The Washington Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
Washington (incorporated in 1782), the first community in the nation to be named for General George Washington, contains a waterfront district of charm, historical significance, and architectural note. It enjoys a particularly picturesque setting on the banks of the broad Pamlico River.
Though its overall appearance suggests the typical late 19th, early 20th century town, its roots extend to the mid 18th century when development first began on land owned by James Bonner and his son Thomas. Soon after its establishment, Washington quickly became an important port town, playing a strategic role during the American Revolution. After the war, Washington became a major North Carolina trading center and a regionally significant political and cultural center. The Blount, Myers, Marsh, Havens, Fowle, and other families built shipping, ship building, and warehousing businesses based primarily on trade in agricultural products and the naval stores industry, enterprises which were sustained until the outbreak of the Civil War.
From 1862 to 1864, Union troops occupied Washington. During their evacuation, much of the town was burned, leaving only a few dozen antebellum buildings standing. These included the 1786 brick courthouse [see Beaufort County Courthouse] (in use until the 1970s), five Federal style houses of individual significance, two early 19th century warehouses still belonging to Havens and Fowle interests, an important Greek Revival style bank, and a small collection of Italianate and Greek Revival houses.
Washington slowly rebuilt itself and its economy after the war. The railroad and the renewal of river traffic brought increased prosperity and the town developed in typical architectural modes — Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic, Neo-Classical Revival, and Colonial Revival. The most recent buildings in the Washington Historic District are primarily Bungalows, little having been built in the district since the 1930s. Of particular importance and distinction are the churches and public buildings constructed after the Civil War, including, among many, the eclectic style City Hall (1884); the Gothic style St. Peter's Episcopal Church at 101 North Bonner Street (late 19th century, partly by architect Charles Hartge); the exuberant First United Methodist Church at 304 West Second Street (1899, also by Hartge); the Post Office and Federal Courthouse at 102 East Second Street, an elegant Neo-Classical Revival building by James Knox Taylor; the railroad station on Gladden Street (1904); and the Gothic detailed John Small School on Harvey Street (1923-1924).
The central business district is almost exclusively early 20th century due in part to a major fire in 1900. The buildings form a tightly knit collection of one- to three-story brick structures of considerable architectural interest. The most sophisticated is Benton and Benton's Bank of Washington (1916-1924 at 192 West Main Street, a formal classical style building. The others are mostly eclectic styles tied together visually by recurring use of corbeled cornices, corbeled arched openings, ornamental parapets, granite lintels and sills, and other leitmotifs. The most important feature of the Washington Historic District, however, is the overall visual quality of the district, with the business area in the center, the surrounding tree-shaded streets of domestic buildings of many sizes, styles, and degrees of finish, and the unspoiled vista of the river and its forested south bank.
The area now known as Beaufort County, North Carolina was first visited by Englishmen as early as 1585 when the second Sir Walter Raleigh expedition, commanded by Richard Grenville, explored the region. However, widespread settlement did not occur until the 1690s, when settlers pushed southward from the Albemarle Sound region into the area surrounding the Pamlico River. Bath County was established in 1696 and Pampticough precinct, the present Beaufort County, was established in 1705, the same year in which the town of Bath was incorporated. The Tuscarora War of 1711 nearly eliminated settlement on the Pamlico River, but after final defeat of the Indians in 1714 settlers began to re-enter the region. On July 30, 1726, the Lords Proprietors granted a tract of 337 acres to Christopher Dudley. This tract contained most of present day Washington. Dudley sold the tract to Edward Salter, who in November of 1726 sold it to John Worsley. On October 16, 1729 Worsley sold the tract to Thomas Bonner. In March of 1748 Bonner deeded the western 130 acres of the tract to his son James, and in 1751 gave the remaining 200 acres to another son, Thomas Bonner, Jr.
The James Bonner farm was fortuitously located at the head of navigation on the Pamlico River. An Edgecombe County merchant, Aquila Sugg, purchased several lots from Bonner in the 1750s, where he built a wharf, a warehouse, and other buildings. Other merchants, including several from Bath, established a presence in the area. A community commonly called "Forks of the Tar" grew up. It survived largely on the exportation of naval stores, a commodity much in demand by the British navy.
