An evening, a week, or a month spent in Beaufort, whether tucked into a cozy slip or anchored in Taylor Creek, can be a very rewarding experience. Eighteen years ago, the Beaufort waterfront looked almost like a boarded-up ghost town. Today, the downtown historic district has been tastefully redeveloped as a haven for both landlubber tourists and cruising visitors.
Beaufort's principal waterfront gazes proudly over the northern shore of Taylor Creek. Other facilities are on Town Creek north of the 13-foot bascule bridge (the Grayden Paul Bridge) and on the eastern shore just south of the span.
Beaufort Historical District
The vast majority of Beaufort's elegant whitewashed homes have been restored over the last decade. Two houses and several public buildings are owned by the Beaufort Historical Society, which conducts daily tours of these imposing structures. All visitors to this old city by the sea should allow time for this tour. Your cruise will be richer for the effort.
To begin your tour of old Beaufort, take a short walk to the new headquarters of the Beaufort Historical Association, located in the Robert W. and Elva Faison Safrit Historical Center. Here, you can purchase tour tickets and check out the museum and gift shop as well. The society's new headquarters is a wonderful addition to historic Beaufort. I highly recommend that all who have not yet seen it drop by.
The Beaufort Historical Society sponsors the Old Homes Tour during the last weekend of June. Many of Beaufort's privately owned, beautifully restored homes are open to the public for this event only. Boaters whose visits coincide with the tour should make every effort to attend this worthwhile event.
Another attraction that should not be missed is the North Carolina Maritime Museum. This most informative establishment is located within sight of the Beaufort Municipal Docks. The museum provides an interesting look at the oceanography of the North Carolina coast and a fascinating account of the state's early men of the sea. Seldom will cruising boaters discover a better presentation of North Carolina's coastal history and physical characteristics than that found at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. The museum maintains a courtesy car for the exclusive use of visiting mariners. Check with one of the staff for availability.
The museum's Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center is located just across Front Street directly overlooking Taylor Creek. Here, students and craftsmen labor to build wooden dinghies and sailcraft of traditional North Carolina design. This exhibit lovingly preserves the art of building boats as it was practiced before the advent of fiberglass and modern technology. The public is welcome at the center. An observation platform is on the western side of the building. If you have the time, drop by and watch the students at their work. For anyone interested in boats and cruising, it is more than fascinating.
During the first full weekend in May, the North Carolina Maritime Museum sponsors the annual Wooden Boat Show along the waterfront. The results of the students' labors are displayed along with many other wooden craft. The event is capped off by a sailing regatta to see whose work of art is best on the water. If you happen to be in the area, don't fail to catch this fascinating event.
Visitors to Beaufort should not even think of leaving before visiting the Old Burying Ground. This historical site is on Ann Street just a two-block walk from the waterfront. No one is exactly sure of the old cemetery's age. The land was deeded by the town as a burial place in 1731, but records indicate that the grounds were already in use as a cemetery.
The Old Burying Ground has many graves with interesting stories. According to legend, one grave contains an English sailor who was buried upright so he could eternally salute his king. Another grave marker bears this inscription:
The form that fills this silent grave,
once tossed on ocean's rolling wave,
but in a port securely fast
he's dropped his anchor here at last.
A pamphlet available at the headquarters of the historical association will guide you to several of the unique graves and give a short history of each. Don't miss this graveyard! The old oaks swaying in the sea breeze and the seemingly ancient graves exude an atmosphere that must be experienced to be understood.
Beaufort was laid out by Robert Turner in 1713. The pattern of streets that he designed remains essentially intact to this day. Several of the streets were named for prominent persons of the time: Ann Street was named for Queen Ann; Turner Street for Robert Turner himself; and Moore Street for Major Maurice Moore, a hero of the Tuscarora Indian wars.
By 1722, Beaufort had become such an active harbor that it was designated an official seaport by the Lords Proprietors of the colony. A customs office was subsequently established in the port. The same year, the so-called Carteret Precinct of Craven County was declared a separate entity, to be called Carteret County. Beaufort became its county seat.
Twice during the summer of 1747, pirates pillaged Beaufort, but they were eventually driven off by local militia. Until a few years ago, this event was remembered by a dramatic reenactment.
During the Revolutionary War, Beaufort was decidedly pro-patriot. Many privateers serving the American cause used the port. Saltworks were built nearby to supply the colony; previously, salt had been imported from England. Near the end of the war, in 1782, the British entered Beaufort Harbor and occupied the town for 10 days. Valiant and determined resistance by the townsfolk eventually discouraged the English forces, and they left for Charleston.
The years following the Revolutionary War were a time of prosperity for Beaufort. The port's commerce enjoyed a notable increase. Many of the fine homes standing today were built in this period. Also during this time, the Harlowe Canal was carved out of the lands separating the Newport and Neuse Rivers. For a brief period, this canal linked Beaufort with the inland ports of New Bern and Bath.
During the War of 1812, Beaufort again played a key role in the American cause. When both Charleston and Baltimore were effectively blockaded by the British, the old port town took on added importance as a center of commercial and wartime traffic. One of the heroes of the War of 1812, Captain Otway Burns, used Beaufort as the home port for his privateer, the Snap Dragon. Following the war, the valiant captain lived in Beaufort for a while and was eventually buried in the town's cemetery. His unique gravestone is adorned by one of the cannons from the Snap Dragon.
Following the War of 1812, Beaufort became a favorite summer retreat for the well-to-do. The cool ocean breezes were welcomed by visitors from the state's interior. During this time, the first Atlantic Hotel was built in Beaufort. This famous establishment was later rebuilt in Morehead City after a hurricane destroyed the original structure in 1880.
The Civil War brought early and prolonged occupation by Union forces. General Ambrose Burnside established his headquarters in an illustrious Beaufort home, and the Atlantic Hotel was converted to Hammond Hospital. Fortunately, the lengthy occupation caused no lasting harm to the community. Following the war, Beaufort again resumed its importance as a summer retreat.
While most of the South suffered the agonies of Reconstruction, Beaufort continued to prosper. The Ocean View and Seaside Hotels were opened. Trade flourished; barrel staves, lumber, rum, and molasses were some of Beaufort's exports. During this period, the menhaden industry became important. Beaufort was home port for a large fishing fleet and the site of the processing plants for a thriving menhaden trade. The fleet plied the waters of Core Sound for this fish, which produces many valuable oils. Today, most menhaden are taken offshore, but Beaufort is still the home of a small fishing fleet and one processing plant.
In 1908, a railroad bridge was built from Morehead City to Beaufort, at last connecting the old port city to the mainland. Although the bridge was welcomed by local residents, as was the first highway bridge in 1926, Beaufort's longtime isolation served it well. Rampant commercial development never gained a foothold. Today, the community leaders' foresight continues to bar unsightly construction. In my opinion, Beaufort is the best-preserved coastal town in North Carolina. Visitors to this historic community owe a debt of gratitude to those who have guarded the town's heritage so successfully.
If you are interested in learning more of Beaufort's history, you should acquire The Old Port Town: Beaufort, North Carolina and Beaufort, North Carolina, in Color, both by Jean Bruyere Kell. Several entertaining Beaufort legends can also be found in Mary and Grayden Paul's Folk-Lore, Facts and Fiction about Carteret County in North Carolina. All three works are available from the Beaufort Historical Association, the North Carolina Mariners Museum, and Rocking Chair Bookstore on the Beaufort waterfront.