Chilling tales from the Lower Cape Fear

On a stifling, late summer evening in September, I sat with my family in my parents’ living room in the wake of Hurricane Florence. We had been without electricity for nearly a week. Windows were raised in an effort to take advantage of any breeze, light traffic on the main road nearby and evening insects in the yard provided our evening soundtrack. By this point, we were quite sick of the heat and humidity that followed the storm.

That night, in the light of a fluorescent lantern, they asked me to regale them with a ghost story.

While I have numerous favorite tales of apparitions and things that “go bump in the night,” I reached for my trusty volume of ghostly encounters of the Lower Cape Fear and turned to a story I had long forgotten.

In 1898, Wilmington merchant and philanthropist James Sprunt read aloud an account to a meeting of the North Carolina Society of Colonial Dames. He titled the story A Colonial Apparition: A Story of the Cape Fear and later published it with a local printer. Sprunt’s interest in history and a knack for storytelling brought local history and culture to life for many readers. This account did much the same.

A Colonial Apparition tells the story of the storm-tossed steamer Wilmington, the mailboat that must make its way south from its namesake city to the town of Southport near the mouth of Cape Fear River during a Christmas Eve nor’easter. Blinding winds and snow impaired the planned journey and the vessel’s Captain Harper had, in the name of safety, begrudged a party of Christmas revelers their journey southward. A lone passenger remained, a man named McMillan, who willed to ride out the storm with the captain while what remained of the crew attempted to get the steamer underway. The two men shared a pouch of tobacco and passed the time with McMillan’s tales of the colonial era. Drawing on the lives of Scots from William Drummond to Flora MacDonald, the yarns McMillan spun began to weave the story of his Scottish ancestors who settled in the North Carolina piedmont more than a century before.

Captain Harper pressed his passenger, “‘Your information interests me greatly . . . We shall have full steam in half an hour: can you beguile the time with something new to be about the river history?’”

Captain John W. Harper
Captain John W. Harper (1856-1917), captain and owner of the steamer Wilmington, Robert M. Fales Collection, New Hanover County Public Library

McMillan was more than happy to oblige and turned his mind to the life–and near death–of his great grandfather, William McMillan, during the American Revolution. In September 1781, Colonel David Fanning, a radical Loyalist who fostered vigilante violence in the North Carolina backcountry during the last years of the war, orchestrated the kidnapping of Governor Thomas Burke. Along the way from Hillsborough to Wilmington, Fanning and his gang gathered up a number of other men who were known to be disloyal to the British crown, including William McMillan.

After turning Burke over to Major James Henry Craig of the British Army, the party made their way southward and stopped at Orton Plantation near the port of Brunswick where a handful of British warships were docked. William McMillen and two other Scotsmen were imprisoned onboard one of the vessels until being brought ashore one afternoon. David Fanning put the men through a “mockery of a trial” before sentencing them to immediate execution. Two of the men were bound to a large pine tree and quickly executed by firing squad. McMillan, however, was unbound and, with unearthly strength, made his escape. He survived the conflict, dying nearly two decades later at his home in Robeson County.

Legend told that on stormy nights, the spirits of two Scotsmen were said to walk the lonely grounds of Orton along the river or, searching for a sea-going vessel, row an ethereal boat down the river. “McMillan’s weird, uncanny tale impressed the Captain strongly and made him strangely silent,” wrote Sprunt. The wind continued to howl as sleet and freezing rain obscured the dark night sky.

Orton Plantation
Orton Plantation in Brunswick County, NC dates back to the earliest settlement of the Lower Cape Fear in the 1720s. Louis T. Moore Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

Before long, the steamer was repaired and underway, albeit at a careful pace. The captain and first mate Peter Jorgensen, however, were unable to keep the boat from running aground near Clarendon Plantation in the gale-force winds and waning tide. The captain and crew reviewed their situation and decided to wait out the storm once more. Jorgensen, restlessly stalked the upper decks despite the stinging sleet. His thoughts turned to Christmases past and he mused on the season’s festivities in his native land of Denmark. The dream dissolved into a nightmare:

“When [Jorgensen] turned to walk again he saw the standing figure of a man clad in rough, dripping garments, with hair and beard unkempt and flecked with snow, and a face distorted with agonizing dread.”