In 1771 James Bonner, at that time a member of the General Assembly from Beaufort County, presented a petition "praying [that] a Town be erected at the head of the Pamlico" on his property. The Lower House passed the bill, but the Upper House, preoccupied with the conflict between Tryon and the Regulators, never approved it. This made little difference to Bonner, however, who in 1775 laid off sixty lots of a half acre each, and sold them by lottery, each lot costing five British pounds. An entry in the Journal of the Council of Safety of North Carolina dated September 27, 1776, refers to the new town as "Washington." This is the earliest known reference to the name of the town and supports the claim that it was the first community named after then General George Washington.
Washington played an important role in the Revolution. With Savannah, Charles Town, and Wilmington all under British control, and much of the Chesapeake Bay under blockage, Washington became a crucial supply source for the Continental Army. Thomas and John Gray Blount established warehouses near Ocracoke Island, and used the island to ship supplies to and from Washington. American privateer activity in the area was frequent and effective throughout the war. The relative shallowness of the Pamlico sound prevented the larger British ships from effectively hampering operations in the area.
Washington was belatedly incorporated in 1782, eleven years after the initial petition for incorporation. The General Assembly appointed Nathan Keais, Richard Blackledge, John Bonner, James Bonner, Jr. and John Gray Blount as Washington's first commissioners. The town continued to gain in importance, and in 1785 became the county seat of Beaufort County, when the General Assembly voted to move the seat from Bath. Near the end of 1786 a courthouse was built in Washington. The courthouse still stands, an impressive monument to the vitality of early Washington. It is the oldest building still standing in the town, and is the second oldest courthouse standing in North Carolina.
Travelers' accounts in this period give conflicting but interesting accounts of the young town. In 1783 Johann David Schoepf, a German naturalist visited Washington. He found it composed of about thirty houses, and reported that the "trade of Washington is as yet trifling; the chief occupation is the building of small ships and vessels, which...do not last long...quickly rotting under water." Other visitors found a more diversified community, however: "At present the whole town does not contain above two or three hundred inhabitants but they are building very fast. House rent is extremely dear here.... Ships of four hundred hogsheads sail from hence. They load them with flats that carry sixty or seventy hogsheads each; the tobacco comes from the upper country.... Their exports are chiefly tobacco, which they send to Europe, tar, turpentine, naval stores, lumber, and pork, which they send to the West Indies."
William Attmore, a Philadelphia merchant, visited Washington in 1787 and found much the same things as Hunter. Attmore estimated that sixty families lived in the town. He reported that the town's houses were "built of wood, a few [being] large and convenient." Washington carried on a heavy trade, exporting tar, pitch, turpentine corn, staves, furs, tobacco, and pork.
Washington was an expanding commercial center in the years following the Revolution. In 1786 a special mercantile court was established in the town to oversee cases involving the seizure of vessels or goods. In 1790 Congress made Washington a port of entry, and in the same year established a post office. A fire department was established in 1791. A toll bridge was built across the Pamlico River in 1812, and a customs house was created in 1815.
Antebellum Beaufort County thrived off of its forest products, most of which passed through Washington. By the middle of the nineteenth century Washington was the terminus for a significant portion of North Carolina's water borne commerce. Tar, pitch, turpentine, and naval stores continued to be staples of the economy, although they were gradually supplanted by lumber, shingles, barrel heads, and staves. Agricultural produce was also shipped out of Washington, especially corn and cotton. Beaufort County was not dominated by its plantations to the extent that other eastern North Carolina counties were. Nonetheless there was some development of slave based plantation economy. The census of 1790 revealed that about thirty percent of Beaufort County's populace of 5,462 citizens were black; by 1860 the percentage of black had risen to approximately forty-five percent. In 1790 only ten men in the county owned twenty-five or more slaves, while in 1860 their number had increased to fifty-four.
