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North Carolina Room

Special Collections, State & Local history and Archives of NHCPL

From the Collection, November 8, 2022: 1898

Many new residents who move to Wilmington and New Hanover County read some of the histories of the coup d’état of November 1898. I am one of those new residents and have read several of the books and listened to the extraordinary podcast series that Hunter Ingram hosted on the Cape Fear Unearthed Podcast in 2020.

Unearthing 1898, Part 1: The Campaign 

Unearthing 1898, Part 2: The Massacre

Unearthing 1898, Part 3: The Aftermath

Podcasts and books are wonderful secondary sources. However, there is nothing like seeing the actual artifacts and historical documents in person. The New Hanover County Public Library Local History Room houses a number of significant resources to assist people who want to research their new hometown. Sometimes I come across items that have a visceral impact while helping these patrons.

For example, I have seen the 1898 newspapers on both microfilm and through, but it wasn’t until I held an original copy of The Wilmington Messenger that I noticed the bright red rooster front and center with the article outlining the coup from the Democrats’ perspective. Roosters were used in early papers to symbolize winning and victory. They were typically printed alongside articles about the winners of an election. The Democrats were literally crowing about the coup as if it were something to boast about. The library is fortunate to be able to share this paper with people who want to learn more.

Another item we hold is the microfilm of the hand-written minutes for the Board of Alderman meetings in Wilmington. The State Archives of North Carolina microfilmed these minutes in 1961. One meeting was noted at 12:50 pm on November 10, 1898, two days after the election. The Board of Aldermen met to put forth a continuation of the ban on sales of alcoholic beverages until November 14th. The emergency ordinance was signed by the Clerk to the Board, William Struthers. This ordinance is a very normal part of municipal and county business in an emergency. The New Hanover County ABC Board closed the county ABC stores early for Hurricane Ian.

The next page came as one of those moments I mentioned above in research. The very mundane alcohol ban was immediately followed by an oath of office and multiple signatures of Democrat participants of the coup, including that of Mayor Arthur Waddell. The next two pages are the official minutes of the meeting of the Board of Aldermen from 4:00 pm on November 10th with the resignations of existing Republican board members and the nominations of their unelected replacements. The minutes are again signed by clerk William Struthers as if all was normal.

These images are called primary sources. And to be honest, sometimes primary sources are like a punch to the gut.  As Victor Hugo wrote in The Man Who Laughs (1869): What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.

From the Collection October 5, 2022Topsy the Elephant at 100 

100 years ago this week, Wilmington experienced an over-the top event. In October 1922, an escaped circus elephant went crazy in downtown Wilmington and captured the attention of a nation. It’s time to commemorate the tale of Topsy the elephant, a story that made national news and appeared in almost every newspaper in North Carolina. But let’s start with a different kind of circus than the one Topsy was used to: the national news. Here’s an article printed in the New York Times about Topsy:

New York Times. October 11, 1922, page 19 column 3.

(By the way, the full archive of the New York Times is available to New Hanover County Public Library patrons through an online subscription. Have your library card handy, then click on and select Access New York Times – In Library or Access New York Times – Off Library.)

It appears that both the United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP) also picked up the story of the wayward pachyderm. Some of these articles were what was known as “wire stories,” which were stories that were forwarded from one paper to another. Sometimes, journalists would add a few details to the original text, or rewrite it entirely. For example, the Kinston Daily Free Press is the only paper that mentions Topsy consuming “62 pounds of peanuts.”

Daily Free Press. October 12, 1922, page 1 column 4. UPI.

Other North Carolina papers reported Topsy being chased by dogs, being shot at, eating collards, wearing a chicken coop and swimming to Brunswick County. Interestingly, her Wilmington rampage was not Topsy’s first jailbreak according to a Winston-Salem paper:

The Winston-Salem Journal. October 12, 1922, page 6 column 4 (AP). is another treasure-trove for Topsy news in North Carolina. There were several dozen stories about the trials, travels and travails of Topsy in This article had the best headline of the bunch:

Fayetteville Journal. October 11, 1922, page 1 column 1.

Finally, my Topsy research reminded me that digital searches still have room for improvement. This article is an example of just that.  The word “topsy” appears, but in the context of 17 escaped turkeys with a sweet tooth. However, while not pachyderm-related, the article is still pretty darn funny.

Wilmington Morning Star. November 24, 1922, page 2 column 6.


From the Collection September 8, 2022: The Room of Requirement

A public library is certainly a Room of Requirement. There’s a good chance that if you need something – you can find it here. Within that Room of Requirement is the Room of Hidden Things – which in the case of the New Hanover County Public Library is the Local History Room. I’m rather new to this community and the position of Local History Librarian, and what I’d like to do with this blog is bring forth some of the Hidden Things from our collection. Each day I get to learn something new and see amazing items. The folks who created, developed and maintained the Local History Collection prior to my coming on board need to be recognized for their foresight in creating such an extraordinary collection.

