The waters of Mount Lebanon sprouted sailboat races as early as 1853 but were golden with yachts from the 1880s until 1919 when legendary rice merchant Pembroke Jones with the help of his friend Henry Walters infused energy enthusiasm and national yachting connections into the little world of Wrightsville Sound.
Though Sunday regattas were taboo in those days it was difficult to keep thoughts of sailing at bay even within the hallowed walls of Mount Lebanon Chapel. “Neighborly chats were held over the backs of pews ” wrote Caroline Green Meares in 1895. “Parties were planned and the coming boat race discussed beneath the shadows of those towering oaks. For Wrightsville held the honor of having one of the oldest boat-racing clubs in the U. S.”
During the 1850s and 1860s The Banks as Wrightsville Beach was known began to draw day visitors who wished to swim crab fish or simply sight-see. There was no bridge or trestle so watercraft offered the only transportation to view the beauty and drama of the Atlantic Ocean. The journey from Mount Lebanon to view the ocean breakers was simple until at least 1858 because Deep Inlet located near the present site of the Carolina Yacht Club provided easy access. The inlet fed into Bradley’s Creek. Waves breaking on the shore created an audio backdrop both outdoors and indoors that ranged from enchanting lull to frightening roar. The worst effects were probably suffered in the September Storm of 1856 when it was reported that large waves broke one-half mile inland.
The waterfront banks of Mount Lebanon and the Wrightsville Turnpike (Airlie Road) served as a second beach for those who couldn’t arrange transportation over to The Banks. The open inlet added to the allure and the fishing. In later years natives would refer to the shore line along Airlie Road as the “old beach.”
Like today sailing vessels of this period required continuous maintenance and repair. During the 19th century African-Americans did much of this work. Blacks also sailed with their owners or employers on most occasions. However despite requests by some of the boat owners non-whites were barred from accompanying their skippers during regattas.
Dr. Thomas Henry Wright and his brother William enjoyed recreational sailing probably as early as the 1830s. Wright owned the Rob Roy a yacht named after the Scottish tales of Sir Walter Scott; Wright’s wife Mary Allan was from Scotland. William Wright a corporate lawyer who lived on the north side of the Airlie Road curve owned the Twilight and Qui Vive.
The Wright brothers’ nephew Richard Bradley III was a sailor too. He owned two yachts that became Wrightsville legends: La Favorite and The Princess. The Princess built by a New York boat builder interestingly named Bob Fish cost a whopping $700. The Princess was said to be shaped like an old pressing iron with a bowsprit that hung 12 feet over the water.
Bradley the first commodore of the Carolina Yacht Club lived just east of the Bradley’s Creek Bridge. The Carolina Yacht Club organized in 1853 gave structure to what happened naturally when sailing vessels manned by stout-hearted men converged: extreme racing. The seven co-founders of the club were Bradley Daniel Baker Talcott Burr T. M. Gardner Richard J. Jones Parker Quince and John Reston.
The Civil War changed local yachting. Many well-traveled well-schooled young Wrightsville residents went away to fight for a cause over which they had misgivings. A large number of the sound’s early sailors including members of the Wright Latimer Savage and Kidder families had deep roots in New England. But the entire Wright family had an additional influence: Dr. Adam Empie (1785-1860).
Empie a native of Schenectady N.Y. was a long-time rector of Wilmington’s St. James Church the first chaplain of West Point president of The College of William and Mary — and a strict and outspoken abolitionist. He married Dr. Thomas Henry Wright’s sister Ann Eliza in 1814 and spent many summers of his life at Mount Lebanon. In fact Wrightsville Sound was part of the employment package offered to the prominent young minister when members of St. James Church approached him in 1810. Vestryman William Willkings offered Empie a $1 200-a-year salary and “To this will be added the customary perquisity attached to the office of a clergyman — during the sickly season as it is termed should the town prove unhealthy we have a safe retreat on the sound being about eight or nine miles away from Wilmington on the seashore where you can retire with every reasonable prospect of health and comfort. And on Sundays in fair weather you can easily ride to town for the performance of divine services.”
Despite inner conflicts nearly every recreational watercraft at Wrightsville was sacrificed to the Confederate Navy. The names Giles and Kidder frequently appeared together on regatta rosters and the families were entwined socially as well. Even as the war raged at least one of Wrightsville’s most distinguished sailors was trying to keep track of another. Clayton Giles while stationed at Proctor N. C. ended a letter to his mother Almeria Reston Giles at Wrightsville by asking about his old friends:
Our pay has been cut down again from $2.00 to .25 cents a day. The Governor is getting stingier than ever. Do you see anything of the Kidders?
Very affectionately Clayton
(P. S.) Wish you were here to dine with me — Bill of fare: Breads Corn Bread meats: Bacon Raw — 2 slices River Water.”
When the war ended in 1865 the sailing families of Wrightsville grieved over lost family members and neighbors. Added to the incalculable human loss was a substantial economic slide caused primarily by the failure of the Bank of Cape Fear the Wright family’s largest holding. Many Wrightsville residents found themselves treading financial waters and just barely keeping afloat. For a few years there was neither enough money nor emotional energy left for much recreational sailing.