As the mercantile center for the Pamlico region, Washington boasted a number of highly profitable commercial firms. The Blount brothers, Thomas and John Gray, began operations in the area during the revolution, and their firms were of vital importance for much of the nineteenth century, Josiah and Luke Fowle established Fowle Brothers around 1812. Later they were joined by their younger brother, Samuel R. Fowle. The Fowles traded with the West Indies, South America, and Europe in addition to their primary trade with New York and Boston. The Fowle warehouse still stands and is used as a dress shop. John Myers and sons, T.H.B, Myers and Joseph D. Myers began about 1825. Their firm, John Myers & Son, traded extensively with the northern states. Other prominent mercantile firms included those of William H. Willard, Jonathan and Daniel Gould Marsh, and John Wallace. These merchants owned and operated their own fleets of merchant ships. Their periodic need for new ships sparked a shipbuilding industry of considerable importance in Washington. Washington's first shipyard was built by William Farrow. Other important shipbuilders were Abner Neal, and Hull Anderson, a free Negro. Washington's commercial importance was emphasized in 1851 when the North Carolina General Assembly voted to incorporate the Bank of Washington. The building, an impressive Greek Revival structure which still stands, was completed in 1854. Prior to the Civil War, a second bank, the Pamlico Bank, was opened in Washington.
Washington's cultural and social growth paralleled its commercial growth. Washington's first church was a non-denominational "free" church used by everyone. The first denominational church was the First Methodist Church, whose building was completed in 1803. It was replaced in 1831 by a new building, which was burned during the Civil War. The St. Peter's Episcopal Church congregation was first served by a church consecrated in 1824. It was also burned during the Civil War, and was replaced by the present building begun in 1867. A Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, and a Catholic church were also built in the 1820s. Only the Baptist church survived the war, but it was replaced by a new structure in the twentieth century.
Washington was the home of at least nine antebellum newspapers. The first of these was the Washington Gazette and Weekly Advertiser which was founded in 1806, lasting but two years. The most influential paper was the Whig, founded in 1834 by Henry Machen. After several name changes it was purchased in 1842 by Henry Dimock, and published under the name of the North State Whig until 1854. It was the voice of the Whig Party, the dominant party in the region. Beaufort County was also the home of at least six antebellum schools and academies. The first of these was unnamed and was in operation during the mid 1780s. The most notable antebellum school was the Washington Academy, built in 1808 on the corner of Bridge and Second Streets. The Academy taught the classics, math, and formal English to several generations of Washingtonians. The building survived the Civil War and was used by Union soldiers during the conflict as barracks. Washington and Beaufort County also possessed one of North Carolina's most distinguished antebellum bars. Lawyers such as Edward Jenner Warren, a native of Vermont, Edward Stanly, Thomas Sparrow, William B. Rodman, and Richard S. Donnell gained statewide acclaim and secured for Beaufort County a position of prestige and influence.
Visitors to the town were likely to spend some time in the Lafayette Hotel. Built in the 1780s by Howard Wiswell, the Lafayette had a forty foot square dining room on the first floor, and a comparable ballroom on the second floor. President Monroe visited Washington in 1819 and was entertained with a grand ball in the hotel. In 1825 the Lafayette had the honor of hosting its namesake, who was visiting the United States on a goodwill tour.
David Hunter Strother, a writer-artist, visited North Carolina in the mid 1850s on assignment from Harper's magazine. His description of Washington demonstrates how far the town had come since Johann David Schoeph described it as trifling in 1783: "Washington...is a flourishing place of four thousand inhabitants, and drives a smart trade in the staples of the State — turpentine, cotton, and lumber. It has several extensive establishments for sawing and planing lumber, and for converting the brute turpentine into its various derivatives. An exterior view of the town presents nothing but a few steeples, peering out from a thick grove of trees, and the street views only continuous archways of verdue. In fact, its modest white wooden houses are completely buried in trees; and when the weather is hot the effect is highly pleasing."
By 1860 Washington had established itself as an important commercial center, vital to the economic well being of the Pamlico basin. The Civil War affected this position almost from its outset. Washington fell to Union forces early in the war, being captured on March 21, 1862, one week after the capture of New Bern by Union forces. Federal troops occupied the town, with the officers' quarters being established in the Lafayette Hotel. Three Confederate attempts to recapture the town failed. The fourth succeeded. On April 20, 1864, Confederate forces took Plymouth, and Union forces were ordered to evacuate Washington. Widespread looting by Federal soldiers took place. Historian John Barret describes what happened next: "As the final detachment prepared to embark, fires broke out in town. The flames quickly spread from the riverfront warehouses to the northern limits of Washington, and before the conflagration could be brought under control fully one-half of the town lay in ashes."
