Swansboro Historic District
The Swansboro Historic District was listed pn the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Swansboro Historic District incorporates most of the historic center of the small port town and includes 123 resources, mostly residential and commercial in character. The Swansboro Historic District is bounded by Highway 24 on the east, Walnut Street on the north, Broad Street on the west, and Water Street and the White Oak River on the south. One- and two-story frame dwellings and commercial buildings dating to the period 1890-1925 represent the majority of contributing properties in the Swansboro Historic District, with a scattering of earlier buildings. The town is situated on sloping ground which crests at twenty-five feet above sea-level along Walnut Street. The town faces the Atlantic Ocean across three-and-a-half miles of intervening salt marshes and barrier islands and is therefore exposed to breezes and occasional ocean storms. The land area of the downtown was appreciably increased by harbor dredging in the 1930s, which piled ballast stones and other spoil on the south side of Front Street. Of the resources in the Swansboro Historic District, 77, or approximately 63 percent, are contributing (76 buildings and one cemetery).
Swansboro's domestic and commercial architecture includes some of the earliest representatives of these building types in the county. The town's tiny sample of religious and educational buildings is not markedly different from similar buildings found elsewhere in Onslow County.
Swansboro's small stock of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century housing is similar in form, plan, and style to antebellum houses built elsewhere in Onslow County. However, Swansboro's later domestic architecture is stylistically distinct from contemporaneous late nineteenth and early twentieth century housing built in other sections of Onslow County. This is probably a result of stock decorative elements produced at Swansboro's several lumber boom period mills, which appear only on a few houses outside Swansboro built principally in the Queens Creek and lower White Oak River drainages. Swansboro's later housing is characterized by the I-house and gable-fronted side-hall plan forms, types with more limited currency in Onslow County's other principal towns, Jacksonville and Richlands.
The town's late nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial architecture shares similarities of scale and form with commercial buildings built elsewhere in the county, but differs from these buildings in one important respect. The store buildings lining Swansboro's Front Street are almost exclusively of frame construction, whereas the early twentieth century commercial architecture of downtown Jacksonville and Richlands is built almost entirely of brick. Geography may lie behind this difference.
Jacksonville and. Richlands were connected to railroads and received many building materials from outside the area. Swansboro was never reached by railroad but it did have easy water access to southeastern Onslow County extensive pine forests.
Fifty-five, or 71 percent, of Swansboro's contributing properties are domestic in character. Five of these houses were built before the Civil War; the rest were built between the late 1880s and 1925 — the period of Swansboro's lumber boom.
Swansboro's antebellum houses represent a range of styles and plan types. Two houses, the Jonathan Green House (114 Elm Street) and the so-called Beaufort House (105 Water Street), exhibit the coastal plain cottage form and have hall-parlor plans. The two-story double-pile Peter Ringware House (209 Main Street) has one large room on one side of a center hall and two smaller rooms on the other side. The Hawkins-Glover House (224 Elm Street) was originally a two-story I-house with a hall-parlor plan, expanded shortly after it was built into a center-hall plan. The two-story Bazel Hawkins House (208 Elm Street) has an engaged two-tier front porch, a center hall, large front rooms, and smaller rear rooms — an arrangement similar to houses found in Beaufort (Catherine Bishir, personal communication). These Swansboro houses display Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival stylistic features, and represent a much smaller, but equally fine architectural heritage as the antebellum housing stock of the nearby port town of Beaufort, with which Swansboro had economic ties.
A study of the 1850 census of population statistics for Swansboro suggests that these five dwellings represent the majority of the finer Swansboro houses built before the Civil War — a remarkable survival rate. Only the late eighteenth century Gibson House, the late antebellum Barnum House, and possibly one or two other fine houses have been lost. Less sophisticated early houses that have disappeared included the Pitts-Heady House and the Lambertson House, both with the coastal plain cottage form. The considerable number of small frame dwellings built in the town before the Civil War may also have been typified by the coastal plain cottage form.
Lumber Boom Houses: 1880s-1925
Apparently few houses were built in Swansboro between the Civil War and the late 1880s, a period of economic stagnation in the town. The earliest houses associated with Swansboro's lumber boom, such as the George E. Bell House (224 Water Street) and the circa 1893 James Elijah Parkin House (218 Water Street), are characterized by flamboyant interior and exterior ornament. Houses from the later 1890s, the 1900s, and the 1910s exhibit a remarkable degree of ornamental similarity, likely evidence of the influence of the Swansboro Lumber Company Mill and its successor the Swansboro Land and Lumber Company Mill. There is no evidence that the mills built these houses directly. Instead it appears that a coterie of independent carpenters made liberal use of stock moldings and ornament produced at the mills.
