At Fort Fisher State Historic Site, a new foundation is being laid that will allow the facility to tell a richer story of the area’s role in history.
Bordeaux Construction crews are currently at work on a concrete foundation for the site’s new visitor center, the first step in a multi-phase project that will also erect new facilities for the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the N.C. Office of State Archaeology, and pending funding from the N.C. General Assembly, reconstruct Civil War-era fortifications on the property.
By May, the foundation will be complete, and the new two-story building will begin to rise.
“Then we start going vertical,” said Ben Warren, vice president of Bordeaux Construction.
Slated for completion in April 2024, the new 24,000-square-foot visitor center will replace the current facility, which remains open and operational until the new building is online. Built in 1965, the old visitor center is equipped to handle about 25,000 annual visitors; in 2021, the site saw more than 1 million. Larger premises will enable Fort Fisher to serve growing crowds with more exhibit space, storage for artifacts and offices for staff plus a new auditorium and multipurpose room for events, which Warren said will access a balcony with views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River.
During the Civil War, Fort Fisher protected the entrance to Wilmington’s port for blockade runners, fast ships that defied the federal government’s blockade to deliver supplies to the South. About a mile of the coastline near the mouth of the Cape Fear River was fortified with dozens of earthen mounds as tall as 35 feet and topped with powerful artillery. These defenses kept Wilmington’s port open until January 1865, when a successful Union attack by land and sea closed the last lifeline of the Confederate states. Within months of Fort Fisher’s fall, the Confederate war effort collapsed.
The new visitor center was designed for its dynamic location at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Before crews proceeded to their current work on the foundation, Warren said they installed about 180 piles at a depth of 50 feet. Once the foundation is complete, the first floor will be elevated five feet above the existing grade to accommodate storm surge, according to Warren, and the building will be constructed primarily with concrete to strengthen it against storms.
“It’s definitely going to be exposed to the elements over the years, and it’s been designed to withstand that,” Warren said.
A 6,400-square-foot building for the state’s underwater archaeology facilities is also planned for the property. Warren listed boat storage, preservation labs and dive support as some of the amenities planned for the archaeology space.
“They have a pretty sophisticated operation as it is on-site now, but these new labs are going to give them even better space and better tools to perform that work,” Warren said.
Most of the $25.5 million bill for the new visitor center and archaeology facility was secured through periodic installments in the state’s budget, the product of consistent advocacy by the area’s local delegation in the N.C. General Assembly.
Once another round of $3 million in state funding is allocated, Bordeaux will begin reconstruction of some of the Civil War-era mounds south of the current visitor center. Warren said the funds could be secured in this year’s budget.
All but a handful of the mounds that once lined the coastline near the fort were demolished during World War II to make room for a runway, and today, visitors are not generally allowed atop the existing mounds for preservation reasons. Visitors would be able to explore the reconstructed mounds, which Warren said would “include underground fortifications” allowing for additional exhibits incorporated into the earthworks.