Just a tiny bit about me: I’m Jennifer, your friendly neighborhood librarian. My mother was also a librarian, and I volunteered in her library a long time ago. I learned a tremendous amount about how libraries and research work from the tiny library where my mother worked.  I spent seven years as a professional researcher for nonfiction authors prior to the invention of the internet.  I was fortunate to be hired by Randy Shilts, the author of the most important book about the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, to work as a research assistant on his final book on the history of gays and lesbians in the US military. This information was nearly impossible to find, and I developed research skills that allowed me to see between the lines of history. Shilts’ book created, impacted and changed history. One thing I discovered in working as a research professional is that barriers were put up over the years in America to keep people from freely accessing special collections and academic libraries. I’m hoping to do my part to remove the walls that keep information from being freely shared and make more of our collection at NHCPL accessible to the public.

But now for the fun stuff! I was going through one of our many postcard collections and came across this card:


Then I looked at the back and saw this cute fella:


Of course, I had to find out as much as I could about this floating restaurant of yesteryear. Fergus’ Ark Seafood Restaurant opened in 1952 on a repurposed boat that was built in Wilmington in 1922. She served as a transport ship for the Army at first. She then had a career as a banana boat, a gambling boat in Florida and then was used as a Quarter Boat during WWII for the Coast Guard back in Wilmington. The US Maritime Commission used her as a temporary office. Eldridge Fergus purchased the boat in September 1951, refurbished her and she became a floating restaurant at the foot of Princess Street. In 1965, Fergus’ Ark left Wilmington for the warmer waters of Tampa Bay, but Mr. Fergus opened a landlocked restaurant on Market Street in 1966.



From the Collection May 2019: North Carolina and the 19th Amendment

The idea of extending the right to vote to women had been a hotly debated topic for many decades, going back even as far as the 1840's. In January 1918, the United States Congress took up the constitutional amendment led by Susan B. Anthony that would allow for women's suffrage. With the support of President Woodrow Wilson, the measure passed both houses of Congress. However, the approval of three-quarters of all state governments was still required to ratify the amendment before it could become the law of the land.

Led by Governor Thomas Walker Bickett, political leadership in North Carolina favored non-ratification. In the book Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South (2017), author Leonard Rogoff writes that political leaders believed that extending suffrage to women would “lead to socialism, trample on states’ rights, and return the state to black rule” (p. 116). Not all politicians were so opposed. The amendment had the backing of Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer, as well as Lt. Governor Oliver Max Gardner. Even former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan came to the Old North State to lobby in support of ratification.

The debate came to a head in August of 1920 when both North Carolina and Tennessee became the focus of ratification talks. If either one of the states voted to accept the amendment, the amendment would have the necessary three-quarters majority. 63 North Carolina legislators wrote their Tennessee counterparts to urge them to reject the amendment.

While North Carolina legislators hemmed and hawed, the Tennessee state government ultimately cast the deciding vote on August 18, 1920 that granted women suffrage nationwide. Three days later, the editorial seen here appeared in the Wilmington Morning Star discussing the writer’s displeasure (likely Josephus Daniels) at the results of the North Carolina House vote.

Although the constitutional amendment had already passed many years earlier, the North Carolina General Assembly symbolically ratified the 19th Amendment on May 6, 1971.

January 2019 From the Collection: Road Trip!

Deciding where Interstate 40 would end was no small feat.  Between 1969 and 1978, a large debate among residents of eastern North Carolina took place as to which municipality, Morehead City or Wilmington, would serve as the eastern terminus for the interstate highway that would stretch across the width of the United States.  Ultimately, the North Carolina Department of Transportation approved a route between Raleigh and Wilmington.  The route did come with a stipulation; that is, that the new freeway had to run parallel to US Highway 117.  This was in contrast to suggestions that US Highway 421 be upgraded to handle increased traffic.  In 1986, I-40 was extended east to Exit 420 in the Port City.  In a ribbon-cutting ceremony on 29 June 1990, Governor James G. Martin opened Interstate 40 between Raleigh and Wilmington allowing I-40 to be connected with the rest of North Carolina and the rest of the United States. 

Shortly after opening the new highway, the sign seen here was erected near mile marker # 418 stating the distance to the western terminus at Barstow, CA some 2,554 miles away.  The completion of I-40 to Wilmington made I-40 the third longest interstate in the United States behind I-90 (3,085 miles) and I-80 (2,906 miles).  In comparison, the longest highway in the world is the Pan-American Highway, covering over 19,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska at the tip of North America to Ushuaia, Argentina at the tip of South America.

The sign’s high visibility proved to be its downfall.  The sign was stolen four times, each time replaced by the NCDOT.  After being stolen for a fifth time, an exasperated NCDOT stated in November 2009 that the Wilmington icon would not be replaced.  A similar sign in Barstow, CA noting the distance to Wilmington has also dealt with issues of theft and replacement.

