By Sandy Jackson
[Originally published in the September, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter]
The earliest watercraft along the lower Cape Fear River were dugout canoes, or log boats, used by the native population. The dugout canoe was commonly built from a single cypress or pine log, quite common within the coastal swamp forest. Cut from a large section of tree, the canoe was shaped by ax or adze and hollowed to its appropriate thickness by slow-burning embers.
Early colonists to the region in the late seventeenth century used steel tools to adapt the dugout canoe to fit their own needs. By splitting a canoe down the middle and installing boards in the bottom, it could be enlarged. This larger version, about 4 or 5 tons, was known as the periauger and could be fitted with either masts for sails or oars for rowing. The larger of the craft were capable of carrying forty or barrels of pitch and tar. Periaugers were sometimes used by the inhabitants as ferries across rivers or larger creeks.
Types of Sailing Ships
Built on the Cape Fear River
During the early eighteenth century, settlement of the lower Cape Fear River quickly increased as royal governors granted to various individuals large sections of land along the liver and major tributaries.
On these large sections of land, called plantations, crops or naval stores were often produced and transported by flat, also called a pole boat, to deep-water points, where they were loaded aboard seagoing ships. The flatboat, so named because of its flat bottom and squared sides, was larger than the earlier periaugers and built of boards.
The majority of those transport vessels and small sailing craft were constructed at plantation landings. Often flats were used as ferries across major waterways.
Deep-water sailing craft known as sloops gradually became the watercraft commonly used to transport products between coastal ports. Sloops were as small as 5 tons burthen, or as large as 60 to 70 tons. They had a single mast with a large mainsail and one or more headsails on a bowsprit. The larger sloops were primarily used in long ocean voyages and had one or more square sails in addition to the usual fore-and-afi sails .
Second in popularity and use after the sloop was the brigantine or brig, from 30 to 150 tons. The rig of this craft has varied with time and location. Generally, before 1720, the brigantine has been described as being a two-masted vessel, square-rigged on the foremast, fore-and-aft rigged on the main, but also with a square topsail.
After 1720, the main square topsail was omitted in most brigantines. Other vessel types in use during the late seventeenth and eighteenth century included the ship, schooner, bark, snow, pink, and shallop.
Single-masted sloops were eventually found to be too small to carry the increasing amount of commerce on the Cape Fear River. The need for a larger vessel capable of transporting more cargo led to the development and use in the early eighteenth century of a two-masted, fore-and-aft-rigged craft known as the schooner.
The Schooner allowed distribution of the sail canvas on two masts and made it feasible to build this type of craft in tonnages exceeding those of the sloops. The smaller sail sizes also required fewer crew to operate. The design and operation of the two-masted schooner proved both popular and economically beneficial. The schooner quickly became the most common vessel type until the mid-nineteenth century. Sloops and schooners were constructed at several of the shipyards located along the lower Cape Fear River. Some of the last wooden schooners built during the early twentieth century at Wilmington were four-masted.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century steam-powered vessels began plying the waterways of eastern North Carolina and effectively replacing much of the sail- or oar-powered craft in use. Large, and often dangerous, steam engines and boilers converted, steam into a mechanical motion that turned wooden side or stem paddlewheels. Fueled by either coal or firewood (found plentifully along the river banks), the shallow-drafted steamboats proved to be an efficient means of transporting produce and other farm goods plantation landings to market.
As a result of the improved means of transportation, steamboat companies developed and provided regular scheduled service for passengers and the transportation of freight between coastal ports, plantations, and river towns. Until the early twentieth century steamboats of a wide variety of sizes and designs were the most popular form of transportation on the Cape Fear River. Several shipyards within the Wilmington vicinity specialized in the construction and repair of this type of vessel.
Naval technology developed significantly in response to the Civil War. The success of early vessels of a new type known as ironclads brought about changes in the materials and methods used for the construction of ships. The building of wooden vessels highly susceptible to fire, decay, and destruction by enemy attack during war slowly declined as an increasing number of iron ships were constructed.
