Captain John William Harper was born in the Masonboro area of Wilmington, NC on November 28, 1856. At age 16 John went to work as a deck hand on the Steamer Eastern owned by his brother James. By 1883 the brothers formed the Harper Brothers Steamship Company and ran steamers between Southport, Fort Caswell and Wilmington carrying mail and cargo.
Later in the 1880s Captain Harper was at the wheel of the Steamer Passport and often made stops at the recently completed New Inlet Dam. Some say it was Captain Harper who first called the project “the rocks”.
In 1886 Captain Harper and others formed the New Hanover Transit Company with the idea of making a resort at Federal Point. The first step was a transportation system to access the pristine mostly undeveloped land that would become Carolina Beach. They planned to bring visitors downriver from Wilmington on a steamer.
The company constructed a pier on the Cape Fear River, first near Sugar Loaf, later at Doctor’s Point where steamship passengers could board a train to carry them over to the sea beach. The train, called the Shoo-Fly, had a wood burning steam engine and pulled open passenger cars as well as flatbed cargo cars. As they neared the beach, the tracks ran along present day Harper Avenue which is fittingly named for Captain Harper.
They also built the Oceanic Hotel and a restaurant and had all of them open for the first season in June of 1887. The new resort proved to be so popular that by the end of July the Passport’s 350 capacity was enhanced by pulling a 150 passenger barge called the Caroline. An article in the September 30, 1887 Wilmington Star reported that between 17,000 and 18,000 people had visited the beach by the end of that first season.
Captain Harper bought the Sylvan Grove in 1888 to bring excursionists to the new resort.Three years later it burned to the water line while in winter storage near Eagles Island.
He replaced it with the handsome Steamer Wilmington in 1891 which he purchased in Wilmington, Delaware. It was the perfect choice since it was already named the Wilmington. She had three decks providing ample room for its 500 passengers to dance to the music of an on board band and made four round trips in the season of 1892 with the ticket price of 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. The Wilmington is the best known of his steamers and the one most often associated with Captain Harper.
James Sprunt has a picture of the steamer and its captain in the front of his book Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear. Sprunt published the volume as a tribute to his friend Captain Harper in 1896.
The Cape Fear Transit Company was later sold to other investors but the Steamer Wilmington and Shoo Fly train continued to bring visitors until about 1919 when a fire destroyed the pier at the river and improved roads made automobiles the preferred mode of travel.
Captain Harper died on September 18, 1917 and was mourned by all who had known the jovial and popular gentleman who was known by his generous deeds as well as his skills as a steamer captain. We remember him as one of the founders of Carolina Beach.
Walk of Fame Dedication – Jan. 2015