December 2018 From the Collection: Train Robbery!

When most people think of train robberies, their first inclination is to think of a scene out of the 1870s or 1880s as bandits or outlaws with bandanas over their faces use their six-shooters to steal money, gold, and the valuables of passengers on the train.  Although certainly not the first train robbery, the infamous 21 July 1873 James-Younger Gang’s holdup near Adair, Iowa set the stage for all train robberies that followed, remaining an indelible piece of American history.  In a famous scene recreated for the silver screen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Paul Newman and Robert Redford, as the titular leads, blow up the baggage car of the Union Pacific Overland Flyer.

Although outlaws are often thought of as living only in the 19th century, some of the most famous train robberies actually occurred in the 20th century.  In fact, the actual destruction of the Flyer’s car mentioned above occurred a mere 6 months before the turn of the century.  In 1963, a 15-man gang in England made off with £2.6 million (equivalent to $65.3 million today), in what was dubbed the Great Train Robbery.

And outlaws were still robbing trains in the United States well into the 20th century too.  The newspaper clipping seen here details the larceny of an Atlantic Coast Line rail car in December 1911, well after the Wild Bunch had seared itself into legend.  The Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road, or ACLRR for short, made Wilmington its home from 1900-1960.  During its early years, the majority of the line’s freight was seasonal farm products.  Most passengers travelling the line came from the Northeast and Midwest to destinations in Florida.  At its height, the railroad maintained over 5100 miles of track.  In 1960, the railroad’s new headquarters building opened in Jacksonville, FL.  The move was short-lived as ACLRR merged with Seaboard Air Line Railroad in 1967.

Although the robbers in the case of the 1911 event seen here got away, the locomotive that they had targeted was largely carrying mail rather than valuables.  It is also interesting to note that the posse sent out after the bandits was likely on horseback, just like a posse that one might think of when imagining the Old West.

August 2018 From the Collection: Wilmington and Charles Lindbergh

This July 1927 newsletter entitled “Forest Hills” is little more than a prospectus advertising the layout of homes in the then new suburban environ of Forest Hills.  The city of Wilmington itself has long since encompassed the Forest Hills district.  What is striking about this newsletter is the notation of the recent accomplishment of Charles Lindbergh, who had just a month earlier become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean as well as the first person to fly non-stop between North America and the European mainland.  Previous attempts had ended in failure, disappearance, and even death of other fliers.

For his daring feat, Lindbergh won the coveted Orteig Prize and its $25,000 reward ($373,000 in 2017), not mention a hero’s welcome in France upon landing outside of Paris.  When he arrived back in the United States in June 1927 he was feted and treated to a ticker tape parade on June 13.  This advertisement attempts to use Lindbergh’s fame by engendering the feelings of pride and accomplishment by encouraging Wilmingtonians to achieve the American Dream of owning their own home.

From the Collection July 2018: The Story of the S.S. Charles C. Pinckney


SS Charles C. Pinckney slides into Cape Fear RiverSS Charles C. Pinckney in the Cape Fear River guided by tugboats

Images from the North Carolina Room Photograph Collection

Named after the prominent South Carolina governor and signer of the Consitution, the SS Charles C. Pinckney was the 10th of the 243 liberty ships to have been assembled and launched by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington during World War II.  The ship was sponsored by Miss Margaret McMahon, a daughter of one of the shipyard’s company officials.  At the launch of the ship, then 14-year old Wilmingtonian Katherine Rhett was the official ship’s “maid of honor.”  During the war, the shipyard became the largest employer in the entire state with over 20,000 black and white workers running three shifts 24 hours a day.


Nine months after its launch, the Pinckney was to experience a great tragedy.  The Pinckney left New York on 5 January 1943 under the command of Captain Frank Theoron Woolverton, Jr. as part of convoy UGS-4 carrying war material to support the Allied offensive in North Africa.  Experiencing heavy weather, the ship began to straggle from the convoy.  On 27 January 1943, the German submarine U-514 located the ship and shot three torpedoes, one of which hit the ship causing an explosion of the ordnance in the cargo hold and destroying the bow.  Most of the crew abandoned ship in four lifeboats and a raft.  A contingent of the gun crew stayed aboard and later fired at the German U-Boat when it surfaced just 200 yards away.  Reboarding the stricken vessel, it was determined that the ship was too badly damaged to produce propulsion.  The submarine fired two more salvos of torpedoes, with the second hitting the Pinckney just after midnight on 8 January and caused the crew to abandon the ship for a second time.  U-514 surfaced once more and questioned the crew, but offered no assistance.


Although the four lifeboats tried to stay together, they became separated in the heavy seas later that night.  After 11 days adrift, the second mate, four men, and nine armed guards were found by the Swiss freighter Caritas I and taken safely to the Azores Islands.  No trace of the three other lifeboats or the 56 men in them was ever found.  Captain Woolverton was among the lost.

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