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
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
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
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
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. …