But by 1873 racing was back. In that year the yacht club updated its records and redefined itself by officially naming its two favorite “places of business.” The first spot literally the waters of Mount Lebanon was “the banks of Wrightsville Sound just east of the mouth of Bradley’s Creek.” The second spot a reminder of Wrightsville’s perpetual link to downtown Wilmington was the Cape Fear River between Market Street and the Dram Tree just west of Greenfield Lake. At the time the Dram Tree still stood in its entire gnarly splendor as the historic gateway to Brunswick and New Hanover County harbors as sailors toasted their arrival and departure with a dram of spirits as they passed the ancient cypress.
In the 1870s Pembroke Jones Jr. (1858-1919) was already an avid sailor. His interest came honestly: His father Capt. John Pembroke Jones was a graduate of the Naval Academy and a captain both in the U. S. Navy and the Confederate Navy. In a dizzying example of old Wilmington’s famed “cousinhood ” Capt. Jones’ best Wilmington friend was Capt. John Newland Maffitt whose daughter Florie was the mother of Thomas Henry Wright (the grandson of the Thomas Henry Wright who built Mount Lebanon Chapel) who was Pembroke Jr.’s best friend.
Pembroke Jones’ childhood home was located at 200 North Front St. but he grew up spending a lot of time on Wrightsville Sound. A great-great-grandson of Elizabeth and Richard Bradley he had numerous relatives who lived both at Mount Lebanon and surrounding properties. In 1878 at the age of 19 he crewed on the White Swan a 28-foot yacht with 12-foot oars but more often he was aboard Norwood Giles’ boat Ripple.
Giles a young businessman who grew up on Bradley’s Creek was a Civil War veteran who partnered with young Jones to form Carolina Rice Mills a rice-processing business that sat near the foot of Chestnut Street and had an office in New York as well. The Ripple arrived from New York in 1875. It was 18-1/2 feet long and 8-1/2 feet wide and for a time it ruled the local waters. Subsequent boats would be named Ripple but none came close to the string of racing victories the original craft compiled. Giles also owned Pirate and Benefactor. Other members of the Giles family enjoyed sailing too. Remnants of the old “Giles fleet” sat moored on Bradley’s Creek as late as 1930.
Richard Bradley built the old Giles house “Edge Hill ” in 1812. Though restructured it still stands today overlooking Bradley Creek and the eye-catching skiff Vixen. Long time residents Judge James Fox and wife Kate a descendant of Richard Bradley fit perfectly into the sailing traditions of old Wrightsville Sound. But in a strange twist of fate their boat is not named after the 19th century racing boat of the same name that was once docked within 50 yards of their house. Judge Fox named their yacht Vixen because vixen means female fox.
Elegant prizes were awarded to the winners in the golden days of Wrightsville Sound regattas. For instance William Latimer another summer resident of Wrightsville donated a silver ice pitcher to the winner of the 1887 Fourth of July regatta. Pembroke Jones awarded handsome flags to winners. Later Jones and Henry Walters would give elaborate silver trophies to those who placed first in Carolina Yacht Club races. Jane Pope Akers Ridgway Jones’ only surviving grandchild donated several of these trophies to the Carolina Yacht Club where they are now on permanent display.
Through the social ties of Pembroke Jones Sarah Jones and Henry Walters Mount Lebanon had ties to other grander yachts daunting in size. When in New York Jones and Walters competed in New York Yacht Club regattas with some of the sleekest yachts in N.Y. competition. William Vanderbilt a frequent visitor to Airlie often arrived in Southport aboard Tarantula a torpedo-style boat built by the British Navy. Standard Oil mogul Henry Flagler treated Walters and the Joneses to voyages aboard his yacht Alicia. In time Flagler married Mrs. Jones’ best friend Mary Lily Kenan whom he met at Airlie. Henry Walters himself owned Narada a 224-foot ocean-going yacht that carried a crew of 32 men. In addition Wilmington cotton exporter James Sprunt and his wife’s family the Murchisons also had houses in Narragansett R.I. where they joined with the Joneses and Walters in sailing events.
Today only paper trails and sterling trophies bear witness to the golden sailing days of Wrightsville Sound. But when you visit the Bradley Creek Overlook at Airlie look out on the glistening waters of old Mount Lebanon and remember that there was a time when the jaunty sailors of Wilmington could hold their own with just about anyone.
Sources: Records of the Carolina Yacht Club Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. “A History of the Carolina Yacht Club ” by Louis T. Moore. Carolina Yacht Club Chronicles by Anne Russell. Perkins Library Duke University. “Portraits of Members of the Class of 1854 University of North Carolina.” North Carolina Collection Wilson Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Historical Collection UNC Jane Pope Akers Ridgway William R. Johnston curator of the Walters Art Gallery Lewis Philip Hall and Eugene Hicks.