water to flow into the Cape Fear, from upstream as well as the ocean. Rising sea levels and more frequent flooding also are taking their toll, Bragg said.

On Monday, for example, the combination of a new moon and strong southwest winds that pushed water up the river left the entire Battleship grounds — including the access road and parking lot — under water.

"The flood, as I see the data, is now tied for the ninth-worst flood as measured at the downtown Wilmington gauge," Bragg said.

The ship opened, but normal operations were significantly disrupted, he said.

It’s an area that, with constant work, is fit to house a 35,000-ton battleship. As for much else, the odds are currently not good and, as Bragg sees daily, appear to be getting worse.

Scott Nunn is an award-winning independent journalist and regular contributor to WHQR News, Greater Wilmington Business Journal, and Greater Fayetteville Business Journal. A Wilmington native, he graduated from Hoggard High School and UNCW. For most of his career, Scott worked for StarNews Media, where he wore many hats, including copy desk chief, opinion editor, senior reporter, and local-history columnist. In 2020, his last year at the StarNews, he won 1st place for Editorial Writing, 2nd place for City, County Government Reporting (sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center) and 3rd place for Beat Reporting (health care) in the N.C. Press Association journalism awards.