We know that the first road to the Federal Point area was the “King’s Road,” with its colonial ferry to Brunswick Town on the western bank of the Cape Fear River which was in existence by the mid 1700s. However it would be a long and sometimes twisting path until the area was truly connected to the state and national highway system in the twentieth century. Some of the early attempts at road building in the lower portion of New Hanover County are documented in the Bill Reaves Files, as follows.
December 18, 1874:
A bill was introduced in the State House at Raleigh to incorporate the Wilmington and Federal Point Plank Road. WILM.STAR 10-20-1874
January 7, 1878:
Henry G. Davis resigned as overseer of the Federal Point Road, and W. H. Williams was appointed to the position at a meeting of the New Hanover County Commissioners. WILM.STAR, 1-8-1878.
March 3, 1896 :
The appropriation for a public road in Federal and Masonboro Townships was reconsidered, and on motion $500 was appropriated for the road known as the “New Federal Point and Masonboro Road.” W.D. Rhodes was appointed to superintend work on the new road. WILM.DISPATCH, 3-3-1896.
May 5, 1896:
New Hanover County Commissioner Montford, who had been appointed to examine the work done on the new public road, called the new Federal Point road, reported that the work had been done well under the supervision of Mr. D.S. Rhodes. Seven miles of the road had been beautifully graded and only about a mile remains to be completed. WILM.MESSENGER, 5-5-1896.
February 8, 1898:
The new Federal Point road delegation asked for a special appropriation of $250 to change the course of about 2 miles of their road, starting about 8 miles from the city. The cost would be for 7,000 yards of ditching. It was claimed that the change would save the traveling of about 4 miles of deep sand road for quite a number of people in that section. Messrs. Hines and Horne were spokesmen for the delegation. WILM.STAR, 2-8-1898.
March 26, 1907:
Members of the Board of County Commissioners went down into Federal Point and Masonboro Townships to confer with committees of citizens representing rival delegations urging the permanent improvement of one of the county roads leading into that section. The Commissioners are at sea as to which of two routes to adopt, the people of the townships differing upon which is best. Messrs. Melvin Horne, Owen Martindale and Horton Freeman urged the adoption of the old Federal Point Road, and Messrs. G. W. Trask, George W. Rogers and D. J. Fergus urged the adoption of the “Masonboro route.” A decision was postponed until the next meeting. WILM.STAR, 3-28-1907.
February 21, 1910:
Fales Collection, NHCPL
“Good Roads Rally” was held at Carolina Beach by citizens of Federal Point Township, for the purpose of discussing the good roads question. It was attended by a number of enthusiastic persons. The meeting was presided over by Mr. J. H. Williams.
One of the features of the session was a strong and forceful speech by Mr. J. D. Fergus. In his remarks he called attention to the great need in Federal Point Township for good roads. He believed that the township had been discriminated against as not a mile of good road had yet been installed in the township.
He called attention to the fact that the loop now being made with the Masonboro road would not come within a mile of Federal Point Township. A committee of five drafted strong resolutions calling upon the county commissioners for relief. The meeting was held at Kure’s at Carolina Beach with a big free oyster roast and fish fry. WILMINGTON DISPATCH, 2-17-1910; 2-22-1910.
MARCH 16, 1915 :
The contractor had his convicts at work on the new road at Carolina Beach, the 7 ½ miles between the “Loop” road and the beach.
From a historical standpoint this stretch of road south of the “Loop” was one of the most interesting in the county. By the roadside could be seen the famous double breastworks used by the Confederates to defend this section from invasion, while at intervals could be seen long avenues, leading to the sound from the river. These roads were hundreds of years old and were used until later years in the salt making industry, which was of quite large proportions here at one time.
A short distance further to the right going down to the beach, was Sedgeley Abbey, the historical old ruins spoken of in Mr. James Sprunt’s new book, “Chronicles of the Cape Fear.” This old mansion was connected with the sound by means of a perfectly straight avenue which could still be dimly seen.
