If you drive from the Golden Sands Motel in Carolina Beach toward the southern tip of Pleasure Island, you will notice that in a matter of minutes the white, sandy beaches turn rocky; the landscape, more wild and lush. A grove of windswept gnarly live oak trees, twisted and bent by centuries of sea breezes coming off the Atlantic Ocean, announces your arrival at Fort Fisher National Historic site. At first glance, it may appear that there isn’t much to see other than the stunning natural landscape. But look closer and you’re sure to be delighted.
The Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Recreation Area sits on the west side of U.S. Highway 421. This National Historic Landmark was the largest of the Confederacy’s earthwork fortifications during the Civil War. Unlike fortifications built of brick and mortar, Fort Fisher was made mostly of earth and sand, making it ideal for absorbing the shock of heavy explosives.
Indeed, Fort Fisher was known as the last trading stronghold of the South. Virtually impossible to defeat, the fort protected vital trading routes, allowing the port of Wilmington to remain open and blockade runners to bring supplies to Robert E Lee’s army. The fort finally fell in January of 1865 during a massive amphibious assault by Union forces, cutting off the last Confederate supply line from the sea. After Fort Fisher fell, the Civil War was soon over. During World War II, the fort was used again, this time as an important training site for anti-aircraft and coastal artillery defenses.
Although every Civil War buff lists Fort Fisher, NC as a “must see”, families and vacationing sun-worshippers are also pleasantly surprised by this interesting educational visit that proves to be a nice diversion from days filled with sand and sun. Both parking and admission are free.
Stop by the recently renovated visitors’ center on your way into the site to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for the kids. (When they complete it, each child receives a certificate and a patch.) Here, you can also register for a guided tour by one of the friendly, helpful staff members who are passionate about the fort’s history. Scheduled guided tours are given daily, and special costumed tours are conducted on occasion. While in the center, you’ll see three-dimensional models of the fort and an audiovisual program that presents its history. Other exhibits highlight soldiers’ clothing, weapons and armaments as well as excavations and artifacts found on site. Then, follow the scenic trail to the remains of the fort’s land face where you’ll discover an impressive reconstruction of a seacoast gun which is still fired on special occasions.
The Recreation Area on the east side of U.S. 421 boasts nearly six miles of wide, unspoiled beach and avisitors’ center with a changing area, snack bar and restrooms. From the recreation area parking lot, an elevated boardwalk leads over the sand dunes to the beach, where visitors can walk along one of the few remaining undeveloped stretches of shoreline on our southern coast. A short trail even meanders through the marsh, allowing hikers a chance to experience the flora and fauna in the nearby sound. A unique and breath-taking location, this is the only wooded area that sits directly on the North Carolina coastline. You can also explore a patch of the natural rock outcropping (although much of it is hidden by the artificial seawall built to protect the historic site from erosion). Global Animal named The Fort Fisher State Recreation Area one of the “Top 10 Dog-Friendly Beaches for 2011?. Indeed, it is a fantastic spot where owners and their four-legged friends can enjoy the coastline together.
Many people believe that Fort Fisher, like most Civil War battlefields, is haunted. Stories and reported sightings of ghosts are local legend. General WHC Whiting is Fort Fisher’s best known ghost. He is said to roam the ruins of the fort he once commanded, sometimes standing on a parapet at dusk in his gray uniform, gazing toward the road. Does he feel responsible for the fall of the Confederate South since he was taken prisoner and forced to officially surrender Fort Fisher to the Union’s Major General Tenney?
Park employees, tourists, and paranormal investigators say they have seen a lone Confederate Sentinel standing guard in the pine grove north of the Fort. Others report hearing the sounds of footsteps on the wooden walkways. Still others claim to have seen an apparition going from the ocean towards the fort. A few people have seen the ghost of Confederate spy, Rose O’Neal Greenhowe, walking along the shore near the spot where she drowned. Naturally, reports of ghosts seem to occur mainly in January, when the two major battles that led to the fall of Fort Fisher took place. No matter which time of year you visit Fort Fisher, be sure to keep an eye out for phantoms of the past!
