ILMINGTON is known as the Port City because goods have flowed in and out
on the Cape Fear from the time the first settlement was established on the river’s
banks in the early 18th century. But without the funding to widen
the basin and conduct other infrastructure projects,
Cozza suggests the days as a major port might
have been consigned to the
“If we were not able to
get the big ships in here,
we would probably be out of the container business,” he says.
“That would have cemented a different future.”
Wilmington’s past is intrinsically tied to the river. In 1731,
North Carolina Governor George Burrington granted John
Maultsby 640 acres at the confluence of the Cape Fear and
Northeast Cape Fear Rivers. By late 1732, a few men had
settled on Maultsby’s land “with the intention of carrying
out trade along the rivers,” as stated in “A Maritime History
of the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear Rivers,”
published by the North Carolina Underwater
Archaeology Branch and the U.S. Army Corps
Shipping and trade became the
“lifeblood of the Cape Fear economy,”
especially the export of naval stores
— tar, pitch and turpentine obtained
from the longleaf pine forests supplied
to the British Navy. During the Civil
War, Wilmington was a vital artery in the
lifeline of the Confederacy. It was the last
Southern port open to blockade runners before
falling to Union forces in 1865.
The town’s docks again flourished after the war, help-ing
establish Wilmington as the largest city in the state by
the end of the 19th century. The current riverfront Shipyard
Boulevard and River Road location was the site of the North
Carolina Shipbuilding Company, which produced 243 merchant
ships during World War II.
The state Legislature established the North Carolina Ports Authority
in 1945, and authorized $7.5 million in bonds for construction and
improvements in 1949. By 1952 the shipyard had been converted into a facil-ity
that would handle imports and exports on oceangoing vessels, and the Port of
Wilmington was open for business.
Although not as large as East Coast ports in Savannah, Charleston and Norfolk, the
proximity to major markets in North Carolina and the Southeast made Wilmington viable.
But the shipping industry was changing. Bulk and breakbulk cargo — the kind packed into
holds and retrieved through nets on cranes — is being phased out. Containers are the future.
Container shipping is simple and efficient. Goods are packed into 40-foot containers that are
loaded onto the deck of a cargo vessel and quickly offloaded at the port of call. The containers are then
transported by truck or train to their destination.
“About 96, 97 percent of global trade is containers,” Cozza says. “The container side is the
In the mid ’70s the port authority purchased two container cranes, and added four
post-Panamax container cranes in 2007. The facilities were sufficient for cargo vessels
carrying up to 4,500 TEUs.