Further down on the river side a half mile from the road, was the site of the famous old Gander Hall, whose colonial owner made himself a joke forever in this community by going into the business of raising geese. Preferring to raise the large white ones exclusively, he purchased scores of that kind, with the result that he had a farm full of ganders and not a lady goose in the bunch. It was also interesting to notice the red cedar telephone poles which line the roadside. These were used by the government during the Spanish-American War to connect Wilmington by telegraph with a signal station shortly this side of the beach in order that Wilmington might be warned of the approach of the anticipated Spanish fleet. Later the poles were sold to a telephone company when all danger was past. WILM.DISPATCH, 3-15-1915.
As we all know the development of Carolina Beach was largely dependent on Captain Harper’s Steamship line. From the mid-1700’s to the 1920s, the Cape Fear River served as the primary route from Wilmington to Southport.
Beginning in the 1880’s, during summer months, he began dropping passengers off at Sugarloaf Dune (and later Doctor’s Point), where the three car Shoo-Fly train carried passengers from the riverbank to the oceanfront for fishing, surf bathing, and just enjoying fresh breezes as a break from the downtown heat.
But did you know that long before there was a Carolina Beach there was an inter-state highway that ran through Federal Point?
The King’s Highway
The King’s Highway, named after King Charles II, who asked the governors of his colonies to establish a line of communication between the colonies in 1660, very soon after being crowned.
The entire length of The King’s Highway did not become a continuous wagon road until about 1735. Incorporating the Boston Post Road (opened in 1673), the route traveled over 1,300 miles, from Boston, Massachusetts to Charles Town, South Carolina.
Along the route, there are numerous communities today with a King Street, King’s Road, or King Avenue, all remaining from the days when it was called the King’s Highway.
From the Quaker communities around Edenton, the old highway followed what is now US Highway 17 to New Bern, North Carolina, an important seaport and the early colonial capital of North Carolina. From New Bern, the highway bypassed White Oak and Angola Swamps in a fairly direct line to Wilmington, North Carolina, at the Cape Fear River. As US Highway 17 does today, the old road continued on to Georgetown, and finally to Charles Town, the colonial capital of South Carolina, and the southern terminus of the King’s Highway.
Big Sugar Loaf Ferry
With a road running from Wilmington to Charlestown South Carolina, there needed to be a way to cross the Cape Fear River. In 1727 (Wilmington didn’t exist yet), the first authorized ferry in North Carolina was established from Brunswick Town on the western bank of the Cape Fear River and the “haulover” on the eastern bank. It was also known as the “Ferry at Big Sugar Loaf” and appears to have docked within what is now the Carolina Beach State Park.
The colonial general court authorized Cornelius Harnett Sr.*, to keep a ferry “from a place on the West side of the River to a place called Haulover, and that he received a sum of five shillings for a man and a horse and half a Crown for each person.”
The 1733, Mosley map shows the ferry directly opposite Brunswick Town, on land owned by Col. Moore, at the foot of what was later named Telfair Creek, which runs into what is now Snow’s Cut.
The ferry continued to run under a series of owners until at least 1775. However, by March of 1776, British warships had entered the Cape Fear and well armed troops were placed ashore. Those troops carried out sporadic raids on Brunswick Town and the surrounding countryside.
The town was undefendable and abandoned for the more secure and prosperous Wilmington, where a ferry from Wilmington, across Eagles Island had been established in 1766.
*Cornelius Harnett, Jr., a major force in the Patriot cause during the American Revolution, was just three years old when his family moved to Brunswick Town. A member of the Sons of Liberty and the chairman of the North Carolina Committee of Safety, he was elected to the Continental Congress in May of 1777, and served three years before returning to Wilmington. Near the close of the War he was captured by the British in Onslow County and brought to Wilmington. There he was imprisoned in an open blockhouse where his health declined rapidly. Although paroled from prison, he died soon afterwards. Harnett is interned in St. James Churchyard.
Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr. Civil War Park to be Dedicated
Thursday February 11, 2021
(North of the Publix — old Federal Point Shopping Center)
A committee of historians and citizens dedicated to our local history, along with the staff of the Town of Carolina Beach have completed the preservation and development of the Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr. Civil War Park located around the remnants of the fortifications of the “Sugar Loaf Line of Defense.”
This project was made possible by the Town of Carolina Beach, The Federal Point Historic Preservation Society and its volunteers, along with the following contributors: the Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr. family; staff from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Fort Fisher State Historic Site, and Underwater Archaeology Branch; Brunswick Civil War Round Table; Cape Fear Civil War Round Table; Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Foundation, Milford, Ohio; the Island Gazette; Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr.; Daniel Ray Norris/Slapdash Publishing; and SEPI Engineering and Construction.
Structures that are more than fifty years old are eligible for a plaque. To apply for your property see the Guidelines and Application link at the end.
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Blair-Brady House 1001 Carolina Beach Ave. North, Carolina Beach
The house was probably built and occupied in 1935 by Walter H. Blair who was mayor of Wilmington for 5 terms 1926-1937. He was the first town clerk of Carolina Beach and also served Postmaster at Carolina Beach for a time.
The property was the home of a series of Blair family members until 1954 when it was sold to A.C. Green, Sr. and his wife Aileen. In July 1974 it was sold to Gladys and Edward Craft of Wrightsville Beach. In February 1973 Jocelyn and Harry Lockamy purchased the property.
The Lot was purchased (along with nine other lots) 1926 by John Henry Burnett. Ownership was from the right-of-way on Carolina Beach Avenue North to the high-water mark of the Atlantic Ocean.
The house was built in 1936. It was rebuilt in 1955 after Hurricane Hazel. Heating and air conditioning were added in 1966. The porch and roof were remodeled in 1987. There was an alteration of windows in 1997.
Carolina Beach Community Church(Now: New Hope Memorial Baptist Church) Was at: 200 S. Lake Park Blvd. (Now at corner of Cape Fear Blvd. and 4th St.)
Carolina Beach Community Church
Called by many the “Mother Church” of Carolina Beach, Carolina Beach Community Church began in the private vacation home of Mrs. S. C. Ogburn of Winston-Salem, NC around 1930. One of the few residents of Carolina Beach, Mrs. S. C. Ogburn, described as a good woman, began opening her house on Sundays for Sunday school. First, friends and relatives attended Sunday school, and eventually, others of various denominations came together creating a need to expand. This cause interested people to immediately join her in a cooperative effort to build a building for a Community Sunday school in that no one denomination was sufficiently strong enough to do this alone.
Although the exact date was not recorded, a lot was acquired on 4th and Cape Fear Boulevard and a shelter was erected. Early growth here in Sunday school work was gradual, but consistent. The structure was enlarged several times within the next few years as the Town’s growing population forced it. By 1937 there was a feeling that a larger, more comprehensive, and adequate church program for the community was needed.
Around 1940 a church was built with ministers from many denominations holding services. With such a great influx of people at the onset of World War II, a number of various denominations splintered off to form their own church to accommodate them.
The Carolina Beach Community Church was formally organized as a Baptist Church in 1942. The church has continued to operate through the years and changed the name to Hope Memorial Church on September 5, 1990.
Carolina Beach Drug Store 140 Harper Ave., Carolina Beach (SE corner of N. Lake Park and Harper)
“Carolina Beach Drug Store was the central focal point in the community for citizens as well as tourists, with a soda fountain and snack bar to accompany the pharmacy and a rooming house upstairs. Informal meetings over a cup of coffee or sandwich allowed citizens to catch up on the news or air their opinions.
The bus stopped there, you could pay your light bill, and even receive advice from the resident pharmacist.” “…The two-story stucco building, with a distinctive, castle like parapet around its roof, was much more than a drug store…for years it doubled as Carolina Beach’s bus station.
