Three waterways lead into town, and two roadways lead out, but few people who come here ever find reason to leave.
The thing that stands out about Southport is that everybody in Southport sees a different Southport and that trying to summarize Southport through its people would be like trying to jam a shark into the mouth of a minnow.
So let’s just start with the two ospreys living at 3G.
These two birds — the sharpest fishers in town — occupy a nest on the top of a marker on the Intracoastal Waterway. The marker, 3 Green, is on the south end of the town just off of Southport Marina.
To these ospreys, there’s no place like Southport. From their nest, the male can find his choice of cuisine for the family. Just a half-mile north is the Cape Fear River, North Carolina’s most powerful and bountiful river vein. Just a mile east is the Atlantic Ocean, where the shallow Frying Pan Shoals assure that meals are just a dive away.
For all the reasons Southport is here, so are these ospreys. It’s paradise for creatures that live off the water.
The female osprey cares for her offspring on top of the perch on 3G. She and the male are a young couple, and they had two children in May. The female taught the young ones to fly during the summer, and now they’re almost as big as their parents.
This month, though, the ospreys are moving out. They have another place in South America. They’ll lead their two kids the whole way down, stopping three or four times on the trip, and the family will ride out the winter in another nest in another town in the other hemisphere.
But the ospreys of 3G won’t soon forget Southport.
Three waters in, two roads out
On land, Southport is far more complex than one nest. In downtown, shops line one street, and live oak trees line another. In the yacht basin, one vessel is a charter boat covered in fish scales, and another is a sailboat for pleasure riding.
But if you go to one particular spot at the end of town near the river pilot tower, and you look out into the waters and you see what the ospreys see, you start to understand Southport.
Here, three of the most important waterways in North Carolina’s history meet. Watch a ship navigate the route from the Atlantic Ocean and into the Cape Fear River, and you can imagine the battleship North Carolina doing the same thing; or the fleet of shrimp boats turned upside down after Hurricane Hazel in 1954; or the Confederate blockade-runners traveling the same route during the Civil War; or slaves skirting past on canoes under the cover of dark to join Union ships where the river meets the ocean; or Spanish ships trying to surge in and clench a fist around a vital English port prior to the American Revolution.
Many places in North Carolina have a distinguished history. Southport, though, has more stories sunk at the bottom than most towns have on the surface.
But even if you can’t appreciate history, consider this: If you walk to the end of Southport and look out — Cape Fear River to the left, Battery Island in front, Bald Head Island left-center, ocean dead-center, Fort Caswell right-center, Intracoastal Waterway to the right — you’ll realize that there are more water routes leading into Southport than road routes leading out.
What’s on the bottom
“I hope they’re wearing shoes,” Capt. Bert Felton says, spotting some kids in the water as he steers his boat, the Solomon T, south down the Cape Fear River in front of Southport. He sees a family with children on the shore playing in the river. “There’s no telling what’s on the bottom over there. Just about every ship that’s come through here has dropped something off.”
Southport is not a beach town, although it smells like salt water. It’s not a place to swim, although the water’s shallow. And it’s not a place to sunbathe, although the climate here is the same as that of central Florida.
Southport is a working town, has been forever.
Felton moved here in the mid-1990s. He met his wife, Becky, at a convention at Fort Caswell in 1964. They lived in several towns in coastal North Carolina, but they’ll stay in Southport. They live in an old church, which they renovated into a home.
The Solomon T is an old charter-fishing boat. Felton found it in Wanchese, rebuilt it, and it’s now on the North Carolina Register of Historic Vessels. He and Becky take people out to show them Southport like it’s meant to be seen — from the water. Felton has a full, white beard and a hat that reads, “Southport EST. 1792.” He speaks in nautical terms, and he recalls historic events like they just happened.
On a trip this summer, he notices an old workboat, about 50 feet long, cruising down the waterway. The boat is yellow and has truck tires for fenders, and through binoculars, Felton identifies it as being from New Castle, Delaware.
“That’s an old World War II landing craft, I think,” Felton says. “You never know what you’re going to see when you get out in the Cape Fear River.”
The water chops too hard to make it to the inlet between Oak Island and Bald Head Island, so Felton turns around and comes home early. He pulls into his slip, and Becky ties up the boat. Felton announces every move, finishing by hollering, “Spring line’s set.”
