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The town was founded in 1792 by William S. Powell, a wealthy planter from Edenton who named the town after his wife's home of Southport, England. The Cape Fear River provided an important transportation route for the area until the construction of railroads in 1852; it is now mainly used for recreation and commercial fishing. In 1827, Southport became one of North Carolina's first incorporated towns (the second oldest incorporated municipality in Brunswick County).