Part IV: “Who built the Fort Fisher Pillars”
By: Rebecca Taylor
Who built the Fort Fisher Pillars? That’s actually something of a mystery. I’ve spent a good deal of time looking for that answer and haven’t found a definitive historical answer, yet. In the photo above, from the Louis T. Moore collection at the New Hanover County Public Library, we do know that they date from the early 1930’s.
Moore, a descendant of the Moore family that settled Brunswick Town in the 1700s, and built Orton Plantation, was a life-long promoter of the Lower Cape Fear. Trained as a journalist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed executive secretary of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce in 1921. An avid photographer, he took wide angle photographs throughout New Hanover County in the 1920s and 1930s.
Over 1,000 of his photos can be accessed online from the New Hanover County Public Library by simply typing “Louis T Moore” into google or accessing it at: https://cdm16072.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15169coll6.
Moore was a consummate promoter of North Carolina tourism, especially local roads and historic sties and took many pictures in the Fort Fisher area. He even had a photo he took of a shipwreck still visible on the beach near the ruins of the old fort published in a New York newspaper.
Newspaper records show that plans to extend a hard surfaced road as far as Fort Fisher were in the works as early as 1920:
“August 27, 1920. The county commissioners were making plans for the widening of the road leading to Carolina Beach, and the paving of the road beyond as far as Fort Fisher. They planned to widen the road on each side of the highway about 3 feet and pave this with rock and tarvia surface. From the end of the Carolina Beach road it was proposed to lay a hard surface as far as Fort Fisher, thus enabling tourists to have easy access to one of the most historical spots in the South. The rock for the road could be found in large quantities nearby. There was a seam of rock starting in Brunswick county, which ended up in the ocean and it was from this seam that the commissioners intended to get their road rock. WILM.DISPATCH, 8-27-1920”
By 1925, the Wilmington Star was reporting that the road to Fort Fisher was nearly finished. “September 21, 1925, Addison Hewlett, Sr., chairman of the New Hanover Board of County Commissioners, forecast that tourists next summer will be able to reach historic Fort Fisher and the beaches over hard surfaced roads. Work was to begin during the winter allowing ample time for completion before the opening of Wilmington and Fort Fisher beaches next summer. WILM.STAR, 9-22-1925.”
There is considerable documentation in local newspapers and in the United Daughters of the Confederacy records on the dedication of the Confederate monument at Fort Fisher in the summer of 1932. However, an exhaustive search of those materials has so far turned up nothing about the building of the pillars on the road.
Research has uncovered the fact that the land that contained the remnants of the old Civil War fort was owned by Thomas and Louis Orrell at the time the monument was built as there is a newspaper record of them donating land for the monument to the North Carolina District United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Orrell brothers owned the land around Fort Fisher until the 1960’s and at a number of times during that period considered developing a beach resort. A number of local historians have speculated that they had the “pillars” built to mark their planned community, however, we have found no actual documentation of this theory.
An oral history interview that Elaine Henson conducted with Punky Kure this summer did turn up some interesting additional information.
He recalls going to the dedication for the UDC Monument (June 2, 1932) with his parents and Walters’ cousins before they were there. The Kure Beach Land Development property ended at the Fort Fisher property marked by the pillars.
He believes that they were built long after Louis and Thomas Orrell bought the property. He does remember that there was a gate between the pillars and a fence on either side that went from the ocean to the river. The Orrell brothers had cows and pigs and wanted to keep them contained. Walter Winner was the caretaker of the property and had his home there near the monument.
And so, after extensive research on the UDC Monument and the Orrell brothers at the New Hanover County Public Library and the Cape Fear Museum, as well as talking to a number of locals including Howard Hewett, whose family lived below Kure Beach, and Jay Winner, whose father worked for the Orrells we are pretty much left to go by the amazingly clear memories of Punky Kure. For now, the best we can say is that “we think they were built by Thomas and Louis Orrell sometime in the 1930’s.