During World War II, a bus stopped daily to ferry local workers to the shipyard in Wilmington…Besides soft drinks, the drug store boasted a “complete and modern restaurant” with seafood and other entrees according to a 1948 Star-News advertisement. Star News Article 2/24/04
Carolina Beach Elementary School 400 S. 4th St., Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach Elementary School
The Carolina Beach School is a one story Spanish style, wood frame, brick veneer structure, originally constructed in 1938, containing four (4) classrooms and an auditorium, with additions in 1943, 1953, 1975, 1987, and 1989 to add more classrooms, a cafetorium, 1 office, media center, and covered canopy.
Carolina Beach Elementary School
The building has a hip roof with asphalt shingles, and has a large playground area to the rear of the building. Double-loaded corridor on the interior and the cafetorium has a stage.
The school is located in a neighborhood setting.
Colonel Burnett House
Colonel Burnett House 7413 Carolina Beach Rd., Wilmington
The land was bought in April 1893 from the Southerland family by Thomas Burnett. At his death in 1935, the land was divided among his heirs.
In 1939 Colonel Charles Henry Burnett built the current structure as a family home. It remained in the family until 1978.
Immaculate Conception Chapel
Immaculate Conception Chapel 806 St. Joseph St., Caroline Beach
The Immaculate Conception Chapel is owned by Michael and Kathie Winseck. The building, erected circa 1939, is significant for its social history as well as the structure.
Marion L. Winner of Carolina Beach donated the property to Bishop Eugene J. McGuinness in 1938 to build a chapel. The Winner family was the first Catholics to make their permanent residence in Carolina Beach.
The building still standing was a rectory and four room dwelling. Today the building was the Checkered Church gift shop until 2020.
Joy Lee Apartments 317 Carolina Beach Ave. N., Carolina Beach
Grover Lewis, a masonry construction worker, together with his family, moved to Carolina Beach from High Point, North Carolina in March, 1941. Mr. Lewis went to work for the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company and moved his family into the Marianette Cottage on Carolina Beach Avenue, North. When the lot next door was filled in by a storm in the fall of 1944, the Lewis’s decided to purchase it. Mr. Lewis immediately began designing the Joy Lee Apartment Building. Long shipyard hours made it necessary for Mr. Lewis to hire William Bordeaux to build the basic concrete block structure.
Joy Lee Apartments
After purchasing a hand operated cement block press, the Lewis family turned out two blocks at a time, approximately fifty per evening. Named the Joy Lee Apartments after Mr. Lewis’s daughter, the completed duplex was rented to vacationers. Each apartment consisted of a living room, a dining room, a kitchen with an ice box, 2 bedrooms, and a central hall. Considered luxury units at the time, they came equipped with private porches and private baths with hot and cold running water.
After the war, Mr. Lewis returned to masonry construction work. Mrs. Lewis ran a large rooming house as well as the Joy Lee Apartment Complex. Due to popularity of the Apartments, the Annex was constructed in 1948.
The Joy Lee Apartment building and Annex are a unique combination of several popular architectural styles, including Mission Style, Art Deco, Art Moderne, as well as Prairie Style. Over the years the family has modified the Apartment Building several times, including a major renovation in 1976 when spiral cement stairs to the upper sundeck, and an in-ground pool were added.
Kure Cottage 301 Atlantic Ave., Kure Beach
The Kure Cottage, located at 301 Atlantic Street, Kure Beach, is owned by Mr. Terrell Webster. The building circa 1916, is significant for the social history of its owners as well as the structure.
The cottage was built by Lawrence C. Kure and was one of the first cottages to be built in the Kure Beach area. Mr. Kure also built the first fishing pier in Kure Beach. Lawrence Kure was the founder of Kure Beach.
Loughlin House 1 North Lake Park Blvd., Carolina Beach (Now Havana’s – NW corner of N. Lake Park and Harper.)
In addition to being president of the New Hanover Transit Company, Mr. Alexander W. Pate was also in the hotel business. He owned a hotel in Florence, SC, two in Augusta, Georgia, and decided tobuild one in Carolina Beach – the Greystone Inn.
