Carteret County’s history, amenities have long lured

Carteret County’s history, amenities have long lured

A view from the Fort Macon parade ground in Fort Macon State Park. Photo: Eric Medlin

Part of a history series exploring each of North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties.

The North Carolina coast has several regions with world famous beaches and offshore islands. They offer miles of sand, notable hotels, and a slew of shops, restaurants, and attractions that are available to tourists and residents alike.

Along with the Outer Banks to the north and the beaches in the Wilmington area to the south, the Crystal Coast, a tourism marketing term coined in the 1980’s, has gained recognition over the past century for its array of amenities.

The term now includes neighboring destinations as well, but primarily refers to the beaches of Carteret County, one of the state’s oldest counties with a history stretching back three centuries. Its history is marked by war, industrial development, and the tourism boom that shaped so much of coastal North Carolina society.

After the founding of North Carolina on Albemarle Sound, colonial settlers began moving south and west to find more areas for tobacco growing and trading. Many left to cultivate the fertile soils along the Neuse River and, in the 1720s, the Cape Fear and Tar Rivers. The settlers drove out native peoples, including the Tuscarora and Core, during this process.

Some colonial families decided to stay on the coast and settle near bays. One such settlement was the future seat of Beaufort in Carteret County, settled near Beaufort Inlet in the 1710s and incorporated in 1723. Beaufort was the colony’s fourth incorporated city. Carteret County itself was formed a year earlier and named after Sir John Carteret, one of the Lords Proprietors, according to historian and author David Leroy Corbitt.

Beaufort was a port city, a center of maritime trade, and a stopover for ships passing through Beaufort Inlet. But the port was isolated from the other more prosperous areas of the colony and remained small in its early years. The only exception to its sleepy early beginnings was in 1747, when the city was captured by the Spanish as part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain. Local militiamen recaptured the town three days later, ending the Spanish threat.

State Historic Marker on Turner Street in Beaufort.

Outside of Beaufort, the area remained isolated and rural. Now popular for its many tourist attractions, Bogue Banks Island was sparsely inhabited in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But on another offshore island here, Portsmouth, a town on Portsmouth Island near Ocracoke Inlet, was one of the earliest prosperous towns in the county. The town had a population of more than 500 in 1850 before losing most of them after the reopening of Hatteras Inlet in 1846. Portsmouth is now a ghost town and part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The coast is also home to one of North Carolina’s tallest lighthouses, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, originally built in 1804 and rebuilt in 1859.

On the mainland, communities like Peletier and Broad Creek gained their first settlers in the 18th century. But rural isolation, swampy surroundings, and the lack of major shipping kept the inland population low. Carteret County had the second smallest population of any North Carolina county in 1790. The people who lived in the county subsisted on shipping, agriculture and marine supplies – pitch, tar and turpentine products harvested in the lush pine forests.

Plantation economy and slavery were less pronounced in this area than in the surrounding counties. The 1860 census found that 24.5% of Carteret County’s population was enslaved, the lowest percentage east of Moore County.

The mid-19th century saw an economic boom in Carteret County in the form of the North Carolina Railroad Co. The new railroad linking the Piedmont to the coast was to have its eastern terminus in a new town. The tract, which included what was then Shepard’s Point, was laid out in 1854 as a lattice design and named Morehead City after its chief planner, John Motley Morehead, who had served as governor from 1841 to 1845. Morehead organized investors into the land development company, led efforts to raise private funds for the state-appropriated railroad line, and served as its first president.

Morehead City was incorporated on February 10, 1861. Meanwhile, the railroad also connected other towns and cities in Carteret County, including Wildwood and Newport.

But Carteret County’s railroad and strategic coastal location made it a prime Union target during the Civil War. The primary target was Fort Macon, built in 1834 to protect the entrance to Beaufort Inlet. Confederate troops stormed the almost-abandoned fort before North Carolina even broke away, according to John G. Barrett. Less than a year later, Union forces landed at Hoop Pole Creek in present-day Atlantic Beach and captured the fort. The greater coastal area quickly fell to the Union. Further inland, the Battle of Newport Barracks in February 1864 resulted in three medals of honor being awarded to a group of Union soldiers from Vermont.

The next 75 years were a period of steady growth and development in Carteret County. Between 1860 and 1920 the population almost doubled. Efforts to designate Morehead City as a state port began in the 1920s, culminating in a $7.5 million grant in 1949. Beaufort became a center for tourism and marine exploration, as well as shipping and fishing. New funds in Beaufort from this growing prosperity led to the construction of a new courthouse for the county in 1907.

In the 1920s, Carteret County became a tourist destination. The first bridge connecting Bogue Banks to the mainland was built in 1928 by a group of local investors who sold the bridge to the state eight years later. The Morehead-Atlantic Beach Bridge and Emerald Isle-Cape Carteret Ferry, which was replaced by a bridge in 1971, eventually led to hotels and fishing piers on the shores.

Alice Green Hoffman. Source: Department of Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.

The central part of the Bogue Banks between Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach received an early benefactor in 1917 when Alice Hoffman, a relative of Theodore Roosevelt, bought a large property. Hoffman spent much of her life building an estate in Bogue Banks and feuding with local fishermen, as noted in Kathleen McMillan Guthrie’s biography of Hoffman. The sale of Hoffman’s land after her death in 1953 led to considerable development and eventual formation of the towns of Indian Beach and Pine Knoll Shores.

Growth on Bogue Banks has paralleled development in other parts of the county. While Beaufort’s population remained small, it began to attract businesses, restaurants, and tourist attractions such as the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Newport’s population more than doubled in the 1960s, while Down East communities such as Atlantic and Sea Level experienced growth and became centers for fishing and boating. Sea Level became the site for the Snug Harbor Navy National Retirement Facility, a home for retired merchant mariners that operated from 1976 to 2019. Newport was also aided by the construction of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point at nearby Havelock, for which it became a site for housing development. To reflect this development and its growing tourist reputation, the term ‘Crystal Coast’ was introduced in the late 20th century to describe the region’s towns and beaches.

Carteret County was inhabited by a number of notable figures during the 20th century. These included architect Bill Ransom Campbell, author Gerald R. Weeks, and Major League Baseball pitcher Lonnie Chisenhall, all from Morehead City. Other famous residents include Judge Algernon Marbley and Samuel Herring, lead singer of the band Future Islands. A famous Beaufort resident was Reginald Hawkins, a civil rights activist and the first African American to run for governor of North Carolina. Another was Fairleigh Dickinson, a business leader who also became the namesake of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Michael J. Smith, the pilot of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission that exploded shortly after launch in 1986, was also from Beaufort.

Today Carteret County is one of the tourist centers on the North Carolina coast. There are dozens of well known restaurants, leisure facilities and hotels on Bogue Banks and elsewhere. Earlier this year, Food Network personality Guy Fieri filmed his family reunion special in the county and toured several of his restaurants and markets. Beaufort has won numerous ‘Best Small Town’ awards over the past decade, most notably a 2014 award from Travel and Leisure magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *