It’s a long way to Barstow, even without the sign

“Route 66 connected the Midwest and California, but I-40 is truly cross-country….

“A few miles outside Wilmington, North Carolina, the eastern terminus of 40, as well as the hometown of Michael Jordan and port of Civil War blockade runners, a sign stands on I-40 that reads: Barstow, Calif.  2,554. Nowhere else is the power of our highway system to cast the continent in its net more dramatically stated. We forget how astonishing it is that one can get on a strip of asphalt and drive without stoplight or intersection for a distance greater than the diameter of the moon (a mere 2,160 miles).”

— From “Highway” by Phil Patton in American Heritage (October 2002)

The famous Barstow sign, erected in 1990, met with repeated thefts until the N.C. Department of Transportation decided not to burn yet another $600 in replacement costs. Decorators of dorm rooms and man caves wept.

The rocky history of concrete ships

“Concrete ships were first built in the mid-19th century. There were some short-lived efforts to build concrete ships during and right after World War I, in part due to the high cost of steel.

“Wilmington’s Liberty Shipyard constructed concrete ships on what had been the Kidder Sawmill site. Work on the yard began in May 1918, but the first ship wasn’t launched until after the war ended. The Liberty Shipyard closed in October 1919.

“Less than one year later, the Newport Shipbuilding Corp. leased the old Liberty Shipyard land from the city of Wilmington. In May 1921, this new endeavor’s first concrete river steamer was launched. Still, this second concrete shipbuilding enterprise did not last long either — the yard stopped producing concrete ships in the summer of 1922.”

— From “In 1921, concrete ship launched into the Cape Fear River” by Jan Davidson in the Wilmington Star-News (

New in the collection: WWII ship-launching badge

Pinback that reads "North Carolina Shipbuilding Company, Launching Admittance Within Lines"

“The opening of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in 1941 is what ultimately revived the region’s economy during the Second World War, transforming Wilmington into the ‘The Defense Capital of the State’….

“The plant… resulted in the city’s population increasing from 33,000 to 50,000. By 1943, the apex of national homefront mobilization, the shipyard employed approximately 20,000 people, [of whom] 1,628 were women and 6,000 were African-Americans….

“[The Cape Fear River shipyard] was one of ten in the country specializing in  Liberty cargo vessels, which transported ammunition, tanks, vehicles and other military supplies.”

-From “Wilmington, North Carolina (American World War II Heritage City)” by the National Park Service

Briefly among the city’s newcomers: playwright Arthur Miller.

This sample badge for launching-ceremony guests was manufactured by the St. Louis Button Co.

Which port city wins I-40?

“From the first seeds planted in 1963 to its eventual completion in 1990, Interstate 40 would go from a nearly 20-year oversight to a statewide priority.  The I-40 saga…. would place the state’s two port cities — Morehead City and Wilmington — into a decade-long competition in which only one could win….”

— From “To The Shore! – North Carolina’s Struggle to Build Interstate 40 to the Atlantic Coast” by Adam Prince at (Aug. 14, 2016)

New in the collection: Wilmington molasses and syrup labels

Bully Syrup packaging

“Old timers may remember the distinctive aroma hanging over the Cape Fear River at the former American Molasses Co. plant under what is now the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The operation, one of several the New York-based company ran around the country, shows up in city directories from 1922 to 1978.

“Despite the local facility, most of the product refined in the site at 15 Queen St. came from the Caribbean, likely Barbados, according to an oral history on file at UNC Wilmington’s library recorded in 2004 with Joyce Andrews, daughter of the plant’s superintendent.

— From “Area family keeps sugarcane farming and processing alive” by Paul Stephen in the Wilmington Star-News (Dec. 15, 2013)

Hesitant Wilmingtonians risked ostracism by Patriots

“In spring 1775, the entire committee of safety in Wilmington, North Carolina, visited each family to request that the head of household sign a paper in support of the [Continental] Association or to state his motives for refusing. Few felt they could deny their signature when their neighbors were watching on their doorstep.

“Eleven Wilmingtonians nevertheless refused; these dissenters were effectively ostracized and called out in the Cape-Fear Mercury, an outlet specially founded for such purposes.”

— From Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth” by Holger Hoock (2017)


Signs of segregation disappeared quickly (unless they didn’t)

“Segregation of public facilities — including water fountains and restrooms — was officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson….

“In Raleigh, Wilmington and other Southern cities, businesses seem to have complied grudgingly but promptly…. In smaller towns and rural areas, however, Jim Crow customs lingered longer.

“Local history librarian Beverly Tetterton remembers seeing fading ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ signs on the restrooms of shuttered gas stations when she first came to town in the 1970s.

“Elliott Erwin of Magnum Photos took a celebrated black-and-white photo of a segregated water fountain in North Carolina in 1950.”

— From “When did segregated water fountains end?” by Ben Steelman in the Wilmington StarNews (June 5, 2009)


“In one of his anecdotal books, ‘Only in America,’ [Harry] Golden said that he once persuaded a North Carolina department store owner to put an ‘Out of Order’ sign over his ‘white’ drinking fountain. Little by little, whites began drinking out of the ‘colored’ fountain, and by the end of the third week ‘everybody was drinking the “segregated” water.’ ”

— From “Harry Golden, an editor and humorist, 79, dead” in the New York Times (Oct. 3, 1981)


U-boat attack on coast? Improbable but not impossible

“….Just down Atlantic Avenue, a narrow four-block-long road from Kure (pronounced “Cure-ee”) Beach Fishing Pier, an old seaside cottage bears witness to a time when things weren’t all sunshine and Cheerwine along the Carolina coast. It was here on a July night in 1943 that a German U-Boat supposedly surfaced and fired shots at a factory complex located a half-mile off shore. If the incident actually occurred—and many believe it didn’t—it would have been the only time the East Coast of the United States was attacked during the Second World War….”

— From “Did a Nazi Submarine Attack a Chemical Plant in North Carolina?” by John Hanc in the Smithsonian (Aug. 2)

Yet more U-boat lore.


Why Wilmington wasn’t birthplace of Christian Science

On this day in 1844: Mary Baker Eddy, future founder of the Christian Science church, leaves Wilmington to return to her family farm in New Hampshire following the death of her husband from yellow fever.

She and businessman George Washington Glover, married barely six months, had lived in Wilmington while he planned a construction project in Haiti.


Reagan returned to Wilmington after crowning gig

On this day in 1959: Actress Debra Paget is crowned queen of Wilmington’s annual North Carolina Azalea Festival. Emceeing her coronation: Ronald Reagan, host of TV’s “General Electric Theater.”

Reagan will visit again in 1960, but this time Merv Griffin is emcee.