A. W. Pate and his wife, Eleanor, owned the property from June 1916 until November 6, 1925.
Lewis-Lyerly House 208 S. 4th St., Carolina Beach
Cinderblock with stucco, single family dwelling built in 1945.
Similar to other structures built in this period, though very few remain.
McCabe – Lancaster Cottage 815 Carolina Beach Ave. N.
On June 20, 1935, Vista and Harry Lee McCabe purchased lots 8 and 18 in block 14 of Federal Point Township. According to tax records, they built a home on lot 8 in 1940. The next year they sold the property to William and Estelle Upchurch.
Over the next 14 years, the property changed hands seven times. Luke and Jessie Lancaster bought it on April 2, 1955, and kept the property until their deaths in 1991 and 1992. In January of 2003, the Lancaster heirs sold the property to Charles and Elaine Henson.
The Ocean Plaza
The Ocean Plaza Was at 200 Carolina Beach Avenue N., Carolina Beach. (Now Hampton Inn & Suites Oceanfront)
The Ocean Plaza building, erected circa 1946, is significant for its Art Moderne style and dominant location in the center of the Carolina Beach Business District. Two stories covered approximately 5,000 square feet with a third story covering approximately 1,000 square feet. One front corner was rounded. It was constructed with stucco over a double course of cement block.
Located at the north end of the Carolina Beach boardwalk, it served as an entertainment center for people living in the area, as well as tourists who came to the beach in the 1940’s. Big bands played in the building when that form of entertainment was popular. Celebrities such as Bill Grassick, Bo Diddly, Chubby Checker and others played there. Known to the community as the birth place of the Shag dance and Beach Music.
Pfaff-Cohen Cottage 212 Atlanta Ave., Carolina Beach
In the 1920s, when Claude Pfaff was working for the Realty Bond Real Estate Company, the firm often sent its salesmen on vacation to Carolina Beach so that they would come back and tell their customers how wonderful the beach was – and, hopefully, sell more lots at Carolina Beach.
In the early 1930s, Claude built a cottage near Carolina Beach Lake as a birthday present for Atha, who named it “The Lullaby” for the choruses of frogs that sang around it at night.
Often during WWII, the Pfaff family ended up sharing the small cottage with a family of strangers. Because of the shortage of housing in the Wilmington area, property owners were required to rent out their houses in order to provide the families of the enlisted men due to ship out soon a week at the beach before they were separated. Only office space was exempt, so Atha designated one room an office.
Price Cottage 405 N. Carolina Beach Ave.
The cottage was built in 1939 by a local contractor of Wilmington, Mr. Hines (he also built a dining room table that remains in the cottage today.) It was built for Grover Cleveland Price and his wife Tessie Sutton Price for recreational purposes for fishing and family gatherings. Materials were shipped in by rail; the structure is totally wooden.
When the cottage was built, all the area was marshland. During the Civil War, there was a confederate gun battery, the Half Moon Battery, across the canal. During the dredging of the canal, lots of cannon balls were unearthed.
During World War II, the cottage was rented for a couple of years by Hazel King who fed and housed workers from the shipyard in Wilmington. There were 23,000 shipyard workers, so they had to stay where they could. The apartment slept three shifts of ship builders at eight hour intervals. Therefore there was always someone sleeping there sharing the cost. The children of the house spent their time looking for German spies on the beach. There was a blackout with black shades on the windows because of German U-boats offshore.
After the war and the death of her husband Tessie ran the Arlington Inn (named after the name of the street she lived on in Rocky Mount, NC as a rooming house for income to raise her family.
The cottage has weathered all hurricanes including Hazel, which after Hazel the asbestos shingles were overlaid on top of the wood. Hurricane Diana did some damage that required repairs as well as Fran, but structurally it survived with roof repairs, porch and awning repairs. Hurricane Fran came over the berm and up three feet inside the apartment.
Sly-Walton House 500 Cape Fear Blvd. Carolina Beach
Monty A. Sly built this house for his family in 1938. Monty, his wife and his two daughters lived in the downstairs area of the house and he rented out the upstairs rooms during World War II to young wives whose husbands were in the service overseas. Said to be the first brick house on Carolina Beach, the Dutch colonial style has a gambrel roof with flaring eaves.
