From Kings Highway to US 421

By: Rebecca Taylor

Roads to Federal Point, NC – Part III:  

“Cars come to the Beach”


After the Civil War, in Southeastern North Carolina, roads remained primitive. The trip to communities like Federal Point remained along treacherous sandy tracks and the drive from Wilmington via horse or mule drawn wagon was long and often unpleasant. Therefore, the Cape Fear River remained the primary “highway” between local communities, as it had been for several centuries. Then in the mid 1880s, Captain John Harper, who delivered mail, merchandise, and passengers by steamship daily from Wilmington to Southport, began dropping people off at the local landmark, “Sugar Loaf,” on the eastern side of the river. From there, fishermen and eventually “sea bathers” hiked across the peninsula to the ocean-side. But, in summer it was a long, hot and buggy walk to and from the beach.

It didn’t take long for Captain Harper to realize the potential that existed in this quiet backwater of southern New Hanover County. In January of 1887, the Wilmington Star reported that,  The Carolina Beach Company, recently formed, had begun work on a railroad which was to run from near Sugar Loaf, about 13 miles below Wilmington on the Cape Fear River, across the peninsula to the Atlantic coast, near the head of Myrtle Grove Sound… The iron rails have already been purchased and the rolling stock provided.  The railroad work was to be completed in about two months, and the line was not to be more than two miles in length. At the terminus of the railroad on the ocean side will be put in perfect order and a “playground” will be furnished for the excursionists where they can go and enjoy themselves.” And so, the seaside resort of Carolina Beach was founded.*

Then in 1908, Henry Ford revolutionized the world with the Model T. Suddenly the automobile was available to the American middle class at an affordable price. After twenty years, people with the means to visit the bustling resort of Carolina Beach, suddenly had a way to get there without having to rely on Captain Harper’s steamship schedule.


March 3, 1909        CAROLINA BEACH

Mr. Walter Sprunt made a trip to Carolina Beach in his Maxwell automobile and it was stated that this was the first touring car to reach that point. WILMINGTON  DISPATCH,  3-4-1909.


By 1910, the local citizens of the Federal Point area were holding a “Good Roads Rally” calling for better roads to be built by New Hanover County. Amazingly, by, “March 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.”

 On July 7, 1916, the Wilmington Dispatch reported, “Last Sunday there were about 50 machines (automobiles) visiting the Beach, coming down the excellent new Carolina Beach Road. When the Boulevard at Carolina Beach is completed in the near future, this will be one of the prettiest drives in the county.”

Unfortunately, not every resident of Federal Point was happy about the new “infernal contraptions.” On June 28, 1917, the Wilmington Dispatch reported, “Councilman James M. Hall and his little son, Thomas Gray Hall, were attacked by an enraged bull as they made their way to ‘The Rocks’ at the lower end of Federal Point.  The Wilmington Councilman was on his way to visit a party of campers at “The Rocks,” when at a point below Carolina Beach a herd of cattle was encountered and a bull was enraged by the sight of the automobile.  Councilman Hall opened the throttle and soon left the mad animal behind. WILM. DISPATCH, 6-28-1917

In May of 1922, the Wilmington Dispatch reported, “By actual count, 584 automobiles were parked at Carolina Beach when the pavilion being organized by the Ocean Beach Company, under the management of Lem Davis, opened for the season.

And, by 1925, the promoters of the resort could say, “The formal opening of Carolina Beach, “the beach you can reach by automobile,” featured an opening dance in the remodeled pavilion with music by the “Southern Collegians,” of the University of North Carolina.  Flashlight pictures of the dancers and the crowd in the pavilion were taken, with the view of preserving these to mark the new era of prosperity for Carolina Beach.” 

*Always a visionary, Captain Harper sold 200 acres of his land holdings at Carolina Beach in 1912 to the Southern Realty and Development Company for $30,000. He agreed to continue steamship service to the beach for two years.