The seaport town of Beaufort affords residents and visitors a slice of early American life in a fishing and port town, with plenty of tourist attractions, too. Not to be confused with the somewhat larger Beaufort, South Carolina, (pronounced BU-fort), Beaufort (pronounced BO-fort) is still a town of only about 5,000 full-time residents, and fishing and water trades still figure into its economy. With tree-lined streets and restored historic homes, Beaufort's historical diversity and Southern charm are everywhere. Front Street faces Taylor's Creek. Just past the creek is the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve, then Shackleford Banks, then the Atlantic Ocean.
Beaufort was named for Englishman Henry Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort. The town was surveyed, laid out, and named in 1713, nearly 20 years before George Washington's birth, became a port in 1722 and was incorporated in 1723. Beaufort is the county seat of Carteret County. When laid out, streets were names: Ann and Queen, for Queen Anne; Craven, for the Earl of Craven; Orange, for William, the Prince of Orange; Moore, for Col. Maurice Moore; and Pollock, for the Colonial governor at the time of the 1713 survey.
Beaufort offers a glimpse at a part of North Carolina's coastal history with restored older structures and landmarks. The Beaufort Historical Association (BHA) was organized in 1960 to celebrate the town's 250th anniversary. The association commemorates Beaufort's historic homes with special plaques, noting the original homeowner and the date in which the structure was built. To earn a plaque, a home must be over 100 years old and have retained its historic and architectural integrity. Through the years the Beaufort Historical Association has moved several old structures — including an early American courthouse, jail and apothecary that were threatened with demolition — to an area on Turner Street, which is now open to the public daily. For more information about the Beaufort Historic Site, see our Crystal Coast Attractions chapter.
Beaufort has a designated historic district that includes residential homes, cemeteries, businesses, a restoration site, the county courthouse and several structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Each historic house and site has its own story to tell.
The Old Burying Ground on Ann Street is one of Beaufort's most fascinating sites. Deeded to the town in 1731 by the then owner of the town, Nathaniel Taylor, the Old Burying Ground was declared full in 1825, and the N.C. General Assembly said no more burials would be allowed there. The town was ordered to lay out a new graveyard, but the townspeople didn't support the act and continued to bury their loved ones in the Old Burying Ground until the early 1900s. The north corner of the graveyard is the oldest section of the cemetery, although many of the oldest graves don't carry a marker. For a great self-guided tour, stop by the Beaufort Historical Association, 138 Turner Street, (252) 728-5225. A few of the notables buried here are Capt. Josiah Pender, whose men took Fort Macon in 1861; James W. Hunt, who had the distinction of marrying, making his will and dying the same day; Esther Cooke, mother of Capt. James W. Cooke, who once commanded the ironclad Albemarle; the Dill child, buried in a glass-topped casket; the common grave of the Crissie Wright crew, who froze to death when the ship wrecked on Shackleford Banks in 1886; and the child who died aboard a ship and was brought to Beaufort in a keg of rum for burial — in the keg. People leave trinkets on the child's grave, along with money, jewelry and small toys — although no one seems to remember how the practice got started.
With the town's waterfront revitalization project in the late 1970s, Beaufort took a new direction. The renovation involved tearing down many old waterfront structures not considered salvageable and building the wooden boardwalk, docks and facilities that bring more sailboats and pleasure craft than the shad boats that once lined the creek. Some businesses were encouraged to stay while others opted to move into the downtown area. Soon word of the new old town spread, and it hasn't been the same since. What was once a coastal hideaway is now a favorite spot for visitors traveling by car or boat.
Entering Beaufort from the west will take you across a drawbridge, which are quickly becoming relics along the coast. Because of increased traffic, plans have been in the works for years to replace the drawbridge. Where to locate the bridge has been a sticking point, and people in Beaufort are divided between maintaining the drawbridge or building a new bridge to ease traffic snarls.
Even with all the town's history, there is still much new development here. New structures continue to spring up, and new developments are under construction around town and in the town's surrounding areas. Development plans are underway for the old fish factory at the east end of Front Street and the land across the street.
Beaufort is home to a number of attractions, not the least of which are the wonderful North Carolina Maritime Museum and Watercraft Center, the Beaufort Historic Site and the Rachel Carson Reserve, part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve (see our Crystal Coast Attractions chapter for more information about these).