Overview and History


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).

Inlet Inn

Down East

Down East is the local name for the land that stretches from the North River on the east side of Beaufort to Cedar Island, which marks Carteret County's northeastern boundary. Here you'll find picturesque scenery — marshes, canals and undisturbed places filled with wildlife, particularly as you get closer to Cedar Island. The portion of U.S. 70 that runs through Down East is a N.C. Scenic Byway, so designated by the N.C. Department of Transportation because it offers incomparable scenery and a chance to observe something different from the fast traffic and commercial areas along major interstates.

In the past, the livelihood of almost all Down East people depended on the water. Whether they made a living at commercial fishing, crabbing or boat building, people in this part of the county have a heritage tied to the water. Many still rely on the water to make a living, though more and more residents are finding employment in Beaufort or Morehead City or at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock. The love for the water remains obvious, however, by the number of boats, docks and fishing families found in Down East villages.

Currently no Down East community is incorporated, so the area is governed by Carteret County.

After leaving Beaufort on U.S. 70, Bettie is the first Down East community you reach. It lies between the North River Bridge and Ward's Creek Bridge. The next community is Otway, named for famous Swansboro privateer Otway Burns.

As you turn off U.S. 70 onto Harkers Island Road, Straits is the community you see flanking the road to Harkers Island. The Straits is also the name of the body of water that lies between the community and the island. The spelling of Straits is shown on early maps as "Straights." Later cartographers probably noticed the name was not applicable to a water course and changed the spelling to Straits, meaning narrows. Years ago Straits was a farm community and a substantial amount of cotton was grown here. Straits United Methodist Church, c. 1778, was the first Methodist Church built east of Beaufort.

Originally called Craney Island, Harkers Island once was the home of a thriving tribe of Tuscarora Indians. By the turn of the twentieth century, all that remained of the Native American settlement was a huge mound of sea shells on the island's east end, now called Shell Point. Historians say the Native Americans were attempting to build a shell walkway through the waters of Core Sound to Core Banks. Standing at Shell Point today, you can see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and nearby islands.

In 1730 George Pollock sold the island to Ebenezer Harker of Boston. Harker moved to the island and later divided it among his three sons, using the divisions "eastard," "westard" and "center." These have remained unofficial dividers, at least for the natives of the island. The Harker heirs did not part with their land for years, so the island population remained sparse for some time. In 1895 fewer than 30 families lived there. The population grew when folks from the Shackleford Banks community of Diamond City abandoned their town due to the devastation of hurricanes. Some loaded homes on boats and brought them to the safer ground of Harkers Island. With this new surge in population, schools, churches and businesses sprang up. Still, the island remained isolated until ferry operations began in 1926, with the ferry leaving from the island's west end and docking in the Down East community of Gloucester. A bridge to the island was built in 1941. Today, Harkers Island is home to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, the famous Core Sound Decoy Festival and the Cape Lookout National Park Visitor Center. See our Crystal Coast Attractions and Annual Events chapters for more information on these fascinating places and events.

As you leave Harkers Island and re-enter U.S. 70 headed east, Smyrna is the next Down East town. It was named in 1785 from a deed that conveyed 100 acres from Joseph Davis to Seth Williston. The land was on Smunar Creek, and the spelling was later changed to Smyrna.

Marshallberg is just off U.S. 70. Originally named Deep Hole Point, Marshallberg is built on a peninsula formed by Jarrett Bay and Core Sound. Folks say that clay was dug from the area and used to fill ramparts and cover easements at Fort Macon on Bogue Banks, leaving a large hole, thus the original name. It was later renamed for Matt Marshall, who ran the mailboat from Beaufort.

In 1880 W. Q. A. Graham established Graham Academy at the head of Sleepy Creek in Marshallberg. The school prepared its students for college, and students who didn't live in town stayed in the school's dormitories. Monthly board was about $5.50 per student, and the school's attendance in 1892 was 126. The academy was destroyed by fire in 1910.