A fishing family
Robert Potter’s great-grandfather began fishing in Southport in the 1800s. Robert Potter’s grandfather fished, too. And so did Robert Potter’s dad.
But Robert Potter joined the United States Navy.
“I saw the industry, and it didn’t appeal to me,” Potter says of fishing.
When fishing flourished here, the front of Southport looked like a zipper of shrimp boat docks. Hurricane Hazel changed that waterfront in 1954, slamming home on a lunar high tide and knocking over nearly every boat that made this a fishing town.
Southport rebuilt, but today, only one shrimp boat remains. Robert Potter’s nephew, Royce, runs it. And Royce does it because of love. Royce was in the United States Coast Guard in 2004 when he got a call to come home. His dad, a shrimper, had died of a heart attack.
“It was right here for me,” Royce, now 31, says of shrimping. “After that, there was no question that this was what I was going to do.”
The Potter family has operated Potter’s Seafood, a fish house on the south side of downtown Southport, since 1899. Every Potter has some connection to the waters.
In the 1960s, Robert’s father purchased a boat named the Alice Belle — a functionally designed craft with a rounded stern to keep nets from being caught on the side and a flared bow that cuts through choppy waters. Robert’s brother Tookie fished off the boat as long as he could.
“I shrimped ’til I liked to starved to death,” Tookie says. “And then I went to the ferry.”
Southport has always had jobs on the water. The ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher still is a coveted position, with its schedule of seven days on and seven days off. And several generations of river pilots have guided ships into North Carolina through the channel that splits the shallow waters, using local knowledge to show outsiders the way through a Z-shaped route from the Atlantic Ocean, on north between Fort Caswell and Bald Head Island, back south around the marshes of Battery Island, then back north up the Cape Fear River, and on to Wilmington.
Robert Potter wasn’t a river pilot here, but during his time in the Navy, he was a docking pilot, guiding ships to port. He served all over the world, from Japan to Panama to Vietnam to South Carolina to Georgia. In 2001, his wife of 34 years, Cathy, died.
A few years later, Robert was living in Florida and searching the Internet when he ran across an old friend who grew up with him in Southport, a woman named Jeanne. She lived in Florida, too. They soon married, and in 2005, they decided they wanted to come home to Southport.
The Alice Belle had nearly sunk by then. For three years, Robert and Jeanne worked on the boat, restoring nearly every plank. Jeanne painted and decorated the cabin, so they could sleep on it comfortably.
Now, the Alice Belle is on the state Register of Historic Vessels, on the same list with the Solomon T.
Coming into town
A lifelong Southport native might cringe at how Dan Menna first described the town to his wife.
Twelve years ago, Menna flew to North Carolina looking for a place to live in the South after a lifetime in New Jersey and Philadelphia. He hoped to find a place that reminded him of where he grew up, a small town with a working spirit in southern New Jersey. He toured Wilmington with a real estate agent but decided it was too big for him. He pulled out a map and pointed to Southport. The agent said, “Well, that’s Brunswick County, and it’s a little gamy down there.” Menna said, “Well, I’m a little gamy, too, so I’ll go see it.”
Menna drove his car down N.C. Highway 133 and into Southport. He called his wife immediately.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he told her, “but I’m standing in South Jersey, and it’s 1950.”
His wife, Kelli, told him, “Well buy something.”
Southport is glad they came. The Mennas opened a restaurant in the old pharmacy building downtown. They called it The Pharmacy and began serving top-notch fresh food to Southport at a time when most restaurants here closed before 8 p.m.
“I want to support the town,” Kelli says. “And feeding people, what else better can you do?”
Patrick Kelly has a similar story. He was a chef in Asheville, and he wanted to move to the coast. A few years ago, he had a job interview at a high-end restaurant in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He also heard that a restaurant named Fishy Fishy in Southport was looking for an owner/chef.
“I stopped by here, and I pulled up to the pier, and it was just perfect,” he says. “So I stayed.”
If you ask old-timers in Southport what Southport is today, they’ll probably start by telling you what it was. But the present isn’t so bad.
The term newcomer is relative, depending on one’s perspective. Who’s new to one person may not be new to another. In Southport, though, whether you arrive today or you were born here, being a worker gains you acceptance. It has for the Mennas and Kelly, at least.
