Battleship North Carolina Study in Effective Tourism

Article excerpt

WILMINGTON, N.C. _ As an incurable tourist and history buff, I thought I had seen every kind of major attraction thought up by promoters in this country.

I have been awed by man-made structures from the Statue of Liberty to the Golden Gate, and by natural wonders from the Redwood Forest and Yellowstone to the Everglades. I've seen tourist traps like Deadwood, S.D., and Dodge City, and I've fallen in love with historic sites and museums all over Oklahoma.

The Battleship North Carolina, however, permanently settled in the 253-year-old port of Wilmington, N.C., near the Atlantic Ocean, is something else again. It's far more than just a tour.

It's an experience for anyone who ever dreamed of what it was like to go to sea, anyone who read about historic naval battles, anyone who ever wondered how great warships actually worked those big guns, or anyone who ever sailed on a tiny boat. For those brave men who actually fought at sea, it must bring back a combination of grim memories and pride.

More important, it symbolizes what a state and a community can do to build on its history, resources, accomplishments and pride to attract visitors from all over the nation. We have no seaports or battleships in Oklahoma, but we have a rich history in our Native American and pioneer heritage, and we have a remarkable modern history in aviation and space.

If we invest as much of ourselves as North Carolina citizens did in a battleship that happened to carry its name, our potential is almost beyond limits.

The Battleship North Carolina is a $2 million industry all by itself across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington. It attracts 250,000 tourists a year at $5 each for $1.25 million, and it attracts another $750,000 in gift sales, events and investments by a community organization called the Friends of the Battleship.

It was a landmark warship of World War II as the first new battleship since the 1920s, and it pioneered anti-aircraft defense of aircraft carriers in 1942. The leader of that air defense was none other than Oklahoma City's John E. Kirkpatrick, who later built Kirkpatrick Oil Co., the Kirkpatrick Center, and led an almost endless number of civic and philanthropic projects.

Tours of the battleship take visitors to its depths. Volunteers such as Paul Wieser, who served under Kirkpatrick, explain how the mighty 16-inch guns are operated starting several levels below the turrets, how the seamen lived and maintained the ship, and how they fought enemy aircraft with 5-inch guns, 40-millimeter guns and 20-millimeter guns.

Now, the battleship is the hub of a remarkable effort to preserve Wilmington as an historic coastal city, though it is little known this side of North Carolina.

Wilmington has long been overshadowed by its historic neighbors to the north such as Washington, D.C., Williamsburg and Civil War battlegrounds, but it is coming into its own, thanks to the battleship. The region was first explored by Verrazano for France in 1524, just 32 years after Columbus first arrived in America.

Nearby Brunswick Town was permanently settled in 1725, and Wilmington followed in 1739. The Cape Fear Valley was developed by the English, who needed turpentine, rosin, tar and pitch from the pine forest to build ships. Wilmington was occupied by the British during the American Revolution, and it began to grow in 1840, when the port was connected to a railroad.

Impressive structures were built during the pre-Civil War period, including the remarkable combination City Hall and the Thalian Hall, a delightfully ornate theater preserved to this day. The Bellamy House, with 13 colonnades in a combination of Greek Revival and Italianate architecture, was built in 1859.

These are among the centerpieces in a 200-block historic preservation district that includes the Burgin-Wright House of 1770, the home of President Woodrow Wilson and numerous others. …

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