Between Marshallberg and Straits is the small community of Gloucester, so named in the early 1900s by Capt. Joseph Pigott for the Massachusetts town he loved. Back on U.S. 70 and a little way past Smyrna, you will find Williston, named for John Williston who was one of the area's first settlers. Williston has long been nicknamed "Beantown," though why is still a point of confusion. Some say it was because of the large quantities of beans grown in the community, and others say it was because residents had a reputation for loving to eat beans. The Williston United Methodist Church was built in 1883.

The village of Davis was settled by William T. Davis in the 1700s. People worked the water and the land to make a living. Farm crops, such as cotton and sweet potatoes, were taken by sailboat to Virginia to be sold or traded for flour, sugar and cloth. Davis residents were known as "Onion Eaters," either because of the number of green onions grown there or because Davis people simply liked onions. An Army camp was opened in Davis during World War II, and some of the old camp buildings remain along the water's edge.

Stacy is made up of two even smaller communities: Masontown and Piney Point. The post office was opened in 1885. Stacy Freewill Baptist Church is more than 100 years old.

Originally called Wit, Sea Level is still the fishing community it has always been. In 1706 the King of England granted Capt. John Nelson about 650 acres, with Nelson's Bay on the west and Core Sound on the east. That land is today's Sea Level. Sailors' Snug Harbor, the oldest charitable trust in America, opened a facility for retired Merchant Marines there in 1976. (The original facility of its type opened in 1833 on Staten Island.) The Snug Harbor center is now open to men and women from all walks of life. Taylor Extended Care Facility is a nursing home on Nelson's Bay. A satellite clinic of Carteret General Hospital operates alongside the nursing home.

U.S. 70 ends, or begins depending on how you look at it, in the township of Atlantic. This community was settled in the 1740s and was originally called Hunting Quarters. The first post office opened in 1880, and the name was changed to Atlantic. The community's nickname is Per, and old-timers refer to their home as Per Atlantic. In the 1930s progress arrived in the form of paved roads. Today, Atlantic is home to two of the East Coast's largest seafood dealers, Luther Smith & Son Seafood Company and Clayton Fulcher Seafood Company, as well as a 1,500-acre Marine Corps Outlying Landing Field.

From Atlantic, N.C. 12 takes travelers to Cedar Island, seemingly the end of the earth, where you'll find the North Carolina State ferry landing to Ocracoke Island and North Carolina's Outer Banks. Cedar Island was known by that name until two post offices were established in the early 1900s. Then the east end of the island became known as Lola and the west end as Roe, each with its own post office and school. In the 1960s, the two post offices closed and a new one was opened. The whole island became known as Cedar Island again, but locals still use the old names. Some homes on the island date back to the 1880s.

Lennoxville is the community closest to Beaufort. It begins at the east end of Front Street in Beaufort and continues to the east end of Lennoxville Road, where it cul-de-sacs beneath an awning of huge live oaks. This is primarily an unincorporated residential area, with the exception of Atlantic Veneer (see our Commerce and Industry chapter). Lennoxville is surrounded by water: Taylor's Creek on the south and North River on the north with Core Sound and a perfect view of Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The lure of waterfront living has stimulated the development of a few small but very upscale subdivisions along Lennoxville's forested waterfronts.

North River is a small community north of Beaufort on Merrimon Road. This community includes houses on both sides of the road and backs up to the body of water known as North River.

Here's an oddity — the South River community actually lies to the north of the North River community. Named for the body of water at its banks, South River is a small traditional fishing and hunting community. Some of the surrounding land is owned by recreational hunters and businesses, and several private airstrips are in the area. Many Native American artifacts and pottery pieces have been found in the South River area. Open Grounds Farm lies in the South River area and extends east to the Down East community of Stacy. This 50,000-acre corporate farm includes crops — namely corn, soybeans, cotton — and timber.

To the west of South River lies the community of Merrimon. This rural area borders the Neuse River and Adams Creek, which is a stretch of the scenic Intracoastal Waterway.

In recent years a few neighborhood developments have sprung up around South River, Merrimon and the Intracoastal Waterway. Merrimon Bay, Ellinwood Estates, Sportsman's Village, Sandy Point, Jonaquin's Landing and Indian Summer Estates offer waterfront and mainland lots, and most feature such amenities as community docks and boat ramps.

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