Jorgensen called out to the man, asking how he had boarded the boat and what he wanted. “‘Who are you’ shouted Peter, ‘are you mad?’” He reached out into the gloom to seize the strange man, but “his hands fell on the empty air–the man was gone.” The blood drained from Jorgensen’s face, casting a deathly pallor to his appearance as he stumbled back to the ship’s pilot house. Captain Harper berated the mate for being inebriated, but Jorgensen insisted that he had seen a specter out in the stormy night. Incredulously, the captain turned to the passenger who only lent credence to Peter’s fears:

“I doubt not Mr. Jorgensen has supernatural causes for his alarm. A Scotsman born is often charged with native superstition. I know of things in my experience beyond the range of our so-called Philosophy. But let us search for Peter’s ghost, and then discuss the cause of his disordered mind.”

The crew responded to the Captain’s call for all hands on deck, searching every possible space onboard the vessel that a stowaway might hide. Their pursuit proved fruitless as Harper questioned his first mate for more information. Jorgensen insisted upon seeing the stranger, only adding to the captain’s vexation. “‘If ghosts are taking their walks abroad to-night, we may see troops of them before we get out of this confounded mess.” he quipped.

As the tide rose once again, the Wilmington became buoyant and resumed her course despite the ongoing storm. A seagull dashed itself upon the window of the wheel house as it sought shelter, falling injured at the feet of McMillan. The Scotsman warned the captain:

“‘The foul fiend is abroad this night . . . Beware of further trouble, Captain; this is the worst of all bad omens.”

The steamer passed the safety lights stationed along the river as it made its way southward. Strange sounds now drifted over the howling wind. Was that a siren they heard coming from Sugar Loaf on the eastern bank of the river? Surely that part of the country was deserted. “Above the moaning wind, which came in fitful gusts and died away like voices in the distance, there rose again that cry for help beginning with a shriek and ending with a wailing sound as of mortal agony,” writes Sprunt.

Steamer Wilmington
The iron steamer Wilmington, built in 1882, became somewhat legendary on the Cape Fear River. Louis T. Moore Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

Peter Jorgensen fixed his eyes toward the odd sounds, the engineer also looking out into the gloom. The men called out in surprise as they approach what looked to be “an object like a boat surrounded by a phosphorescent glow above which played a pale and lambent light, which gradually approaching nearer.” Jorgensen gasped as a break in the weather “revealed an ancient rowing barge so foul with barnacles and slimy seaweed that Peter thought she might have been afloat a hundred years.”

As the steamer attempted an approach, “the battered hulk with its strange occupants drew nearer” as those onboard the Wilmington “beheld two tall, gaunt, human forms, in tattered Highland dress” standing upon the barge in heavy shackles and reaching out to the crew with bloody hands. The captain called for a line to be cast toward the distressed men, but the ghostly barge dissolved into the mist. Once again attempting to get underway, the first mate sounded the alarm “‘Starboard! Hard-a-starboard, sir; we are running down a wreck.” The Wilmington barely missed the capsized wreckage of a schooner with two men clinging to its upturned side. The half-frozen men were brought onboard, their vessel having blown off course and into the Cape Fear and many of the men lost. First mate Jorgensen let out a cry as he surveyed their faces–surely it could not be. One of the men looked exactly like the ghostly figure he had seen on the steamer’s decks earlier in the night! Had this man’s distressed spirit called out to the Wilmington for aid?

The steamer finally reached its destination as the storm broke and the early light of dawn washed over the once-turbulent water. Captain Harper returned to his home in the sleepy hours of Christmas morning and counted his blessings. Little could explain what had happened the night before.

James Sprunt, himself a native of Glasgow, Scotland, spoke of the long history of Scots families in early North Carolina in his story of phantoms and ghostly vessels, risen from the depths of time. Perhaps, as a historian, I too feel “haunted” by the past.

For Further Reading:

James Sprunt, A Colonial Apparition: A Story of the Cape Fear (Wilmington: Wilmington & Southport Steamboat Company, 1898).

James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916 (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1916).


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