At the death of Mr. Sly’s wife, Edith, he sold the house to his daughter Lois Walton. Mr. Sly lived in the upstairs until his death in 1957. It remained the home of Lois Walton until her death in 2013.
Under the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society (FPHPS) historic plaque program, any house, business, or other structure can be deemed eligible for an historic plaque if it meets certain criteria. Anyone may submit an application for a structure or historic site to be considered. Plaque applications are available at the Federal Point History Center, 1121-A North Lake Park Boulevard, Carolina Beach, NC.
Phone: 910-458-0502; email info@Federal-Point-History.org.
The structure or site must be located within the Federal Point area. The boundary of Federal Point is defined as the same as the township lines.
The structure or site must be greater than (50) years in age.
The age of the structure or site must be established through the use of official documents, such as deeds, tax record, or other records.
The FPHPS does not do the original research for you. The applicant is responsible for providing all of the supporting historic documentation, photographs, etc., along with the application form. The FPHPS can, however, provide assistance in guiding the applicant in how to obtain materials, or in suggesting a research firm or individual that can obtain the documentation for you for a fee.
The cost of the wooden plaque is $100.00 must be submitted with the application. All expenses incurred for obtaining copies of the verifying documentation such as deeds, tax records, photographs, etc., is the responsibility of the applicant.
There are several ways to search for things on our website. From every page you can use the gray bar at the top to move from section to section. Each tab has a drop-down list of related topics, quick and easy.
Or use the Site Contents Navigation bar along the right of most pages. Just click on a topic and a full list of articles will appear.
Don’t forget, the fastest way to find something is to use the SEARCH box at the far right of the gray header bar. Almost any term; ‘Hermit,’ ‘Fonvielle,’ ‘Sugar Loaf,’ ‘Quarantine,’ ‘Piers,’ ‘Schools,’ or ‘Cemeteries,’ The word ‘Boardwalk’ turns up SIXTEEN PAGES of entries!
And don’t forget at the end of every article, there are links to a list of additional entries of interest.
Work continues on the new Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr. Civil War Park. The Town of Carolina Beach has installed the first bridge and the parking pad and we are just waiting for the historic interpretive signage to be installed to schedule a grand opening. For those of you who have been asking, here is how you get to the park.
The park is behind the pond along N. Lake Park Blvd. (right)
(above) You get to it from a driveway at the north (left) side of the new Publix.
You can see the new Publix from the park’s parking pad.
The first sign and first bridge are in.
As soon as life goes back to normal we will get things finished up and schedule a grand opening.
Jan Davidson, Historian at the Cape Fear Museum, was the featured speaker at the May 21, 2018 meeting of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society.
Jan talked about the history of Federal Point and Fort Fisher as depicted by some of the artifacts housed at the Cape Fear Museum.
Pictures of these early artifacts included a number of different styles of Civil War Confederate flags as well as General Whiting’s uniform and sword: Whiting switched sides and joined the Confederacy, taking the time to re-carve and alter the “U.S.” on his sword handle to read “C.S.” for the Confederate States.
She talked about the evolution of the four phases of Fort Fisher: as a battle site, a memorial site, a World War II site, and a state historic site.
As a state historic site, the 150th anniversary and re-enactment of the Battle for Fort Fisher in 2015 acknowledged sacrifices on both sides while focusing on the notion that there was “glory enough for all” in this attack. By focusing on glory, the real issues could be glossed over: that slavery was a real cause of the war and that slaves did not have happy lives.
Many of the artifacts Jan shared from more recent times overlapped or duplicated the excellent collection of beach memorabilia that Elaine Henson has shared with the History Center. The Museum even houses a urinal from Carolina Beach’s Ocean Plaza. (Leslie Bright would be able to speak to the origin of that donation.)
