WILMINGTON, N.C. - There are few cities in America as lovely and charming as this Southern Belle.
In fact, the only cities that can compare with Wilmington, in our opinion, are South Carolina’s Charleston and Georgia’s Savannah, both regarded as two of America’s most desired destinations.
But the thing that sets what we kike to call the Holy Trinity of American cities apart is spirit. And Wilmington, it seems, has lots of it - in the form of the ghostly spirits who refuse to leave this 18th century port city renowned as a hangout for pirates, murderers, slave traders and a whole boatload of other undesirables who would drift into town aboard the merchant ships that docked here during that unholy period. The city is still dotted with many unmarked graves, filled with the remains of cut throats and thieves.
Just how savage was old Wilmington? Well, a 19th century colonel named William Lamb put it this way: “I’d much rather be in battle than Wilmington, for at least in battle I have a chance of not being killed.”
That’s all changed, of course.
Wilmington has blossomed into a peaceful place where lovers walk beneath century-old oaks wrapped in eerie Spanish moss; along storybook streets lined with handsome Antebellum homes; and through neatly-kept parks sprinkled with bronzed statues honouring the city’s famous.
But it’s Wilmington’s infamous past that’s still the talk of the town - at least amongst the tourists huddled together in the Front Street Brewery who are waiting to be guided on one of the city’s treasured ghost tours.
Wilmington is rated among the most actively haunted cities in the world. At least that’s what our young server tells us as he drops a plate of sweet-smelling ribs, tanned with the micro brewery’s Scottish Ale sauce, on our table.
Even more popular than the tours, the young man tells us, are the tour guides, “especially that Mr. Jenkins - he’s a local legend.”
Bob Jenkins is an elderly southern gentleman who holds more local knowledge under his iconic straw hat than anyone else living in Wilmington today. With the flick of his cane, he stops traffic and leads his inquisitive visitors from one haunted house to the next, filling them with more information in a short time than anyone could possibly retain.
In a drawl as sweet as the Front Street Brewery’s barbeque sauce, Mr. Jenkins, of the Wilmington Adventure Tour Company, will tell you there are 24 “active” sites on the ghost tour.
But what’s the most haunted house in Wilmington?
John Hirchak, of the Ghost Walk of Wilmington tour company, a friendly rival to Mr. Jenkins, lists the house standing atop Gallows Hill, built in 1860 by a Dr. William Price as Wilmington’s most haunted.
Left: Grand homes line the city's shaded streets. Right: Guides point out Wilmington.landmarks
Gallows Hill is where the present day Market and Fifth streets intersect but back in the 1800s, what’s known today as the 500 block of Market Street, was where public hangings took place – and they apparently drew quite a crowd of onlookers.
"It was a real social event,’ said Hirchak. “People would gather on Gallows Hill so they could get a better view of the execution.”
After the “show”, many of the executed – a lot were foreign sailors with no kin in America to collect their bodies – and were simply dropped in graves on Gallows Hill.
Well, after Dr. Price built his house, the executed decided to come back to life in spirit form and the ghost walk tours of Wilmington were born.
Witnesses who have stayed or lived in the house on Gallows Hill say they have seen ghosts write the word “help” on windows of the home and heard them walking up the stairs of the house to the gallows.
But hey, there’s a lot of lively stuff going on in Wilmington today, much of it happening around the revitalized RiverWalk area in downtown. Many of the old buildings and storehouses around the RiverWalk have been converted into modern dining spots like the micro brewery or the George where the crab cakes and the pork pressed Cuban sandwiches are making it a new favourite with locals and visitors alike.
RiverWalk is the area where much of the city’s history is huddled and the place where the famous World War II ship, the USS North Carolina, is anchored so people can enjoy its magnificence.
Wilmington, which sits on the shores of the slow moving Cape Fear River, has also become a major centre for movie making, with dozens of Hollywood films, like the classic Cape Fear, being filmed here.
It also rivals every other southern destination for golf.
The is no better proof of that than the Beau Rivage golf club, the cornerstone of the brilliant Beau Rivage resort located on the outskirts of Wilmington, which is ranked among the best in the state after an extensive refit of the original design (circa 1980s) in the mid-90s.
Another Wilmington golf beauty is a track called Porters Neck, rated the No. 1 coastal golf course in North Carolina by Golf Digest. This is another Tom Fazio creation and we all know how his designs fascinate golfers.
For a real cheap thrill in Wilmington, may we suggest you head over to the city’s Municipal Golf Club. Oh, this is no ordinary municipal course. Wilmington’s was designed by none other than Donald Ross - yes, THAT Donald Ross. Unlike other Ross courses that have filled in over the decades with lots of foliage, the Muni is fairly wide open buts its greens are true Ross creations - most sloping away from the hole and well protected by bunkers.
The beaches are never too far from downtown Wilmington and with the city’s dedication to the history and the arts with some of the finest museums and stage venues in the south, you can see why people are reluctant to leave – even the homes who are dead.