Overview and History


In 1754, Fort Johnston, North Carolina's first fort, was established and a small community of river pilots, fishermen and trades people grew up around it. In 1792 the town of Smithville was created and became the county seat of Brunswick County in 1808. For the remainder of the century, the town made plans to link rail service with the existing river traffic to make the community a major Southern port, and the city was renamed Southport.

Southport was one of the first areas in the state to celebrate the Fourth of July and is widely regarded as the Fourth of July Capital of North Carolina. History records that in 1795, citizens gathered at Fort Johnston and observed a 13-gun military salute to the original 13 states. In 1813, a Russian warship anchored in the harbor fired a 13-gun salute, and it was on this Fourth of July that fireworks were used for the first time to close the celebration. In 1972, the Fourth of July Festival was chartered and incorporated as the official North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, and it has become a tremendously popular four-day event for residents and visitors alike.

Southport, a quaint, historic seaport, is situated at the confluence of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cape Fear River where it flows out to meet the Atlantic Ocean. The town makes for an interesting day trip. Leave the car — parking is free — and just walk around as you discover shops, restaurants and pleasing views. It's an extremely casual community that invites visitors to pause and savor a slow pace of life that is fast disappearing in nearby areas. A lovely, leisurely stroll, Riverwalk, begins at Waterfront Park and winds along the riverfront, through the Old Yacht Basin and on to the Southport Marina.

The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and history buffs will especially appreciate a visit for its beautiful old homes and historic cemeteries. The Captain Thompson Home, for example, offers a glimpse into the life of a Civil War Blockade Runner. The literary set will enjoy a visit to the Adkins-Ruark House, where author Robert Ruark lived as a young boy with his grandparents. Ruark's novels, including The Old Man and the Boy, give readers insight into Southport life years ago.

Once known as the best kept secret in North Carolina, this lovely little village with its live oak–lined streets is now being discovered. New shops, restaurants and hotels are springing up in the area as well as in the town, affording residents better choices without the necessity of traveling out of town. New housing developments abound. The Southport Marina has been completely redone and the movies have discovered the town - again. The first movie filmed here was Crimes of the Heart, in the 1980s. There have been several others since that time including Safe Haven which was filmed in the summer of 2012. The TV series, Under the Dome, also did some filming in Southport.

Dosher Memorial Hospital has again expanded its space and services, and the Southport Area Senior Center is now located in a new 13,000-square-foot space. This space is centrally located and allows for expansion of fitness, educational and nutrition programs with an added benefit of being located close to medical offices. In addition, year-round golf, boating and fishing create an enormously pleasant environment, making this a popular place for retirement.

This is the place for people who genuinely want to kick back and enjoy beautiful coastal scenery. With a year-round population of more than 3,600, there's still plenty of elbow room. If you fall head over heels for Southport and decide to make a permanent move, keep in mind that its charm also means that the town includes some of the area's priciest real estate and most exclusive homes.

Southport can be accessed by both ferry and scenic highway. From Wilmington, Southport is reached by N.C. Highway 133 or N.C. Highway 87, although the N.C. 133 route is very beautiful and offers attractions like Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson. For information on the ferry route and schedule, see Getting Here, Getting Around.

Hampton Inn Southport

Oak Island

Just across the water from Bald Head Island and Southport is Oak Island, a narrow strip of land that includes Caswell Beach and the Town of Oak Island.

Caswell Beach is the site of Fort Caswell, a military stronghold that dates from 1827. Located on the eastern tip of the island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Fort Caswell is now owned by the North Carolina Baptist Assembly, which welcomes visitors of all denominations each year. The community has some summer homes, but the area has mostly permanent residences. The year-round population is more than 425, but up to 3,500 people can be staying on this part of Oak Island in the summer. You will find a golf club, which is open to the public year round. There is no business district on this portion of the island but it is convenient to the Town of Oak Island and Southport on the mainland.

The US Coast Guard station, in operation at this site since the 1930s, is located in Caswell Beach as well. Be sure to visit the Oak Island Lighthouse, which guided seafarers beginning in 1958. In 2003 it was formally declared surplus by the General Services Administration of the U.S. Government and was deeded to the town. Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse (FOIL) has been formed with the purpose of preserving and caring for the lighthouse and the 5 acres of beach-front property that was deeded along with it (more in our Volunteer Opportunities section). This organization provides tours of the historic structure on a regular basis during the season and by reservation during the rest of the year.

As the name implies, the Town of Oak Island is famous for its beautiful live oak trees. An unusual feature is the east to west positioning of the island which means the 10 miles of beaches face south providing for gorgeous sunsets and sunrises. On the north side of the island, separating it from the mainland, you will find the Intracoastal Waterway. A third water feature is Davis Canal, which wends its way through the island.

Recreational opportunities include a golf course on the mainland portion of the town, 65 beach-access points, public parks, a skate park, a recreation center, tennis courts, miniature golf and two fishing piers, as well as opportunities for surf fishing. There are a number of motels, and the business district now includes a Food Lion grocery store along with the many small shops and restaurants. Though Oak Island is being discovered along with Southport (with a year-round population of more than 7,700 in the Town of Oak Island), it still offers a quiet respite for a peaceful vacation. For the most part, a visitor will enjoy renting a house for an extended vacation. In fact, vacation rental is the liveliest business here, with a number of vacation rental companies operating on Oak Island (see our Vacation Rentals information). Recent growth in the area has led to the development of additional condominium units, but they remain in the minority as far as housing units go.

