|by Susan Taylor Block
From 1800 until 1884, the properties known today as Bradley Creek Point, much of Airlie Gardens, and beyond, were known as Mount Lebanon, the estate created by Judge Joshua Grainger Wright and his wife, Susan Bradley. The waters surrounding the breezy 300-acre estate sprouted sailboat races as early as 1853, but were golden with yachts from the 1880s until 1919, when legendary rice merchant Pembroke Jones, with the help of his friend Henry Walters, infused energy, enthusiasm, and national yachting connections into the little world of Wrightsville Sound. Though Sunday regattas were taboo in those days, it was difficult to keep thoughts of sailing at bay even within the hallowed walls of Mount Lebanon Chapel.
During the 1850s and 1860s, The Banks, as Wrightsville Beach was known, began to draw day visitors who wished to swim, crab, fish or simply sight-see. There was no bridge or trestle, so watercraft offered the only transportation to view the beauty and drama of theAtlantic Ocean. The journey from Mount Lebanon to view the ocean breakers was simple until at least 1858 because Deep Inlet, located near the present site of the Carolina Yacht Club, provided easy access. The inlet fed into Bradley’s Creek. Waves breaking on the shore created an audio backdrop, both outdoors and indoors, that ranged from enchanting lull to frightening roar. The worst effects were probably suffered in the September Storm of 1856, when it was reported that large waves broke one-half mile inland.
The waterfront banks of Mount Lebanon and the Wrightsville Turnpike (Airlie Road) served as a second beach for those who couldn’t arrange transportation over to The Banks. The open inlet added to the allure and the fishing. In later years, natives would refer to the shore line along Airlie Road as the “old beach.”
Like today, sailing vessels of this period required continuous maintenance and repair. During the 19th century, African-Americans did much of this work. Blacks also sailed with their owners or employers on most occasions. However, despite requests by some of the boat owners, non-whites were barred from accompanying their skippers during regattas.
Dr. Thomas Henry Wright, owner of Mount Lebanon, and his brother William, who owned Gabriel’s Landing, enjoyed recreational sailing probably as early as the 1830s. Wright owned the Rob Roy, a yacht named after the Scottish tales of Sir Walter Scott; Wright’s wife Mary Allan was from Scotland. William Wright, a corporate lawyer who lived on the north side of the Airlie Road curve, owned the Twilight and Qui Vive.
The Wright brothers’ nephew, Richard Bradley III, was a sailor, too. He owned two yachts that became Wrightsville legends: La Favorite, and The Princess. The Princess, built by a New York boat builder interestingly named Bob Fish, cost a whopping $700. The Princess was said to be shaped like an old pressing iron, with a bowsprit that hung 12 feet over the water.
Bradley, the first commodore of the Carolina Yacht Club, lived just east of the Bradley’s Creek Bridge. The Carolina Yacht Club, organized in 1853, gave structure to what happened naturally, when sailing vessels manned by stout-hearted men converged: extreme racing. The seven co-founders of the club were Bradley, Daniel Baker, Talcott Burr, T. M. Gardner, Richard J. Jones, Parker Quince and John Reston.
The Civil War changed local yachting. Many well-traveled, well-schooled young Wrightsville residents went away to fight for a cause over which some had misgivings. A large number of the sound’s early sailors, including members of the Wright, Latimer, Savage and Kidder families, had deep roots in New England. Despite some inner conflicts, nearly every recreational watercraft at Wrightsville was sacrificed to the Confederate Navy.
The Giles and Kidder families were close friends and, before the war, frequently appeared together on regatta rosters. During the war, Clayton Giles, while stationed at Proctor, N. C., ended a letter to his mother, Almeria Reston Giles at Wrightsville by asking about his old friends:
Our pay has been cut down again from $2.00 to .25 cents a day. The Governor is getting stingier than ever. Do you see anything of the Kidders? Very affectionately, Clayton
(P. S.) Wish you were here to dine with me — Bill of fare: Breads, Corn Bread, meats: Bacon, Raw — 2 slices, River Water.”
When the war ended in 1865 the sailing families of Wrightsville grieved over lost family members and neighbors. Added to the incalculable human loss was a substantial economic slide, caused primarily by the failure of the Bank of Cape Fear, the Wright family’s largest holding. Many Wrightsville residents found themselves treading financial waters, and just barely keeping afloat.
By 1873, racing was back. In that year the yacht club updated its records and redefined itself by officially naming its two favorite “places of business.” The first spot, literally the waters of Mount Lebanon, was “the banks of Wrightsville Sound just east of the mouth of Bradley’s Creek.” The second spot, a reminder of Wrightsville’s perpetual link to downtown Wilmington, was the Cape Fear River between Market Street and the Dram Tree, just west ofGreenfield Lake. At the time, the Dram Tree still stood in its entire gnarly splendor as the historic gateway to Brunswick and New Hanover County harbors, as sailors toasted their arrival and departure with a dram of spirits as they passed the ancient cypress.
In the 1870s, Pembroke Jones Jr., (1858-1919) was already an avid sailor. His interest came honestly: His father, Capt. John Pembroke Jones, was a graduate of the Naval Academy and a captain both in the U. S. Navy and the Confederate Navy. In a dizzying example of old Wilmington’s famed “cousinhood,” Capt. Jones’ best Wilmington friend was Capt. John Newland Maffitt, whose daughter Florie was the mother of Thomas Henry Wright (the grandson of the Thomas Henry Wright who built Mount Lebanon Chapel), who was Pembroke Jr.’s best friend.