Another famous Fort Fisher legend was “The Fort Fisher Hermit“. In 1955, at the age of 62, Robert Harrilldecided to become a “hermit” after a failed marriage and a string of unsuccessful and unsatisfying jobs. He hitchhiked to Fort Fisher and set up a humble home in an abandoned World War II era bunker along a salt marsh near the Cape Fear River. He lived there for 17 years. Curiously, Harrill “The Hermit” became the second greatest tourist attraction in the state of North Carolina, trailing only the USS North Carolina Battleship in number of visitors.
Visitors to Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, Fort Fisher and Southport would seek out the man living in the salt marshes, some out of curiosity, others because they were attracted to his words of wisdom. Journalists flocked to his bunker to report on his lifestyle and beliefs. In the New Hanover Sun in 1968, Harrill explained his popularity: “Everybody ought to be a hermit for a few minutes to an hour or so every 24 hours, to study, meditate, and commune with their creator…millions of people want to do just what I’m doing, but since it is much easier thought of than done, they subconsciously elect me to represent them, that’s why I’m successful…”
Unlike true hermits, who prefer a life of seclusion, Robert Harrill warmly greeted as many visitors as possible and agreed to pose with them in pictures for a small fee. He saw each visitor as an opportunity to spread his “common sense” philosophy, and to explain how, after a life of strife and diversity, he had finally achieved peace and happiness by living with nature. The Hermit kept a guest registry, a notebook held down by sea shells, which recorded more than 100,000 visitors from all fifty states and at least 20 foreign countries. Visitors also provided the Fort Fisher Hermit with monetary donations that were placed in a frying pan he left out for just such a purpose.
The Fort Fisher Hermit died in June 1972, but his legacy lives on through the efforts of The Hermit Society, which has members in numerous states. Books have been written about The Hermit and his bunker, which is still standing. It can be reached from the Fort Fisher Hermit Trail at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. An award-winning film, The Fort Fisher Hermit, also tells the story of Robert Harrill.
The romantic grove of wind-swept live oak trees have made Fort Fisher a favorite spot for outdoor weddings. Whether it’s a modern beach-themed wedding or the exchange of vows by Civil War re-enactors in period dress, chances are good that you’ll spot a bride and groom posing for photos under the shade of the centuries-old trees that make up the Maritime Forest of Fort Fisher. The nearby NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a popular reception venue for wedding guests, but it is also a favorite destination of both locals and tourists who spend time in Carolina Beach or Kure Beach.
Just down the road from historic Fort Fisher, you’ll find the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The state’s largest aquarium, it offers many dramatic exhibits including a huge shark tank and a half-acre freshwater conservatory. Renovated in 2002, the facility continues to add new exhibits, programs and activities. There are daily live animal presentations, regular feedings, and Q&A sessions with divers in a large ocean tank. More than 2,500 animals are on display, including: sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, moray eels, seahorses, sea turtles and colorful reef creatures. The star attraction, however, is Luna, the rare albino alligator who lives a re-created natural environment complete with rock cliffs, trees, waterfalls and fog. Kids will enjoy the touch pool where they can touch horseshoe crabs and even stingrays! Outdoor exhibits feature waterfowl, turtles, and birds.
The NC Aquarium sometimes conducts Behind the Scenes tours where you can accompany aquarium staff on a guided tour of animal quarantine, life support, food preparation, and special access areas. Pre-registration is required and closed-toe shoes are mandatory for this insiders’ tour.
After a visit to the NC Aquarium, you can drive right onto the Fort Fisher–Southport Ferry. This enjoyable 20-minute ferry ride carries cars and their passengers to and from the quaint fishing village of Southport, NC with a bustling historic Main Street that looks as if it emerged from a Norman Rockwell painting. The ferry costs just $5 each way, and crosses the point where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean, providing some of the best views of the area’s waterways. Across the road from the ferry terminal, there is a public boat launch area, a popular spot for starting out on a windsurfing, parasailing, kite boarding, kayaking or fishing adventure.
Whether you go to Fort Fisher for the history, the marine life, the breathtaking seascape, or just an afternoon of fun in the sun, we know you’ll come back for a relaxing evening at The Golden Sands Motel with a great new story to tell.