By Rebecca Taylor
Update: The Carolina Beach Boardwalk was featured on PBS, ‘North Carolina Weekend‘. UNC-TV Thursday, Jun. 18 at 9:00 pm
Have you been to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk in the past few months? If not make sure you visit soon – because it’s a whole new experience!
The Town of Carolina Beach and a group of local citizens from the Boardwalk Makeover Group, which was founded in 2008, have collaborated to create a stunning new look to the oceanfront at Carolina Beach.
Twice as wide as before, with 10 foot wide handicap accessible public beach accesses, the new structure includes seating areas, swings, benches, covered gazebos and sail shades. Also new is a beach-side stage/viewing area to feature a wide variety of performances. Landscape coves provide space for historical and environmental education kiosks, shaded seating, and picnic facilities.
For over a hundred years the Carolina Beach Boardwalk has drawn visitors to this area going back to 1887 when Captain John Harper built the first pavilion, the Oceanic Hotel, and the first walkway along the beach. In those days visitors took one of Captain Harper’s steamships down the Cape Fear River to “Sugar Loaf” and then transferred to the Shoo-Fly train for the trip from the riverside to the ocean.
That first Boardwalk was just that, a walkway on the sand made from boards, so that daily visitors could stroll along enjoying the ocean breezes, without sinking into the sand up to their high-button shoes.
By the time the Town of Carolina Beach was incorporated in 1925 a variety of carnival type rides and games joined the shops of local proprietors along the walkway creating a family friendly attraction, and a place to catch the cool ocean breezes in the days before air conditioning.
The Thirties brought hard times for almost everyone, but in March of 1936 the Wilmington Star reported, “The State WPA announced approval of an additional allocation of $6,570 for construction of boardwalks at Carolina Beach. This was estimated to provide employment for 32 persons. The building of a public rest room, costing $3,430 and employing 18 persons, was also approved.”
Over the years a number of storms and fires damaged or destroyed various buildings along the boardwalk, as most construction was simple wooden framework, meant to be used just 3 months of the year. However, in September 1940, a devastating fire destroyed most of the business district including the Bame Hotel and most of the Boardwalk storefronts and amusements.
By June, 1941, Carolina Beach was being called “The Nation’s Miracle Beach.” The StarNews reported, “Carolina Beach opened tonight for the new season. Aside from the new $500,000 midway and business district, hundreds of new cottages and guest houses had been built during the winter and spring. The famous midway was more varied this year than previously. There were more rides, more concessions, larger stores, longer and wider boardwalks, more benches, and public drinking fountains, and a bathing strand which was one-third wider than last year.”
The 1940’s and 50’s are sometimes called the Boardwalk’s “Golden Years.” Wartime brought soldiers on leave from area military bases, and with the economic rebound, families experiencing “vacations” for the first time. The uniquely coastal Carolina dance, “The Shag,” was invented by local teenagers who hung around jukeboxes stationed directly on the boardwalk. Many locals who grew up at that time remember playing under the Boardwalk, and fishing coins from the sand with sticks tipped with chewing gum.
Unfortunately, the 1960’s and 1970’s brought hard times, as the way people vacationed began to change. Air conditioning, television, and apartment type condos, all kept people inside in the evenings. Bars and a rougher crowd began to dominate the businesses that survived.
Then, in 2007 the Town of Carolina Beach revised zoning laws to encourage more desirable businesses to re-locate to the Boardwalk and in 2008 the Boardwalk Makeover Group invited amusements back each summer. Town leaders and staff found funding, in part, from grants from New Hanover County, the NC Division of Water Resources, and the NC Division of Coastal Management.
The first and last pictures (of the modern Boardwalk) are courtesy of Southern Digital Art. The historic pictures are from the collection of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society.