The dominant house form of Swansboro's lumber years was the I-house, incorporating either two-room or center-hall plans. Many of Swansboro's houses built during this period have the symmetrical two-story three-bay facades characteristic of the I-house. Many one-story houses also have symmetrical three-bay facades reflecting two-room and center-hall plans within. In addition to these types, a number of two-story houses were built with side-hall plans.
Secondary characteristics which distinguish these turn-of-the-century houses include turned and sawn porch ornament, cornice and frieze board returns, decorative wood-shingling and louvered vents in gables, and entries flanked by sidelights with elaborate raised wooden panels under the lights. Several houses have chamfered porch posts with pronounced molded neckings and caps. Interiors are generally sheathed in beaded tongue-and-groove boards and mantels and stairs are embellished with sawn and turned ornament. In both the inside and outside of Swansboro's lumber boom houses can be found the delicate multiple moldings that superficially resemble Federal styling.
The Swansboro Land and Lumber Company was the only mill in Onslow County to have a band saw, and subsequently Swansboro houses and other buildings built during the years of the mill's operation have framing members bearing vertical saw marks. The latest houses to be associated with Swansboro's lumbering activities were more typical of the mainstream of American domestic architecture: Foursquares, such as the second Pete Smith House (115 Main Street), and Bungalows.
Two antebellum commercial buildings survive in Swansboro: the William Pugh Ferrand Store (122 Front Street) and the Robert Spence McLean Store (116 Front Street), both dating to the period immediately following an 1838 fire that ravaged Front Street. The two-story Ferrand Store is the only nineteenth century brick structure to survive in Onslow County (and also, apparently, one of the few to be built in the area). The frame McLean Store may originally have been only one story in height with a storage garret; during the late nineteenth century it was given a full second story. Both of these structures retain many original interior and exterior features. Both were associated with the turpentine trade in late antebellum Swansboro. The gable-front form of these two buildings relates them architecturally to commercial buildings built throughout the United States during the antebellum period.
Commercial architecture built during Swansboro's lumber boom years also adopted the gable-front form. Some of these buildings were quite small, such as the Richard Riggs Store (103 Main Street). Others were large such as the two-story Watson and Parkin "double store" (201 Front Street) built as a speculative venture by coastal North Carolina hosteler William J. Moore in 1910. Six of Swansboro's commercial buildings are contributing.
The majority of Swansboro's surviving historic architecture is domestic or commercial in character, although the town's building stock was formerly complemented by many buildings of diverse function.
Not buildings per se, but vital to the town's early economy, were shipyards. Shipyards were located at several points along the town waterfront, most notably at the ends of Main and Moore streets. Iron rails once used to launch ships extend underwater at the end of Moore Street. Wooden piers once thronged the waterfront: remains of one possibly dating to the colonial period survive at nearby Deer Island (Burwell Jackson, personal communication). One of the few classes of structures related to Swansboro's maritime economy to survive in the town are fish houses, small gable-fronted frame structures where seafood was processed and packed. The 1930s Jim Kennedy Fish House (135 Front Street) is the best preserved of these traditional fish houses.
Of the succession of sawmills that operated in the town between the 1880s and the 1920s, nothing survives other than the domestic and commercial infrastructure created by them. The largest of these, the circa 1900 Swansboro Land and Lumber Company Mill, included at least three large two-story machinery sheds and a commissary and office building. Another industry that has vanished without leaving any above-ground trace is grist milling. According to Swansboro historian Tucker Littleton, the town featured at different times as many as five windmills for the grinding of corn meal (Littleton, Along the Path of History).
Until the 1890s the Methodists were the only sect to erect a church building in Swansboro. In 1897 the Baptists raised a large church building at 116 Main Street which survives today. The earliest school in the town may have been established as early as 1783. A one-story frame Methodist academy stood on Walnut Street during the second half of the nineteenth century. The only educational building to survive in the Swansboro Historic District is the 1920s Emmerton School (502 Church Street).
Swansboro lacks appreciable numbers of outbuildings dating to the period of significance. Notable exceptions are a two-room frame smokehouse and storage building behind the Hawkins-Glover House (224 Elm Street) and the James Thomas Bartley House privy (106a Water Street), which shares architectural features with the main house and may date to the 1890s. Local tradition asserts that this privy was once removed to Front Street where it served briefly as the town's post office (Errington Littleton, personal communication).
Swansboro, a tiny port established in 1770 on Bogue Sound at the mouth of the White Oak River in Onslow County, is a remarkably unaltered waterfront village of approximately 150 densely-clustered houses and commercial buildings. The Swansboro Historic District includes the town's surviving antebellum building stock of five houses and two store buildings as well as several virtually intact blocks of frame houses dating to the period of the town's lumber boom, between the years 1880 and 1925. These lumber boom houses display a distinctive local variation of typical late Victorian exterior and interior milled ornament.
The town served as a center for fishing, boat-building, and naval stores processing and shipment before the Civil War. After the war, Swansboro hosted a succession of large lumber mills. Unlike the coastal towns of Beaufort and Morehead City in adjacent Carteret County, which grew large owing to fine harborage and rail connections, Swansboro remained isolated and tied to its immediate hinterland. Consequently, Swansboro represents one of the smallest and most traditional maritime communities surviving on the North Carolina coast.
The town of Swansboro occupies one of the earliest settled locales in Onslow County. The town is sited on a point of land at the mouth of the White Oak River in extreme southeastern Onslow County. Within sight of the town lies Bogue Inlet, which is the most readily navigable inlet on the Onslow County coast. Swansboro's accessibility from the ocean, and its proximity to the inland waterway of the White Oak River, were two of the precipitating factors in the town's establishment.
According to Swansboro historian Tucker Littleton, the first individual known to have lived on the site of Swansboro was Jonathan Green Sr., a native of Falmouth, Massachusetts, who settled at Swansboro in 1730. In 1735 Green's property was acquired by Theophilus Weeks, another Falmouth native. Theophilus Weeks apparently developed an extensive plantation at the site including a wharf and an ordinary (Littleton, Along the Path of History).
About 1770 Weeks established a town at his plantation. The earliest plat, dated October 20, 1772, portrays a town of forty-eight 60x200 foot lots laid out in three tiers parallel to the water. Running between the town and the waterfront is a forty foot wide street identified as "the Front Street" in the plat — the present Front Street. Perpendicular to Front Street is "Broad Street" (the present Main Street which passes through the town and continues as the main road linking southeastern Onslow County with the courthouse at Jacksonville. Across Front Street, Broad Street terminates in a wharf — the first of several town wharves which stood at the lower end of the present Main Street until the end of the nineteenth century. The remainder of the town's 1772 grid is transected by thirty-foot wide lanes which correspond to the present Church, Elm, Moore, and Water streets (a copy of Swansboro's original plat is filed at the Onslow County Museum).
By the time the 1772 plat was drawn, all but three of the town's forty-eight lots had been purchased. Early deeds shed light on the occupations and building activities of the town's incipient population. Ship captains such as Daniel Bates, Jonathan Green Jr., and Peter Ringware settled in the town. Green and Ringware are credited with the construction of two substantial frame houses which still stand on Main Street. Merchants clustered on Front Street, where John Starkey and probably also James McCagg and Isaac Hill built stores. Lot 6, at the corner of Main and Front streets, was purchased shortly after 1772 by the Wilmington mercantile firm of Hogg and Campbell who built a branch store at the location. All in all, a minimum of twenty buildings were built in Swansboro between 1770 and 1780 (Tucker Littleton Papers. Box 17).
Swansboro of the late eighteenth century had probably already established the diversified economy that was to characterize it until the first decade of the twentieth century. In addition to providing a home port for sea captains and an emporium for merchants, Swansboro became the site of vigorous shipbuilding activities from the late eighteenth century until the Civil War. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century turpentine producers and marketers had located in the town, such as New Englanders Charles H. Barnum and Cyrus B. Glover. Scotsman, Robert Spence McLean, and the Ferrands, father William Ferrands and son William Pugh, from New Bern. Barnum and Glover also operated saltworks in the Swansboro vicinity.
The majority of Swansboro's population derived their livelihood from the sea. The 1850 census of population lists seventeen "mariners" (sailors) out of a total workforce of fifty-one. Some of these sailors were probably also fisherman, as suggested by later censuses. They are rarely listed as owning considerable real estate, and one account of the town as it was in 1862 may refer to their houses. Union commander Thomas G. Stevenson described the town as "a small village, built on a slope of land rising from the marshes around [with] a score of poorly-built, tumbled-down old houses." Stevenson was probably describing housing in the lower section of town, along Front and Water Streets, otherwise he would have made mention of the larger and well-built houses above the town, several of which survive to this day. Another oblique reference to Swansboro's less-affluent citizens may have been made by Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury when he visited the town in 1785 and described its inhabitants as a "wicked people." Asbury's assessment was made two years after five of Swansboro's citizens had successfully induced the state's general assembly to establish a public school in the town, suggesting that not all the town's people were irredeemably wicked (Clark, v.24:534).
Mid-Nineteenth Century Population
The earliest reliable figure for Swansboro's population comes from the 1850 census, which lists 152 inhabitants. By 1860 the population had risen to approximately 200 but by 1870 it had dropped to 142 and by 1880 it had dropped still further to 128. The decline following the Civil War may have reflected general economic disruptions of the immediate area and the South at large.
The Lumber Boom: 1880s-1930
Swansboro experienced an economic revival during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century. This revival was brought about by a succession of large lumbering operations which located on the outskirts of town.
