Southport Historical Society hosts a ceremony to remember and honor Southport river pilots who died in the line of duty.
Southport River Pilots have been meeting the large cargo ships from the Atlantic Ocean and navigating them through the dangerous shoals of the Cape Fear River since the 1700s — and they are still doing it today. You may have noticed their two small boats in the Southport Yacht Basin, Pilot 1 and Pilot 11.
Their job hasn’t changed, but fortunately the training and equipment have, so the job of a river pilot is no longer as dangerous as it once was. The early sailing schooners have been replaced by motorboats, and the pilots now have extensive training and a long apprenticeship. However, they still have to climb up Jacob’s ladder to get from their little boat to the large vessel and then navigate through 21 turns to get from Southport to Wilmington.
In past years, the treacherous channel and unpredictable storms have caused several shipwrecks. The first recorded tragedy took place in 1872 and claimed the lives of five pilots along with the son of one of them. The second occurred five years later due to what has been described as “one of the fiercest storms that ever visited the coast of North Carolina.” Again, all five aboard lost their lives. In 1879 the citizens of Smithville (now Southport) erected the Pilots’ Monument in the Old Smithville Burying Ground to honor these 10 men.
On October 30, 2021, Southport Historical Society hosted a ceremony to remember the lost pilots and in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wilmington-Cape Fear River Pilots Association.
After the presentation of the flag and a welcoming address by Southport Historical Society President Bob Surridge, several Southport dignitaries spoke, including Master of Ceremonies Mary Ellen Watts Poole, Mayor Dr. Joe Pat Hatem and current senior pilot Captain Tommy Brendle. Soprano Cindy Sellers sang a moving rendition of “Peace, Be Still.”
After Scout troops #238 and #1776 retired the colors, many of the approximately 175 attendees moved on to the Old Smithville Burying Ground for a solemn ceremony of placing a wreath at the foot of the River Pilots’ Monument, followed by several people coming forward to pay their respects and place flowers on the base of the monument.
The citizens of Smithville had these words engraved in the monument: “That those who live after us may find the virtues and gallant deeds of their ancestors recorded on the imperishable stone.” One can’t help but think that the men would have been pleased by this ceremony of remembrance and promise to never forget.