Supplied photo by Hugh Morton
The Carolina Beach swing bridge, seen here looking toward the Cape Fear River, opened in September 1931.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in New Hanover County. When Army Maj. William A. Snow was sent to Wilmington to build the Beaufort to Cape Fear stretch of the AIWW in 1926, the young officer, son of Gen. William Josiah Snow, was a West Point Academy graduate, a veteran of World War I, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a husband and a father of two, and he was just 32 years old.
Elaine Henson, former New Hanover County second grade teacher and local historian became fascinated with Snow while researching the history of Snow’s Cut in Carolina Beach.
"I could write a book about him," Henson said following The Big Dig, her presentation about the construction history of the Intracoastal Waterway for the University of North Carolina’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on Monday, March 5 at the Madeline Suite.
Whether the attendance was influenced by Henson’s name recognition as a local author or the subject matter itself, her lecture was sold out almost as soon as it was announced more than a month ago.
Following a buffet luncheon, Henson swept her audience back in time to the late 1920s and early 1930s with a PowerPoint presentation that was peppered with original black and white images, several produced by Louis T. Moore, and color aerial images, at least one produced by Hugh Morton, plus authentic hand-tinted postcards, line art advertisements and factual newspaper stories. Henson narrowed the range of the AIWW to that section that Snow supervised from Beaufort to the Cape Fear River and focused her subject between 1929 and 1932 with a few digressions that included some stage setting.
Though both U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson favored a sheltered inland waterway for commerce and national defense, Henson said the first survey was not authorized by Congress until 1826.
Today the ICWW snakes for 3,000 miles along the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Miami, and the Gulf Shore, from Florida to Brownsville, Texas, 90 feet at its widest at a depth of 12 feet.
The AIWW from Norfolk to Miami included a 93-mile stretch from Beaufort to the Cape Fear River authorized by Congress in 1927.
With five sections, from Beaufort to Swansboro, Swansboro to New River, Myrtle Grove Sound to Seabreeze, Carolina Beach Inlet to the Cape Fear River, the third section from New River to Wrightsville Sound was the last to be completed in 1932.
Countless newspaper stories and editorials were written during the three-year period. Notable were such arcane fines as mastodon teeth and bones and casks of whiskey dating to the Civil War era.
Estimated at a cost of $7 million, Snow was transferred before the project ended, delivering it under budget by half, or $3.5 million.
By early 1930, the dredging of Snow’s Cut was coming so close to U.S. Highway 421, that Snow and his crew built a temporary wooden drawbridge across the canal in 10 days time. The canal was open to boating traffic in March 1930, sparing mariners the trouble of traveling south along the river to Southport to reach Wrightsville Beach.
So popular was the route that in June 1930 the Frying Pan Power Boat Club proposed naming land cut Snow’s Cut.
By November 1930 the Wrightsville Bridge that supported both rail and vehicular traffic was severed to permit the dredging of section three, and by summer 1931, the first drawbridge connecting the mainland to Harbor Island was complete and remained in service until it was replaced with the Heide Trask Drawbridge in 1958.
The Carolina Beach swing bridge was completed in September 1931 and after it opened the temporary wooden bridge was burned and the wreckage removed.
Snow, the subject of many published newspaper stories was feted by many civic groups, and was transferred before the waterway was completed by his successor, Maj. R. A. Wheeler.
By 1940, Snow had been reassigned to St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Fort Knox, Ky. There, he was promoted to lieutenant, but in 1940 suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. Snow died at age 46. Buried at Arlington National Cemetery, his obituary was carried in the New York Times.
Four years after his death, the New Hanover County land cut that he engineered was officially named Snow’s Cut in 1944.
Henson’s talk, and dozens more like it are offered to members of the UNCW Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through its Pathways program and Wednesdays for Women only. Tiered rate structures apply for members and nonmembers. For more information, visit http://uncw.edu/olli/