Growing up, staying put
Ralph Parker grew up in Southport in the 1950s, and his father was one of the only black captains of a menhaden fishing boat at a time when menhaden was the king industry here. Parker remembers playing baseball and football with his white neighbors but then being forced to go to separate schools.
The only period in Parker’s life when he didn’t live in Southport was when he was at North Carolina A&T State University, where he was a fraternity brother with Jesse Jackson.
Parker remembers one summer coming home to work with his dad on the fishing boat. His dad worked him hard, waking him up at 2 a.m.
“I think he was trying to convince me to get my heinie back to A&T,” Parker says.
Parker did go back to school, and he started in a career as a teacher. Then, in 1971, he became the assistant director of admissions at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Soon, he took a job as UNCW’s first black dean of students, and in the 1980s, he founded the university’s office of minority affairs.
Parker works with wood now in his retirement. He sells his work on Wednesdays at a market downtown in front of the Fort Johnston garrison house. At the same market, every week, Kelli Menna buys food for her restaurant, a newcomer passing an old-timer on an old fort that was here centuries before either of them.
‘A Good Newspaper’
Ed Harper knows everything about Southport. His job demands it.
Harper’s father took over the town’s newspaper, The State Port Pilot, in the 1930s. Harper is now the editor.
Southport may look perfect to every visitor who comes here, but no town is without warts. And Harper knows both the beauty and controversy. He knows there’s a debate about opening a massive port in town, and he doesn’t take sides. He recognizes that some newcomers build the town’s current identity, but he still regularly has a Friday night beer at the Old American Fish House, a bar on the corner of Southport that’s almost exclusively for locals and old-timers. He knows that the tourist industry is overtaking the fishing industry, but he supports both sides.
The State Port Pilot won the General Excellence Award as the best paper of its size in the North Carolina Press Association contest twice in the past three years. Its slogan, though, is humble: “A Good Newspaper in a Good Community.”
“I’ve never had a day,” Harper says, “when I wished I wasn’t here.”
Before Southport was Southport, its name was Smithville. When town leaders founded the town and mapped out a downtown in the late 1700s, they set the 100-foot rights-of-way between houses through which to run public streets. That’s a big space, so large that many current residents have front yards that are city property.
The early leaders required the space so that the streets would remain open for the wind. And now, even on the hottest days in Southport, there’s always a hope for a good breeze to blow.
That breeze comes in strongest at the water, where it might wave the flags of the Solomon T or the Alice Belle, and then it may brush the windows of the famous blockade-runner Thomas Mann Thompson’s historic house, and then it might slightly shake the river pilot’s tower, and then it might blow the hats off of Ralph Parker and Kelli Menna at the market, and then it might slide through the branches of the 800-year-old live oak tree known as Indian Trail Tree, and then it might go on into town and past the Robert Ruark Inn and so many other historic homes in a town founded in the 1700s.
Southport is a city with wind. It’s a city with trees. It’s a city with old homes. It’s a city with history. It’s a city for a husband and wife from the North who want to start a restaurant, a city for a black man who can grow up and change a university, a city where fishermen can always come home. And it’s the only city in North Carolina that can claim to be the meeting point of the Cape Fear River, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Intracoastal Waterway.
It’s a city where everything comes together.
It will be winter soon, and the folks in Southport will pass the time with their well-known Tour of Historic Homes in December. And then it’ll be spring, and things will start to move again. The visitors will return. The shops and restaurants will stay open later. The boats will be painted and prepared for another season at sea.
The fish will start moving again and so will the animals that eat fish, such as, say, ospreys.
The young osprey couple that will leave 3G in October will come back in March. They’ll fly back all the way from South America and across the equator, not just to North America, not just to the United States, not just to North Carolina, but to the same marker on the Intracoastal Waterway. They’ll return to 3G, the same nest they left at one of the three waterfront entrances to Southport.
The male will arrive first, and he’ll fix up the nest for the female. The offspring born this past May will return next year and build their own nests in the same area.
They’ll do this for years, and as difficult as Southport is to understand given its many personalities and extensive history, the fact that these two birds would want to come back here over and over for the rest of their lives makes perfect sense.
Michael Graff is the executive editor of Charlotte magazine.