This Month in History – Urban Renewal Takes Off

In the 1960s, Wilmington’s northern waterfront underwent a dramatic transition. For the first 60 years of the 20th century, the Atlantic Coastline Railroad (ACL) was the hub of the area. Then in 1955, the company announced it was moving its headquarters – and thousands of jobs – from Wilmington to Jacksonville Florida. Although the railroad gave the city five years notice, it was still an economic blow. The local paper even called the relocation “man-made disaster.” Perhaps in response to the negative feelings in the city, in December 1959, the ACL announced it would be donating land and buildings to the city. This helped pave the way for a waterfront urban renewal project that continues to shape the city’s layout into the 21st century.

By 1959, the city had already created a Redevelopment Commission because 1958’s Hurricane Helene made the city eligible for federal funding when the waterfront flooded. The project gained momentum after the ACL’s donation, and the commission began to plan a Waterfront Urban Renewal Project.

In August 1960, local photographer John Kelly was commissioned to document the existing state of the waterfront area. These photographs, which were donated to the Museum in 1980, were taken at that time. A number of the images were used in the 1964 pamphlet, “Rebirth of the River: Waterfront Urban Renewal Project, Wilmington, North Carolina” on the page showing the “typical existing conditions in the project area.” Some of the images were taken from the top of the newly opened five-story Wachovia building.

Over the course of the 1960s, 92 acres were “cleared, re-planned, and made available for new commercial and industrial development to complement both the City’s deep-water riverfront and the nearby central business district.” In 1965, Front Street was extended past Red Cross street, and land was cleared between the river and 3rd street. The first Cape Fear Technical Institute (now Cape Fear Community College) buildings and the Water Street parking deck were built during the 1960s. Although the parking deck has been demolished, the community college continues to physically expand, and other amenities now sit on the waterfront, including the city’s Convention Center.

View John Kelly’s commissioned photos of Wilmington’s waterfront.

Previous Columns

July: Launching Concrete River Vessel No. 5
Wilmington Meets Los Angeles
Bellamy Sails to France
World TB Day
February: David Walker is Honored with a Marker
Two Brothers Honored on One Memorial Stone
Holiday Gifts
A nurse comes home from war
Wartime football takes the bases by storm
Circus Day
Motorboat Racing
Celebrating Independence Day at the Beach
Wilmington Turns 200, June 21, 1939
Laura Grace Cox graduates from Tileston
Saint Marks Turns 100, April 1969
March: Troops Return Home, March 29, 1919
February: Black History Month turns 40
January: Fort Johnston and Fort Caswell are seized, January 8, 1861

View from top of Murchison Building
August 1960
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382