During the Civil War at least three ironclads were built in Wilmington. While the upper structure of this class of vessel was covered in iron, the lower portion of the hull below the waterline was wooden. The need for vessels completely encased in iron ended with the conflict, but the method of ship construction established with the ironclads continues to this day.
During World War I, Wilmington was established as a prime shipbuilding location for a new method of building vessels of concrete. In April 1918 the US. Shipping Board selected Wilmington as one of its sites for a government yard. Seven concrete ships were planned to be built at the city. The larger of the vessels, 7,500 tons, would be used as tankers with capacities of 50,000 barrels of oil. The smaller, 3,500-ton, vessels would be cargo ships.
The new type of cargo vessel, or “stone ship,” required approximately 300 tons of concrete and was poured in three sections-bottom, sides and decks. Drying of each section had to occur before the next section could be poured. When all three sections were complete, the vessel had to “set” for a month before launching. Some of the last large wooden ships were also constructed at Wilmington during this period.
Liberty Ships – built in Wilmington
The greatest boom in shipbuilding on the Cape Fear River occurred during World War II. Wilmington was again selected as the site for construction of cargo ships needed for the war effort. Two types of cargo vessels were built in Wilmington: Liberty ships and Victory ships.
The Liberty ships were officially designated as the EC-2 (Emergency Cargo) type. The standard Liberty was more than 441 feet in length, with a beam of 56 feet and a draft of 27 feet. Libertys often carried more than their stated capacity of 9,146 tons of cargo with a full load of fuel. The ship had five holds: three forward of the engine spaces and two aft. One hundred twenty-six of these class vessels were produced at the Wilmington shipyard.
1949 – Mothballed Liberty Fleet
along Brunswick River in Wilmington
The second vessel class, the C-2 or Victory ship, was also constructed at the Wilmington yard. It was hoped that this type of vessel could be used as merchant ships following the war. The C-2 ships were 460 feet long, 63 feet in beam, and had a dead-weight tonnage capacity of 8,500 tons. The North Carolina Shipbuilding Company produced 117 vessels of the C-2 type.
There were many variations in the C-2 design that caused considerable delays when compared to the amount of time required to build an EC-2-type vessel. Each variation of the C-2-type ships required different means of propulsion and prevented standardization. The Liberty ship was much easier to produce by comparison.
Shipbuilding along the river drastically declined during the last half-century.
When military vessels were not being built in Wilmington, private shipbuilding companies constructed small river craft, yachts, or speedboats on the sites of the abandoned war shipyards.
Presently only fishing boats or small craft for government use are built along the shores of the lower Cape Fear River.
[Editor: Claude V. (Sandy) Jackson III included this article in a book he later published titled: ‘The Big Book of the Cape Fear River‘.
Following this article in the ‘The Big Book’, there’s an extensive (42 page) listing of all the Shipyards, Boatyards, Repair Yards and Marine Railways along the lower Cape fear River, along with descriptions, locations and pictures.
All but one of the images included on this page are from ‘The Big Book of the Cape Fear River‘.
Google Maps: Brunswick River in Wilmington, NC]
Alford, Michael B.
1990 “Traditional Work Boats of North Carolina“. North Carolina Maritime Museum. Harkch Island, N.C.: Hancock Pub.
Chapelle, Howard I.
1935 “The History of American Sailing Ship“. New York: Bonanza Books.
Johnson, F. Roy.
1977 “Riverboating in Lower Carolina”. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing Company.
Still, William N., Jr.
n.d. “Shipbuilding in North America: A Case Study in the South’s Maritime Heritage.” Unpublished data base.
Wilmington Dispatch (Wilmington, NC.) 1918, 1919.
Wilmington Star (Wilmington, NC.) 1918, 1919, 1941.
Wilmington News (Wilmington, NC.) 1941.