By Paige Brown
The year was 1585. Admiral Sir Richard Grenville stood at the bow, scanning the horizon with his spyglass. Leading his fleet of seven ships along the coast of the Carolinas toward the Outer Banks, he was unaware of the dangerously shifting shoals near the mouth of a river they had just passed. One of his ships became trapped behind a cape of land where the ocean waves battered the hull and threatened to break it apart. Legend suggests it was Grenville’s crew that christened these waters the Cape of Fear. In time, the river became known as the Cape Fear.
The Cape of Fear refers to an area we know as Frying Pan Shoals that lies off of the tip of Bald Head Island just southeast of the mouth of the river. Considered part of the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic,’ hundreds of shipwrecks attest to the treacherous nature of the waters at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Once into the river, sailors had to remain vigilant to the very real threat of running aground. For more than twenty miles, from Southport to Wilmington, depth soundings were constant, and all hands remained alert. Marking the final bend in the Cape Fear River before the city of Wilmington came into view was a bald cypress tree that stood alone on a marshy peninsula. Ancient and contorted, the ‘Dram Tree’ weathered many storms to stand as a sentry for the maritime trade. When the tree came into sight, the captain knew his ship was safe and ordered a dram—a mug of rum or other spirits—for every hand. This symbolic toast became a local tradition celebrating successful navigation of the Cape Fear and steadying the nerves of those returning to the Atlantic.
During the 19th century, the tree was used as a buoy for sailing races. It was a favorite landmark of President William Howard Taft when he visited and toured Wilmington in 1909. World War II shipbuilding operations in the 1940’s took up a significant portion of the eastern shore of the Cape Fear River. Sadly, the Dram Tree survived hundreds of years of storms only to be destroyed during dredging operations to facilitate the war effort.
The tree may be gone, but the legend lives on in our local history, parks, and public artworks. In 1988, the City of Wilmington opened the Dram Tree Park, a small green space near the base of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The city planted a young bald cypress as a memorial to the Dram Tree. In 2011, the City commissioned a local sculptor, Dumay Gorham, to create a public artwork representing the Dram Tree. The 23-foot sculpture’s design was based on old photographs of the Dram Tree. Completed in 2013, it now sits along the Riverwalk in front of the Wilmington Convention Center.
The delicate, feathery foliage of the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) belies the impressive strength of this large deciduous conifer. The Bald Cypress (or Swamp Cypress) grows from Delaware south into Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. Trees exhibit a narrow, pyramidal habit in youth and become irregular, often flat-topped, and quite picturesque as they grow old.
Growing to a height of 75 feet or more, the straight trunk flares into a buttress at the base. Decidedly aquatic in nature, bald cypress is native to freshwater swamps and along riverbanks, but will grow in deep, acidic, loamy garden soil with plenty of moisture, sunshine, and moderate drainage. Individual trees make an elegant statement in the landscape, and groves of bald cypress around a lake or riverside create a dramatic effect.
It is one of only a few species that produce knees, root structures that grow above ground. These cone-shaped root projections are most prevalent where trees remain submerged or in a marshy area that remains wet. At one time, scientists believed these knees helped provide oxygen to the roots. It is now believed these structures serve as stabilization for the tree in unstable, saturated soils.
For more information on growing bald cypress, contact your local cooperative extension service at http://www.arboretum.nhcgov.com for New Hanover County and http://www.brunswickcountync.gov/cooperativeextension for Brunswick County.