John Prittyman's mill was the first of these (established by the late 1880s), followed by the Swansboro Land and Lumber Company Mill, established in 1900. Swansboro's population leapt to 233 in 1890, 265 in 1900, and 390 in 1910. By one estimate it stood at 575 in 1916 before dropping back to 420 in 1920 (1916 North Carolina Year Book). Oddly, only 10 percent of Swansboro's workforce worked in lumbering in 1900, compared to 53 percent with maritime occupations. The census of 1910, however, shows 43 percent of the workforce involved in the lumber industry and 41 percent involved in maritime activities such as piloting, fishing, and boat building. Some maritime workers serviced the lumber mill, supplying food to the mill's workforce and transporting lumber by water.
Increased economic activity brought with it a renewal of and increase in Swansboro's building stock. The Walnut Street tier of lots was laid out on the high land on the north side of town. Water Street and Elm Street were extended westward from town. A number of one- and two-story frame commercial buildings were erected on Front Street beginning in the 1890s. Tourism was another component added to the Swansboro economy at this time with the construction of the rambling, plainly detailed two-story Tarrymore Hotel in 1910 (recently demolished).
Until 1900 Swansboro rarely supported many carpenters or other practitioners of the building trades. Merchant William Pugh Ferrand looked outside the area and hired a New Bern builder, Asa King, to perform unspecified construction work for him in the early 1830s (Catherine Bishir, personal communication). No carpenters appear in the 1850 census of population, although the 1860 census lists as carpenters local residents Major Russell and Jason M. Rhue with his assistants Jim White and William H. Hill. Russell was the town's only carpenter in 1870. In 1880 William H. Hill took Russell's place. Martin Heady was listed as a brick mason residing in Swansboro during that year.
By contrast, the 1900 census lists seven carpenters: Johnson Cline, Edward Glancy, Edward M. Hill, John P. Rogers, Charles J. and Edmond B. Russell (sons of Major Russell), and Charles Webb. Listed as a boat builder that year was Robert Lee Smith (1871-1942), who in fact was embarking on a career as Swansboro's most prolific carpenter. Smith began his career as a fisherman and boat builder. With increased building in Swansboro following 1900 — the years of the Swansboro Land and Lumber Company's greatest activity — Smith turned to house carpentry. His earlier works include his own house at 202 Walnut Street and the Glen Irvin House at 205 Walnut Street, both frame I-houses, and the two-story side-hall plan Bert Tolson House at 213 Walnut Street. All told, Smith is believed to have participated in the construction of thirteen buildings in Swansboro, mostly houses but including the 1910 Tarrymore Hotel and the first Swansboro graded school building (both demolished). One of his later houses is the cottage-like Amelia Kennedy House at 114 Water Street, dating to the early 1930s. The 1916 North Carolina Year Book lists Smith and John P. and I.E. Rogers as carpenters.
Post-Lumber Boom Period
The 1920s and 1930s saw a decrease in lumbering activity in Swansboro, due largely to the depletion of timber stands in the town's hinterland. This in turn led to a decline in population. From the 1916 peak of 575 the town's population dropped to 420 in 1920 and 394 in 1930. Two events of the early 1930s reduced Swansboro's isolation and helped to boost its economy. North Carolina Highway 24 was built into the town from Jacksonville and a bridge was constructed over the narrows of the White Oak River to Cedar Point in Carteret County. Also, the town's harbor was dredged and connected to the Intracoastal Waterway. Fishing continued as an important component of the town's economy. The 1940s saw an increase in the town's population due to its proximity to the southeastern quarter of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.
Branson, Levi. Branson's North Carolina Business Director[ies]. 1867/8, 1869, 1872, 1878, 1884, 1889, 1896, 1897. Raleigh: various publishers.
Interviews with Aleetha Baucom, Burwell Jackson, Errington Littleton, Daisy Moore, and Bill Russell conducted by Daniel Pezzoni in 1987 and 1988.
Littleton, Tucker R. Along the Path of History: A Self-guided Walking Tour of the Old Port Town of Swansboro, with an Introduction to its Maritime History, Swansboro, NC:. Swansboro's 200th Anniversary Celebration Committee, 1983.
Littleton, Tucker R. Papers. Located at the Search Room, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.
(Raleigh) News and Observer. 1916 North Carolina Yearbook. Raleigh, NC: 1916.
Onslow County Deed Records, Onslow County Courthouse, Jacksonville, NC.
Stevenson, Thomas G. "Reconnaissance to Swansboro, N.C." 1862.
Swansboro Plat, 1772 (copy). On file at the Onslow County Museum, Richlands, NC.
United States censuses of population, 1850-1910.
† Daniel Pezzoni, Swansboro Historic District, Onslow County, NC, nomination document, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.