Changes to the Federal Point Landscape

[Originally published in the March, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter]

Erosion at Ft. Fisher

Erosion at Ft. Fisher

Mr. Gehrig Spencer, site manager at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, presented a program at the February, 1995 meeting of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society on how the effects of weather and war have reshaped the southern end of Federal Point. Mr. Spencer also discussed how the current implementation of a Seawall is expected to prevent any further deterioration of the fort.

According to Mr. Spencer one of the earliest events having a major impact on the landscape of Federal Point occurred in 1761 when a hurricane opened the passage known as New Inlet between the ocean and the Cape Fear River. Over the years the relatively shallow inlet shifted course slightly to the south.

New Inlet played an important role during the Civil War as an entrance for sleek, fast, blockade runners to slip past the Union fleet and enter the river under the protective guns of Fort Fisher. These ships were able to successfully deliver their valuable cargoes to Wilmington and on to the rest of the Confederacy until late in the war.

It was the events of man that brought about the next major change to the Federal Point landscape. While natural erosion of Federal Point remained relatively stable during the Civil War, the construction of Fort Fisher drastically changed its appearance.

Sea Face - Fort Fisher

Sea Face – Fort Fisher

Under the supervision of Col. William Lamb, Fort Fisher with its massive land and sea faces took shape as the largest earthen fortification on the east coast.

The landscape of Federal Point changed forever as the builders used great quantities of sand and a covering of marsh and cut sod in the construction of the fort. One single mound known as Mound Battery rose sixty feet in height.

Following the war Federal Point again underwent a major transition in appearance when the US. Army Corps of Engineers began a decade-long process of closing New Inlet.

The Rocks 1

“The Rocks” from Zeke’s Island towards Battery Buchanan

The closing of the inlet allowed the currents to naturally deepen the river channel. During the 1870s, the Corps built a stone structure in two sections across the inlet and swash known as the “The Rocks.”

The length of the upper section of the dam extended from Battery Buchanan on Federal Point to Zeke’s Island, a distance of 5,300 feet.

The continuation of the lower section known as the Swash Defense Dam from Zeke’s Island to Smith’s Island, 12,800 feet, made the entire closure just over 3 miles in length.

The Rocks measured from 90 to 120 feet wide at the base. The average depth of the stone wall was 30 feet over three-fourths of its length. The Rocks still separate the Cape Fear River from the ocean.

Serious erosion problems occurred at Federal Point after the state removed coquina rock from the shore just north of the earthworks during the 1920s for use as road construction fill. Since that time approximately 200 yards of sea front has been lost to wave action.

This loss forced the state in the early 1950s to realign the very same highway that had been built with the use of the coquina rock. As a means of preventing any further erosion of what remained of Fort Fisher, the North Carolina Highway Department added concrete and other construction debris along the sea front during 1969 and 1970.

3,200-foot seawall completedat Fort Fisher Museum

3,200-foot seawall completed
at Fort Fisher Museum and Earthworks

The latest effort [1995] in the fight to protect Fort Fisher and Federal Point being claimed by the ocean will be the construction of a 3,200-foot seawall [revetment]. Work on construction of the seawall by a private contractor is expected to begin this spring [1995].

Sand re-nourishment of the beach will not be part of the preservation plan since it might damage or destroy ecologically sensitive areas along the Cape Fear River.

The seawall [revetment] is expected to halt ocean side erosion of Federal Point for the next fifty years.


March 1995 Newsletter (pdf) – Federal Point Historic Preservation Society (FPHPS)

Fort Fisher Revetment Project Nears Completion (March 1996)  (FPHPS)