Cape Fear Memorial Bridge

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is a fixture within the Wilmington community.  Since 1969, it has been one of the growing city's key transportation links.  Considered an iconic piece of Wilmington, the Memorial Bridge opened as a solution to a traffic problem. However, it soon was overwhelmed as new residents and businesses flocked to the coastal city.

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge at Sunset (Joe Babyak - 2010)

The Memorial Bridge was built as a modern alternative to a pair of bridges that sat to the North.  The two bridges opened in 1929 - and were located where the Isabel Holmes Drawbridge sits today.  The Isabel Holmes Bridge replaced the drawbridge over the Northeast Cape Fear River when it opened in January 1980.

During the 1950s, Wilmington's civic leaders began expressing concern about the twin bridges. By the early 1960s, studies looked at different locations for bridge crossings, including a tunnel under the Cape Fear River. (1)  Finally, in late 1963, a bridge crossing the main river channel south of downtown tying in with South 3rd Street at Wooster and Dawson Streets was agreed upon. (2)

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is a center-span vertical-lift bridge. (Adam Prine - 2009)

Construction of the bridge would begin in December 1965.  The new Cape Fear Bridge would be entirely new to North Carolina, a center-span vertical-lift bridge.  The bridge's main span would rise 65 feet over the Cape Fear River.  The center span, a length of 408 feet, would lift an additional 70 feet (to 135' total) allowing for larger ships to sail under.  The total bridge length is 3,033 feet and was built for $16 million. (2) It was then the costliest bridge project in our state's history.

Construction went on for nearly four years.  Originally scheduled to open in June 1969, weather and other associated construction issues delayed opening until October 20, 1969.

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (Adam Prince - 2009).

The bridge opened to great fanfare.  In addition to the new bridge, a new causeway over Eagle Island and southwards to Belville and Leland opened.  Traffic along US 17, 74, 76, and 421 could now enter or leave Wilmington at higher speeds and greater capacity.

It wasn't long after that Wilmington's continued growth would bring back the traffic strain that the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was built to alleviate.  During the 1980s, an Interstate 40 extension would be built and eventually completed from Raleigh to Wilmington.  Though this new highway entered Wilmington from the North and not near the bridge, the new Interstate allowed for less time-consuming access to the beaches around Wilmington and improved commerce access to the Port of Wilmington.

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge at night (Joe Babyak - 2008).

Throughout the 1980s, the bridge faced problems with the center span not returning into position after lifting, causing temporary closures.  Parts of the bridge fell off during the 1990s. Since then, many repair and rehabilitation projects have occurred to keep the bridge operable and safe. (2)

Wilmington's population has grown significantly since 1969.  From a population of just over 46,000 in 1970, to over 75,000 in 2000, to over an estimated 115,000 today, the city and surrounding areas have seen a large influx of residents.  

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (Adam Prince - 2009). 

Although a new bypass of Wilmington (I-140 and US 17) was completed in 2017 - allowing for Brunswick County Beach traffic to completely bypass Wilmington and the bridge - traffic crossing the Cape Fear Bridge has continued to increase.  The average daily traffic count crossing the bridge was over 66,000 in 2019 - up from 53,000 vehicles just three years earlier. (2)

Because of the growth of Wilmington and nearby Brunswick County, there have been a series of proposals to alleviate or full-out replace the Memorial Bridge.  During the late 2000s and early 2010s, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority proposed an approximately 10-mile toll road called the Cape Fear Skyway.  This toll road would have run to the South of the existing Cape Fear Memorial Bridge connecting the Port of Wilmington to US 74/76 in Leland.  The cost of the entire project was to be over $1 billion.  Concerns about the project being a toll road and other funding issues killed this project in the mid-2010s.

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (Joe Babyak - 2012).

Since then, with concerns about the Memorial Bridge's viability growing, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has continued to study alternatives to replace or bypass the bridge.  In 2019, NCDOT presented five routing alternatives in a Draft Environmental Impact Study.  All five routes would run the highway a few miles south of the bridge and link directly into Shipyard Boulevard at the Port of Wilmington.   The proposals ranged from $850 million to $991 million. (3)

Two years later, NCDOT began offering an unsolicited proposal that would build a replacement bridge directly next to the bridge to its south.  The solicitation included four different bridge designs - varying in heights, styles, and additional amenities (like bike and pedestrian facilities). Costs were lower, anywhere between $200 million and $608 million, depending on the option. (4)

The full length of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (Joe Babyak - 2007)

Currently, there is debate on the funding mechanism for either proposal.  Tolling is again an option - but that has received pushback from Wilmington and Brunswick County officials.  However, Wilmington leaders have recently opened up to a tolling option asking NCDOT to study all funding options.

While the various discussions are ongoing, concerns about the Memorial Bridge's ability to handle traffic and be operable continue to grow.  The bridge - which is the lifeblood of the Wilmington community - cannot become a severed artery.

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  • January 30, 2024 - corrected information about the 1929 'Twin Bridges' over the Northwest and Northeast Cape Fear River - and the Isabel Holmes Bridge.


Howard Crist said…
Why was it named the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge? In memory of anything in particular?

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