Locals joked that the initials WB&S stood for “willpower, but slow”.
In the early 1900s, the Wilmington, Brunswick & Southern sent two trains a day between Port City and Southport, swerving to stops in Bolivia and other Brunswick County junctions.
The WB&S was what rail aficionados called a “cracker barrel” line: a small independent spur connected to the mighty Atlantic Coast line.
You can’t say it “passed” between Southport and Wilmington. Trains rarely exceeded 15 or 20 miles per hour, and the 30-mile journey usually took two hours or more.
Engines and wagons were generally used and obsolete. An apocryphal story claims that during World War I, a crowd of soldiers from Fort Caswell crowded aboard to enjoy a furlough in Wilmington. The train was so loaded that the small engine had difficulty producing steam to start. The soldiers had to jump out, set the train in motion, and then get back on board.
Today, Mark W. Koenig, former director of the Wilmington Railroad Museum, recounts this forgotten chapter of local railroad history. His “Wilmington, Brunswick & Southern Railroad” offers a fascinating insight into when fewer people lived in Brunswick County than in Leland today.
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There had been talk of a railroad line to the mouth of the Cape Fear River as early as the 1850s. leaders of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad) made elaborate plans for a line from the Appalachian coal mines directly to Southport. It was thought that the small fishing village would become an important coaling station for commercial shipping on the east coast. (This was apparently one of the reasons the town changed its name from “Smithville” to “Southport” in 1887.)
These plans failed, however, in part because the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line jealously guarded their territory. When the WB&S finally began operations in 1907, it was a much smaller affair, shipping lumber, processed seafood, and agricultural produce, as well as passengers.
It was a short race. In the 1920s, as North Carolina launched its “Good Roads” program, the small railroad began to lose customers to automobile traffic. The Great Depression didn’t help. By the mid-1930s, the “railway” operated primarily as a bus line, carrying mail and a few passengers.
The last rolling stock, rights of way and other valuables were sold off during World War II, and by 1945 the line was officially defunct.
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This was not the end of branch lines in Brunswick County. As Koenig notes, the Army Corps of Engineers quickly constructed a lateral line to the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point. This line remains busy to this day.
“The Wilmington, Brunswick & Southern” offers a great tour of underdeveloped Brunswick County and half-forgotten communities such as “El Paso”. To avoid swamps and sinkholes, builders generally followed the line of the Wilmington-Georgetown Colonial Highway, which President George Washington had followed on his famous southern tour.
Koenig does an excellent job of tracing the route of the WB&S as it is today, highlighting the few surviving traces of the line.
“The Wilmington, Brunswick and Southern” will appeal to train enthusiasts and anyone intrigued by Brunswick County’s past.
‘THE WILMINGTON, BRUNSWICK & SOUTHERN RAILROAD’
By Mark W. Koenig
Charleston, SC: The History Press, paperback $21.99