North Carolina's smallest big county
New Hanover is one of North Carolina’s smallest counties by land area, but it’s also one of the state’s ten most populous counties. That’s mainly due to Wilmington, the county seat, which is the state’s eighth largest city. Wilmington takes up a good chunk of the county’s area, but there are a few other significant towns in the county. These mostly sit along the coast and include Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach.
Historic coastal settlement
Originally, the New Hanover County area was inhabited by the Cape Fear, Waccamaw, and other Siouan Native American tribes. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano was the first European explorer to arrive in the Cape Fear area.
The first permanent European settlements started popping up in 1725. Settlers who first began calling this region home included the English, Welsh, Irish, French Huguenots, and Highland Scots. Formerly part of Craven County, New Hanover County was soon after founded in 1729. It was named for King George I of the Hanover House.
Wilmington, originally called New Carthage, was founded in 1739 and established as the county seat. The city was named for Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington. It became a significant economic, political, and cultural center for the area. The usefulness of the Cape Fear River for transportation and trade was a main contributor to the town’s development. By 1850, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina, and the 16th most populous in the south.
Surrounded by water
New Hanover County is located on the Atlantic coast in the southeastern portion of North Carolina. The Cape Fear River wraps around the county, creating most of the border along the south, west, and northern sides. Wilmington extends across the county with the Atlantic coast as its eastern border and the Cape Fear River as its western border.
The county is located in North Carolina’s Coastal Plain region. It has a total land area of 329 square miles, and more than 40% of that is water. The land area encompasses 192 square miles, and the water area takes up 137 square miles.
A few barrier islands are part of the county. These are narrow islands that are separated from the mainland by a thin stretch of water. Each of these islands has its own distinct personality. Pleasure Island is home to popular tourist spots Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and historic Fort Fisher. Figure Eight Island is a private island nicknamed “The Hamptons of the South.” Masonboro Island houses 8.4 miles of nature reserve and is only accessible by boat.
A growing population
New Hanover County has a population of 234,473, and that number has been increasing. Between the 2010 and 2020 Census counts, the population rose by about 15%. The population is somewhat densely distributed, with 1,058 people per square mile.
Of the county’s residents, 82.2% are White, 13.4% are African American, 0.6% are American Indian, 1.6% are Asian, 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and 5.8% are Hispanic or Latino.
The county’s population is well-educated. Of residents over the age of 25, 93.2% have at least completed high school and 40.6% have received a bachelor’s degree or higher. Those numbers are both above the national averages of 88.0% and 32.1%, respectively.
Film and tourist town
The film industry has had a big economic impact on New Hanover County. That’s because more than 400 movies and TV shows have been produced in the Wilmington area since the 1980s. The area’s film industry boom started with the 1983 film Firestarter. Soon after, in 1984, an impressive 32-acre movie studio was built in Wilmington. The area quickly got nicknamed, “Hollywood of the East.” Some major movie and TV productions that were filmed in Wilmington include Iron Man 3, The Conjuring, One Tree Hill, and Dawson’s Creek.
Tourism is another important piece of the area’s economy. Visitors flock to popular beach destinations like Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Kure Beach. In 2019, tourists to the county spent a record $658.78 million and 6,680 people in the county were employed by the travel and tourism industry.
Overall, the biggest industries in New Hanover are healthcare/social assistance, retail, and accommodation/food services. The most commonly held jobs are in sales, management, and office/administrative support.
The percent of the working age population that’s in the labor force is 61.9%, just beating the state average of 61.3%. The median household income of $54,891 also comes in above the state’s average of $54,602.
The top employer for the area is New Hanover Regional Medical Center. There are also major employers in the education sector, like New Hanover County School System, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Cape Fear Community College. Others are in government, like the County of New Hanover and the City of Wilmington. Several retail stores are also among the top employers, including Wal-Mart, Harris Teeter, and Food Lion.
Hit the beach
As a booming tourist area, you know there’s plenty to see and do in New Hanover County. There are historic sites, museums, and events to discover, but the main draw is truly the area’s beaches. Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach are the prime spots to check out. Each of these beaches offers beautiful coastline for sunbathing, swimming, and water sports. Plus, each beach has its own unique and fun activities and sights.
Carolina Beach is a relaxed and fun beach town complete with a spectacular vintage seaside boardwalk. You’ll find spots for live music, great food, island drinks, and outdoor adventures. Carolina Beach State Park is a particularly well-loved attraction with its beautiful white-sand hiking trails and fantastic views of Cape Fear River.
Kure Beach is another favorite destination to relax and explore around a quaint beach town. It boasts the oldest fishing pier on the eastern coast as well as Fort Fisher State Historic Site—the site of the largest battle on land and sea during the Civil War. On top of all that, you can stop in and visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher for what the Travel Channel has dubbed one of the nation’s best aquariums.
Wrightsville Beach has been called one of the world’s best surfing towns by National Geographic. If you’d rather paddleboard, kayak, or go SCUBA diving, it’s a perfect spot for those activities too. Even if you’re not into water sports, there’s plenty more to draw you to this coastal town. Between the boutiques, spas, amazing dining options, historic square, and vibrant nightlife, there’s something for everyone here.
Beyond the island beaches is the wonderful city of Wilmington. You can start with a stroll down the renowned Riverwalk along the Cape Fear River. This 2-mile stretch of walkway is dotted with markets, boutiques, art galleries, and cafes. Next, explore over 230 blocks of Wilmington’s Historic District. You’ll see brick-lined avenues of historic homes and churches bordered by picturesque mossy oaks. To extend the historic experience, tour the World War II battleship North Carolina. You can check out nine levels of the ship, including living spaces, mess decks, gun turrets, and more. To cap it off with some beautiful scenery, visit Airlie Gardens for 67 acres of gardens, wildlife, and lakes. If you love flowers, you won’t want to miss the 75,000 azaleas planted in these gardens. Even better, if you’re in town in April, you can catch the yearly North Carolina Azalea Festival. This festival has been an annual tradition for Wilmington since 1948 and features parades, street fairs, live performances, and much much more.