KURE BEACH – It became evident that the visitor center at Fort Fisher State Historic Site had outgrown itself some time ago.
By the mid-2000s, the Civil War fort was drawing 600,000 visitors each year.
“In 2021, we finally exceeded 1 million visitors,” site manager Jim Steele said.
That number clearly wasn’t in mind when the site’s visitor center was designed more than a half-century ago.
The center, which been sitting since 1965 at the entrance to the historic site at the southern end of Pleasure Island in New Hanover County, was designed for 25,000 visitors a year.
After more than a decade of planning and fundraising, Fort Fisher is undertaking a project that includes a new center, one three times larger than the current building, to house updated exhibits in an open, airy indoor space that will offer views of the natural, picturesque landscape nestled at the mouth of the Cape Fear River at the Atlantic Ocean.
Officials, including N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Reid Wilson, recently took a “hard-hat tour” of the new visitor center site.
Wilson said that when he became chief deputy secretary of the state natural and cultural resources department in 2017, the push to build a new visitor center at Fort Fisher was “one of the first things I heard about.”
“This is a beautiful spot with a rich and complex history,” he said. “I’m here eager to learn how all this is going.”
Though work kicked off about six months ago, there’s little to actually see of the new building. The tops of concrete pilings driven 50 feet deep into the ground jut from what looks like freshly dug earth.
Those pilings alone took the better part of two months to install, and they are the foundation of what will be a two-story building built to endure hurricane-strength winds and flooding associated with coastal storms.
There will be glass, lots of glass, to let natural light into the building and offer an unobstructed view of the fort’s earthen structures from the parking lot.
Upstairs, visitors will be able to travel back in time as they peruse the artifacts in the main exhibit space. Glass walls will offer views ocean and natural landscape, one peppered by live oaks from the river banks to just before the ocean shore.
There will be a 120-person capacity multipurpose room available to rent, a gift shop overlooking the fort’s earthworks, a second-story balcony, a theater that will sit 100 people, and a changeable exhibit gallery of artifacts from the North Carolina Underwater Archeology Center.
The underwater archeology center, or UAC, is housed at Fort Fisher in a series of buildings, some built during World War II. A new lab is also under construction several yards from the visitor center. The lab is not open to the public.
The new visitor center and archaeology facility carry a price tag of $25.5 million, funds primarily secured through state budget appropriations.
Nearly $3 million more is needed to complete the overall site improvement project, which includes reconstruction of a series of Civil War-era mounds. To clear the site for a runway, the Army bulldozed three of the mounds after activating Fort Fisher as a training base during World War II. A fourth mound was taken out during construction of U.S. 421, which ends at the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Fort Fisher ferry terminal.
“Right now this is the only part of the project that’s not funded yet,” Steele said.
The idea is to tell a complete and inclusive history of Fort Fisher, one where reconstructed underground bunkers will give visitors a real sense life in a Confederate fort, one built of mostly earth and sand by soldiers and more than 500 free and enslaved African Americans.
Construction of the visitor center is expected to be complete in mid- to late May 2024. Once the building is open to the public, the current center is to be torn down.