Wilmington Riverwalk
Wilmington Riverwalk

We’d just come around the corner from a serendipitous visit with a wooden boatbuilding class when the Wilmington Riverwalk treated us with yet another surprise. We’d been walking its length in search of the Wilmington Railroad Museum when we heard the toot of a toy train whistle. A little boy was walking with his parents to a riverfront hotel. Next to a train museum! With tugboats in the river!

Wilmington Railroad Museum
Engine at the Wilmington Railroad Museum (John Keatley)

It was then we heard the ships and boats sound their horns, and a train engine at the museum join in. Today was National Maritime Day, the Cape Fear River busy with ships and boats with the backdrop of the Battleship North Carolina on the far shore. A solemn waterfront ceremony to honor those lost at sea had just ended.

The Battleship North Carolina
The Battleship North Carolina (John Keatley)

The Wilmington Riverwalk ties together interests as diverse as the city itself. We’d spent an evening at the downriver end, watching the sun set from our table at The Pilot House as sailboats slipped by and locals walked their dogs in the waning light.

Sunset from The Pilot House
Sunset from The Pilot House

After dinner, we meandered past the commercial docks, where the boat tours depart from, and wound our way through city streets given over to adult interests: pubs and bars, music venues, a comedy club, a vape shop.

Venus flytrap scuplture at the Riverwalk
Venus fly-trap scuplture at the Riverwalk

Today’s walk in the light of day revealed another side of Wilmington. In front of a fudge shop, a performer twisted balloons into animal shapes to present to a circle of elderly ladies in wheelchairs. Families waited for the horse-drawn trolley to arrive. We found the iconic Venus flytrap sculpture right by the information center.

NOAA in port
NOAA in port (John Keatley)

Walking past the Coast Guard docks, we found their normal cutter replaced by a NOAA ship in for the holiday weekend. And the wreath ceremony, in all its solemness.

Wreath Ceremony
Wreath Ceremony for Memorial Day (John Keatley)

It’s easy to follow the Riverwalk thanks to signage, but we got off track due to the ceremony. Where we found our way back, near the Cotton Exchange – a two story complex of shops and restaurants – we discovered the boatbuilding shops.

Southern canapes at The Basics in the Cotton Exchange
Southern canapes at The Basics in the Cotton Exchange

Students at Cape Fear Community College can enroll in a wooden boatbuilding class that lasts a year long. “We get at least a dozen students sign up,” said instructor and master shipwright Mark Payne, “and eight or so finish each year.” As it turns out, North Carolina has excellent job opportunities for this profession, with numerous custom boatbuilders along the coast.

Cape Fear Community College wooden boatbuilding class
Cape Fear Community College wooden boatbuilding class (John Keatley)

The siren call of the train whistle led us to our upriver destination, the Wilmington Railroad Museum. Housed in one of the former buildings that made up the massive Atlantic Coast Railroad rail yard and headquarters until 1955, the museum boasts one of the most extensive model railroad displays we’ve seen. Hand-built scale models replicate downtown Wilmington pre-1955 and other cities along the ACL.

Wilmington Railroad Museum model railroad
A small portion of the model railroad display

In 2011, the museum set the Guinness World Record for the longest model #train, 925.55 feet with 31 engines and 1,563 cars on 1,003 feet of track. One of the 36 volunteers that work on the display was on duty today and pointed out tiny details in the display that not everyone catches, like the working carnival rides that play oompah music. John found the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.

Wienermobile heading down the street
Model Wienermobile heading down the street (John Keatley)
Interactive displays of hobo signs
Interactive displays of hobo signs
Most of the museum is given over to artifacts from the ACL, including uniforms, ribbons, china used on dining cars, and lots of other memorabilia.

As we headed away from the rolling stock and back towards the Riverwalk, one of the engines tooted at us. A young man was in the engineer’s seat.

It’s the “do touch” hands-on activities that leave the fondest memories for us grown-up kids, so as we stopped at the Cape Fear Museum on our way out of downtown, we – okay, John – couldn’t help but make a few more memories, too.

Cape Fear Museum interactive pulleys
Trying his hand at pulleys
John in a NASA outfit
Remembering his space worker days