Historic storm Florence shutters historic Brunswick Town

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Hurricane washed out a centuries-old dam and downed trees across the site, forcing its closure until at least mid-November

BRUNSWICK TOWN — To reach the Brunswick Town historic site by land, a driver has to traverse a causeway that has stood next to Orton Pond for more than 200 years, weathering every historic hurricane and the ensuing floods.

September 16, after the Sanford Dam failed in Boiling Spring Lakes, millions of gallons of water ran down streams to the pond. Ultimately, one dam failure led to another, and Hurricane Florence proved too much for the causeway, which was first built between 1815 and 1820.

“All the creeks flowed into that pond, and then you add three lakes worth of water and it just gave up,” said Jim McKee, manager of the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site. “That’s what’s keeping the public out and off the site in the long term.”

The Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson site will remain closed until at least mid-November. In the weeks following the storm, N.C. Department of Transportation crews have filled in the 450-foot stretch of Plantation Road that washed out when the dam failed, but they must wait for the material to settle before repaving it.

It was not immediately clear what it would cost to make repairs to the site and clean debris off the grounds, where damage included 52 downed trees, 137 fallen large limbs and 18 trees that sustainted damage to their tops. Still, none of the trees fell on or harmed ruins or historical structures at the site on the Cape Fear River’s western banks.

A cypress tree fell across the fenced-in clay pit, landing along the fence. Other than displacing two pickets, McKee said, the tree didn’t cause any damage.

Standing near the Brunswick Town portion of the site this week, McKee gestured to the foundations, which were surrounded by debris in spots, and said, “This is mostly limbs. None of our ruins got damaged at all.”

McKee said the Brunswick Town staff is planning to chop shorter branches and gnarled wood into firewood, but will use a portable sawmill that belongs to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to mill hickory and oak to build interpretive benches and tables.

While the on-site visitors center itself has some mold inside, McKee said he had not noticed any damage to displays or exhibits. Many of the artifacts that were kept at the site were evacuated before Florence arrived, taken either to Southport or to Raleigh.

“If it wasn’t in a case or on exhibit and it was organic, it’s gone. It was taken out,” McKee said. “We’re talking stuff like newspapers, we did have some textiles and some leathers.”

Hurricane Florence was the wettest weather event in Wilmington’s recorded history, dropping 23.02 inches of rain on Wilmington between September 13 and September 16.

Searching historical archives for a storm that resembled Florence, McKee ultimately settled on the September 1761 hurricane, which, like Florence, impacted the area for four days. Unlike Florence, the 1761 storm’s main impacts came from its winds rather than its rains.

McKee was able to reach Brunswick Town on September 19, crossing through Orton Plantation and touring the site in a tractor. Still, he wasn’t able to leave the vehicle because there were alligators everywhere he turned — including inside the sunken ruins.

“It was a buffet for baby alligators. Just a buffet,” McKee said. “They were everywhere, and when you saw them … as you’re coming up to them, they’re just chomp chomp, just the frogs, tadpoles, anything they could get their mouth on.”

As the water has receded, the alligators and some other wildlife has returned to the river.

Still, there is a clear line of reeds and debris along the site’s riverfront walkway, clearly marking the line where water reached — and where it stopped. On one visitor’s bench facing the Cape Fear, for instance, reeds were pushed up against the back, with an empty plastic bottle tucked among them.

The water did not reach the ruins, though. Standing atop a hill next to the river Wednesday, McKee explained its importance in the town’s location — and to its safety.

“This is why they built the town here in regards to hurricanes — the bluff,” McKee said. “Never has water made it from the river up to here.”

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.