Pembroke Jones’ childhood home was located at 200 North Front St., but he grew up spending a lot of time on Wrightsville Sound. A great-great-grandson of Elizabeth and Richard Bradley, he had numerous relatives who lived both at Mount Lebanon and surrounding properties. In 1878, at the age of 19, he crewed on the White Swan, a 28-foot yacht with 12-foot oars, but, more often, he was aboard Norwood Giles’ boat, Ripple.
Giles, a young businessman who grew up on Bradley’s Creek, was a Civil War veteran who partnered with young Jones to form Carolina Rice Mills, a rice-processing business that sat near the foot of Chestnut Street, and had an office in New York, as well. The Ripple arrived from New York in 1875. It was 18-1/2 feet long and 8-1/2 feet wide, and for a time, it ruled the local waters. Subsequent boats would be named Ripple, but none came close to the string of racing victories the original craft compiled. Giles also owned Pirate and Benefactor. Other members of the Giles family enjoyed sailing, too. Remnants of the old “Giles fleet” sat moored on Bradley’s Creek as late as 1930.
Richard Bradley built the old Giles house, “Edge Hill,” in 1812. Though restructured, it still stands today, overlooking Bradley Creek. Long time residents Judge James Fox and wife Kate, a descendant of Richard Bradley, fit perfectly into the sailing traditions of old Wrightsville Sound.
Elegant prizes were awarded to the winners in the golden days of Wrightsville Sound regattas. For instance, William Latimer, another summer resident of Wrightsville, donated a silver ice pitcher to the winner of the 1887 Fourth of July regatta. Pembroke Jones awarded handsome flags to winners. Later, Jones and Henry Walters would give elaborate silver trophies to those who placed first in Carolina Yacht Club races. Jane Pope Akers Ridgway, Jones’ only surviving grandchild, donated several of these trophies to the Carolina Yacht Club, where they are now on permanent display.
Through ties of seasonal Mount Lebanon residents Pembroke Jones, Sarah Jones and Henry Walters, Wrightsville Sound had connections to other grander yachts, daunting in size. When in New York, Jones and Walters competed in New York Yacht Club regattas with some of the sleekest yachts in N.Y. competition. Both men served as commodores of the club, and Walters was a life member. Henry Walters headed sydicates that built two yachts to compete in the America’s Cup races. The Resolute won three straight races, but the Weetamoe, cosponsored by Cornelius Vanderbilt, lost.
Other remarkable vessels became dinner talk at the sound. William Vanderbilt, a frequent visitor to Airlie, often arrived in Southport aboardTarantula, a torpedo-style boat built by the British Navy. Standard Oil mogul Henry Flagler treated Walters and the Joneses to voyages aboard his yacht, Alicia. In time, Flagler married Mrs. Jones’ best friend, Mary Lily Kenan, whom he met at Airlie. Henry Walters himself owned Narada, a 224-foot ocean-going yacht that carried a crew of 32 men. Mr. Walters also hosted the Flaglers, as well as numbers of the Jones’ other close North Carolina friends, but guests often took a train to New York to board the yacht.
During the summer of 1903, Walters and the Joneses moored near ships occupied by King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Sarah Jones, who boasted that she hired florist Rudolph Topel away from the Kaiser may well have met Topel that summer. Eventually, Topel effected the original Airlie landscape plan that was conceived by Sarah Jones.
The Narada‘s most elegant days were over by the onset of World War I, when Walters turned the yacht over to the U. S. Navy. After the war, the Narada was returned, but Walters’ big yachting days were over by that time.
The Murchison and Sprunt families joined the few others who split their time between sailing in Wrightsville Sound and more northern waters. The Murchison’s owned a compound of cottages at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where they sometimes raced with Jones and Walters, who lived in Newport several months every year. Descendants of Col. Kenneth M. Murchison, including daughter Luola, who married James Sprunt, of Wilmington and Orton Plantation, each owned a vacation home there. Unfortunately, fire destroyed most of the cottages.
Today only paper trails and sterling trophies bear witness to the golden sailing days of Wrightsville Sound. But when you visit the Bradley Creek Overlook at Airlie, look out on the glistening waters of old Mount Lebanon and remember that there was a time when the jaunty sailors of Wilmington could hold their own with just about anyone. *****
A Short List of Early Yachts that Raced in the Waters of Mount Lebanon:
Ripple, Norwood Giles; Carolina, Solomon Morse; Princess, Richard Bradley; Eleanor, John and William Giles; Flying Cloud, Daniel Baker; Vixen, Pembroke Jones; Nina, Edward Hall; Mabel, Edwin A. Metts; Pegotty, Fred Kidder; Vashti, R. H. Grant; Question, Julia Parsley; Carolina, Edward Kidder; Bumble Bee, Henry MacMillan; Rosa, J. M. Cazaux; Little Girl, T. N. Gautier; Young American, C. D. Ellis; Clarendon, Fred Kidder; Bubble, R. B. Cameron;, Dew Drop, Alexander MacRae; Saucy Jack, Richard Bradley; Atlanta, Clayton and Norwood Giles; Sand Crab, C. C. Morse; Jennie Q., Parker Quince; Flying Cloud, Daniel Baker; Eliza Ann, Henry Bradley; Caty-Did, Charles Burr; Fool Who, G. Lippitt; Spray, Edward Latimer; Git Thar, Donald MacRae; Puzzle, Edwin A. Metts.
Records of the Carolina Yacht Club, Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. “A History of the Carolina Yacht Club,” by Louis T. Moore. Carolina Yacht Club Chronicles, by Anne Russell. Perkins Library, Duke University. “Portraits of Members of the Class of 1854, University of North Carolina.” North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Historical Collection, UNC, Jane Pope Akers Ridgway, William R. Johnston, curator of the Walters Art Gallery, Lewis Philip Hall, and Eugene Hicks.