To me, the most interesting part of Jan’s presentation was her account of the transformation of the Cape Fear Museum over time. The Cape Fear Museum is the oldest history museum in North Carolina. It was founded in 1898 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to venerate and honor the Confederacy, and operated out of one room in the Light Infantry’s building.
Until the 1930’s, the museum moved all around Wilmington and even found its collection stored in Raleigh for a while when it couldn’t find a home in Wilmington. When the museum re-opened in the 1930’s, it took a much broader historical focus than it had in 1898. In the 1970’s, the focus broadened again to incorporate the region’s history, science, arts, and cultures to tell more balanced and inclusive stories about the area. This broader focus is reflected in its current name, the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science.
The majority of its collections are in storage as there is not room to display everything. This led to a discussion of Project Grace, a potential collaborative effort between New Hanover County, the public library, Cape Fear Museum, and private investors.
Through this project, the Museum would evolve yet again and become part of a cultural-commercial hub in downtown Wilmington, where the main library is located now. How Project Grace shakes out and shapes up is still to be determined and it will be interesting to follow its progress as it moves forward.
Sharing our histories and stories involves not only looking backward, but looking forward—and being willing and able to change with the times. There was much to learn from Jan’s presentation on how an institution can do that well.
Civil War historian Chris Fonvielle is retiring from UNCW at the end of the spring 2018 semester.
When Chris Fonvielle was 8 years old, the Civil War centennial broke out, and he received a young readers’ edition of the American Heritage “Golden Book of the Civil War.” From thereon, he was hooked.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history,” said Fonvielle, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
In fact, Fonvielle, a Port City native, almost literally wrote the book — or books — on the Civil War in the Lower Cape Fear. His master’s thesis became “The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope,” a scholarly account of the battles that led to the fall of Wilmington.
His “To Forge a Thunderbolt” chronicled the rise and fall of Confederate Fort Anderson near Colonial Brunswick Town. “Fort Fisher 1865″ studied the prints of Civil War photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan, whose images in 1865 provide the only known visible record of the Civil War fortress guarding the entrance to the Cape Fear River.
“His dedication to the Wilmington area and its history is extraordinary,” said Lynn Mollenauer, chairman of the UNCW history department.
For years, Mollenauer said, Fonvielle has been “the public face of the history department,” speaking to local civic groups and giving tours of Civil War sites for the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society and others.
This spring, the 65-year-old Fonvielle is retiring after more than 20 years at UNCW. He and his wife, Nancy, are planning a series of trips, including a long-anticipated tour of Scotland.
Fonvielle will not be giving up on history. He’s completing a different project: a history of the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, the 1776 conflict in which area Patriot militias scattered Loyalist Highlanders marching from what is now Fayetteville toward Wilmington.
Mastering the Revolutionary War era has been “a steep learning curve,” Fonvielle said, but he’s had fun. It gave him a chance to learn new history — for instance, that the prefix “Mac-” means “son of” in Scottish names.
Fonvielle said he also wants to finish a biography of William B. Cushing, “Lincoln’s Commando,” a dashing U.S. Navy officer who, among other exploits, floated a fake gunboat, or monitor, past Fort Anderson to trick the defenders and draw their fire.
Growing up in Wilmington, Fonvielle remembered traveling out with his mother — WWAY-TV news personality Jane Fonvielle — to see the excavations of Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson by the famed archaeologist Stanley South. “He gave me a trowel and put me in the basement of one of the colonial houses and told me, ‘See what you can find,’” Fonvielle recalled.
After graduating from New Hanover High School (where, he proudly notes, he was the first soccer-style place kicker in North Carolina football history), Fonvielle moved on to UNCW, where he earned an anthropology degree.
He headed the Blockade Runner Museum at Carolina Beach from 1979 until its closure in 1983, then worked briefly at Cape Fear Museum, which had acquired the artifacts.
After earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. and briefly teaching at ECU, he returned to UNCW in 1997. He’s been there ever since.
“I’ve had a great career, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Fonvielle said. “I’ve worked in my home town and taught at my alma mater.”
Reporter Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-343-2208 or Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.