In recent years the town expanded its limits to include the commercial district along N.C. 133 approaching the Oak Island Bridge as well as a section of NC 211 where the recently completed second bridge to Oak Island at Middleton Avenue and its connecting road intersect with N.C. 211 at Midway Road. In October of 2008, the town purchased the former Yaupon Beach Pier which it manages along with an adjoining restaurant. Grant restrictions require the town, though allowed to lease the pier, to retain ownership. They also require the town to maintain it for public recreation use for at least 25 years and to dedicate the land as a recreation site in perpetuity.

Bald Head Island

Though easily identifiable in the distance by its unique lighthouse, Bald Head Island is 3 miles off the coast of Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear River where it meets the sea. The lighthouse, built in 1817 and retired in 1935, is cataloged as the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina.

Once a favorite hiding spot for pirates such as Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, Bald Head Island is now an affluent residential and resort community with about 200 year-round residents. It can only be reached by ferry, by private charter water taxi from Southport or Deep Point Marina or by personal boat. No cars are allowed on the island — transportation is by golf cart, bicycle or walking. The island is graciously open to the public, and the summer population can reach 10,000, with visitors renting vacation homes and playing golf (see our Golf section for course information).

It is probably safe to say this is one of the most unspoiled beach and maritime forest areas on the North Carolina coast. The island's natural beauty is protected, despite residential development as well as a few commercial amenities such as restaurants, general store with deli, marina, golf course, specialty stores, and golf cart and bike rental businesses.

The island has dunes, creeks, forests and 14 miles of beaches. The 2,000 acres of high land are surrounded by 12,000 acres of salt marshes, maritime forest preserve and tidal creeks. The owners have deeded nearby Middle Island and Bluff Island to the state and The Nature Conservancy. The Bald Head Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, was formed to educate the public and to ensure that the unique natural resources of the island are maintained and preserved.

Turtle nesting on Bald Head Island historically accounts for 50 percent of all sea turtle eggs laid in North Carolina. The Sea Turtle Program protects and monitors these wonderful creatures. There is an Adopt-a-Nest Program that pairs concerned humans with turtle nests in an effort to protect the nests and encourage the hatchlings toward the sea. Studies in which female turtles were tagged have revealed that pregnant turtles return to the same site to lay eggs every other year. Due to the many species of birds found on the island, the Audubon Society conducts an annual count here as part of its national program.

A day visitor can take the ferry from Deep Point Marina, off Moore Street in Southport — an adventure in itself. For a longer stay, there are many rental accommodations on the island. The cost, compared to rentals on much of the mainland, is on the upper end, but so is the experience for the visitor who wants to really get away from it all in quiet style.

Boiling Springs Lake

Legend has it that long ago Indians camped around "Bouncing Log Spring" on their annual trek to the Atlantic Ocean to harvest fish, oysters and game. They held council meetings at the site and always drank from the spring, believing this would guarantee their return. In 1961 the developers of Boiling Spring Lakes happened upon a gushing spring concealed in a wooded ravine. Wishing to beautify the area, they built a 4-foot high wall to encompass this natural phenomenon. Almost before the masons had completed their work, the spring suddenly stopped running. Within a few hours, it burst out in a free full flow some 15 feet outside the wall. Eventually the wall broke and the spring returned to its original location where it boils today, discharging approximately 43 million gallons of water each day which feeds the lakes. You can visit the spring if you choose, just be prepared as it is located in a wooded area near the dam at the head of Big Lake and is unmarked. You can either stop at the Boiling Spring Lakes City Hall or call (910) 845-2614 for directions to the spot.

The 150-acre Big Lake, the city's centerpiece and one of more than 50 natural and man-made lakes in the city, is fed by five springs and Allen Creek. It is 2.5 miles long with 10 miles of shoreline. Around the shores of these lakes and scattered throughout the pines, oaks and sweet gums of the 16,000-acre area are the homes of more than 5,900 residents that make up the City of Boiling Spring Lakes. Though rural by the very nature of the landscape, the City of Boiling Spring Lakes provides the services expected from any city, including its own police department and a community center with scheduled activities and a fitness room. A new city hall was completed in 2008. There is a golf club as well, which is open to the public. The proximity of the community to Southport and the Oak Island beaches provides opportunities to participate in a resort lifestyle while living close to nature.

Located within the incorporated limits of the town that is its namesake, the Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve encompasses half of the incorporated area of the town. The establishment of the Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve is the result of a collaborative partnership between the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Plant Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy, the City of Boiling Spring Lakes and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. The land is owned by the Plant Conservation Program and is managed by The Nature Conservancy. This preserve contains a fascinating cross section of the Cape Fear region's natural communities. Though the area's dense vegetation may look foreboding, the preserve offers a rare glimpse of a vanishing landscape. This natural area contains a mosaic of unusual geologic features. A series of parallel ridges and swales are the remnants of an ancient dune system. A large concentration of Carolina bays (elliptical wetland depressions) studs the landscape. Fire-dependent natural communities, including high and low pocosins (evergreen shrub bogs) and longleaf pine savannas and flatwoods on the ridges and bay rims, form an intricate mosaic of habitats. Conservancy land stewards are actively working to restore the Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve to its natural condition by conducting prescribed burns in longleaf and pocosin communities and replanting longleaf pines.

In an average natural area, there are 8 to 10 species of plants growing in one square meter, but in the wetlands of Boiling Spring Lakes there are several times that number. A bounty of rare flora and fauna is found in this landscape, including the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, a variety of carnivorous plants, rough-leaf loosestrife and a variety of orchids. The preserve contains more than 400 vascular plant species, including carnivorous plants such as the rare Venus flytrap. Completed in 2004, the Boiling Spring Lakes Nature Trail allows visitors to walk through a portion of the more than 6,000 fragile acres that make up the preserve.

Another unique feature of the City of Boiling Spring Lakes is that its residents share their living spaces with the red cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species.

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