Clan MacRae

Susan Taylor Block

Cover shot from the booklet, "Eilean Donan Castle," by John MacRae.

The name MacRae is well known to residents of Wilmington, NC, for many reasons, most naturally Hugh MacRae Park, the sprawling Long Leaf Pine forest off Oleander Drive. But few people are aware of how long the family has been here and how much they have accomplished. Through seven generations, leaders of the MacRae family have exhibited the best of the old Scottish work ethic while executing some of the most creative business ideas Cape Fear has ever known.

The MacRae family lived in Scotland for centuries before Roderick MacRae emigrated from Inverness-shire to Wilmington in 1770. He spoke Gaelic, wore kilts, and had a fondness for traditional Scottish fare such as haggis. Until at least 1892, the MacRaes of Wilmington still ate haggis and knew the Gaelic language. Though more recent descendants might not cotton to eating sheep, they are intensely proud of their Scottish heritage. Agnes MacRae Morton conceived the idea of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, an annual event that draws the clan to Linville. Most MacRae men are said to have kilts hanging in their closets.

Though immigrant Roderick MacRae made his way to Chatham County, NC, his grown son Colin, moved to Cumberland County where he named his new home, Argyll. By 1814, Colin’s son, Alexander (1796-1868), lived in Wilmington. His residence “Dunnegan Castle” was located on the southeast corner of Front and Princess streets until it was damaged by fire. After 1840, Alexander MacRae lived at 420 Orange Street (now razed) until his death in 1868.

Alexander MacRae (Courtesy of St. John's Lodge, No. 1, and New Hanover County Public Library)

Gen. Alexander MacRae, like several of his descendants, was a talented civil engineer. He helped plan the construction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and served for a time as president of that railroad as well as the Wilmington and Manchester line. Gen. MacRae, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the oldest officer in the Confederacy, had nine sons, most of who served in the Civil War. The siblings’ wartime correspondence indicates that none let battle get the best of them. Their minds kept returning to business, for the MacRaes, in addition to railroads, were already engaged in a number of successful enterprises including a merchandise store they had grown into a shipping and steamboat line.

Donald MacRae (1825-1892). (From the book, Pictorial and Historical New Hanover County and Wilmington, NC, by William Lord deRosset.)

Most of Alexander’s sons’ accomplishments were stunning, but it was son Donald (1825-1892), father to Hugh MacRae, who had the strongest Wilmington connections. Though he weighed only 125 pounds, he was a business heavyweight. President of Wilmington Cotton Mills and Wilmington Compress, he also had interests in banks, railroads, Florida real estate, and five blockade runners. He served as area British vice consul, president of the Thalian Association, and was a strong advocate for public schools. After he purchased the John Coffin Wood house at 713 Market Street, he began the long transformation that would eventually earn the building its name: “MacRae Castle.”

Donald MacRae’s son Hugh (1865-1951) graduated in 1885 from M.I.T. His career would mix technology and financial brilliance and would give him entrée to many of the nation’s rich and famous including presidents Roosevelt and Wilson. Though Hugh MacRae would fall in with some of the tragic political incorrectness of his time, his business accomplishments were dizzying and he was known to make quiet gifts to those in need. He was a miner, developer and innovative agriculturist.

Hugh MacRae owned his own bank in Wilmington and maintained a branch in New York. He also owned Grandfather Mountain; the Tide Water Power Company; about 70,000 acres of New Hanover, Pender, and Columbus counties; the Oceanic Hotel; the streetcar system; Harbor Island Pavilion; and Lumina, the site of the Queen’s Coronation in the festival’s early years. In fact, it was MacRae’s daughter, Agnes who named the famous Wrightsville Beach oceanfront pavilion, with its profusion of light bulbs that spelled “Lumina.”

MacRae Castle, 713 Market Street. (Courtesy of Cape Fear Museum, Calder Collection. Reprinted from the book, Cape Fear Lost.)

Hugh MacRae inherited “MacRae Castle,” with its 18” walls and 12 fireplaces. He engaged his beloved friend Henry Bacon; architect of the Lincoln Memorial, to finish the remodeling job Donald MacRae began. He also employed Bacon’s brother, Francis, to craft furnishings appropriate for a Scottish castle. But with all the castle’s splendor, Hugh MacRae was just as happy on his farm, Invershiel, near Rocky Point. There he studied ways to improve Southern farming and invited the public to visit him and see new varieties of grasses he discovered and nurtured that would provide year-round pasturage.

Hugh MacRae made mention of his agricultural endeavors within the display window for his business giant, Tidewater Power. (Courtesy of Julia Morton and NC Dept. of Archives and History)

Hugh MacRae, through his Carolina Trucking Development Company, also created agricultural colonies peopled by farmers recruited from abroad. A fifteen-piece brass band played welcoming music as the six colonies emerged. Marathon, settled Polish immigrants; Van Eeden and Castle Hayne, settled by Hollanders: St. Helena, a colony near Burgaw, settled by Italians; and Artesia, settled by Hollanders and Poles. However the Van Eeden colony failed the first time and MacRae and Dr. Alvin Johnson of New York resettled the land in the late 1930s with Jewish Holocaust escapees. Visas to farm were one of the last ways out of Nazi Germany, but MacRae and Johnson were only able to save about a dozen families before Hitler changed the rule. Most of the Jewish immigrants lived at Van Eeden for only a few years then moved on to big cities.

Hugh MacRae (1865-1951) (Photo by Hugh Morton, North Carolina Collection, UNC- Chapel Hill.)

By 1947, Hugh MacRae’s two grandsons, Hugh MacRae Morton and Hugh MacRae II, were working with him. After the grandfather’s death in 1951, estate settlements would lead eventually to Hugh Morton’s ownership of Grandfather Mountain in Linville and grandson Hugh MacRae’s management of the Wilmington development business.   (…to be continued.)

COPYRIGHT 2007. The edited text of this article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Wrightsville Beach Magazine. Photos have been added to this version and all copyrights apply.