The citizens of Washington blamed the departing soldiers for starting the fire. One resident, M.M. Fowle, left this account of the fire's origins: "The soldiers stole everything they could, what could not be carried off — they destroyed. They got something to drink and behaved badly. Ladies were threatened, almost everything was done to alarm us. Saturday morning after three days and nights of intense excitement and alarm, the last were about to move, and we thought we would be left in quiet. Caddie and I tried to fix up the house a little and were at work, when we heard the alarm of fire. The soldiers had set fire to some stables on William DeMille's wharf. It was not done by orders but it was winked at and no attempt made to stop it. The wind blew it away from us. It ran up the block, crossed the street at the Hoyt's and almost spread to the woods in an hour.... The soldiers were ordered not to go near the fire and we could not do anything until they left.... The roaring could be heard for miles in the country. I can find no words to tell you how horrible it was.
The fire devastated Washington. Much of the town's finest architecture was burned. Homes, businesses, schools, and churches, many of them representative of a period of great distinction in Washington's history, were lost. Some significant buildings were saved, however. Among these were the Holladay House, built by John Myers in the 1820s, the Havens Warehouse, the Telfair House built by Daniel Gould Marsh or Jonathan Marsh about 1800, and Elmwood, built by the Grist family about 1820, and praised by David Hunter Strother as the most sketchable house in Washington prior to the war. Also spared from the fire were such important structures as the Beaufort County Courthouse, and the Bank of Washington building.
Washington's task of post war rebuilding was made all the more difficult by the problems of Reconstruction politics. The ending of reconstruction in Beaufort County roughly paralleled the process throughout the state. The freeing of almost 6,000 slaves in the county, and the activities of the Union League and the Freedmen's Bureau in the area were countered by the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and other, more moderate, Conservative forces. In the election of 1870 Democrats Edward J. Warren and Thomas Sparrow were elected from Beaufort County to the Upper House and Lower House, respectively, of the North Carolina Legislature. Warren was elected speaker pro-tem of the Senate, becoming lieutenant governor upon the impeachment of Governor Holden in 1871. Beaufort County became firmly controlled by the Democratic Party in the 1870s, ending Reconstruction. Racial tensions, however, continued to smolder for some time, as throughout the south.
In Washington businesses, churches, and residences were rebuilt, and commerce was reestablished, Community leaders in this period, including J.D. Myers, E.M. Short, J.S. Howard, Edmund Hoyt, Dr. William A. Blount, George W. Richardson, and John H. Small, who was Washington's first mayor in 1889, were prime movers in the rebuilding process. In agriculture, the tenant farm system became widespread in Beaufort County. Cotton and corn continued to be major crops, with tobacco becoming important in the 1890s. The main industry continued to be lumber, however. The Jamesville and Washington Railroad and Lumber Company was incorporated in 1869 and purchased almost 40,000 acres of prime timber land in Beaufort and Martin counties. In 1877 the company asked for and received permission to run a rail line into Washington in order to get its lumber products to the docks. A standard gauge railroad with steel rails 4 ft. 8 inches apart was built. It was Washington's first railroad. Lumber companies prospered with the most successful being the Eureka Lumber Company, founded by George Leach in 1894. The Fowle family, one of the county's most prosperous merchant families, also built a sawmill in the 1880s.
Washington continued to modernize during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The small lumber railroad was joined in 1892 by the Wilmington and Weldon. Washington's voters agreed to link up with the line, issuing bonds to the amount of $10,000 for the purchase of terminal property. The train depot was not completed until 1904. The Washington Town Hall was completed in 1884, at a cost of $3,500, while in 1895 the southern Telephone company instituted telephone service to the community.
During the 1880s three hotels, the Riverview, the Spencer House, and the DeMille Boarding House, were built to replace the Lafayette Hotel. None of these had the grandeur, however, of the older hotel, which was burned during the Civil War. Churches were rebuilt, also. St. Peter's Episcopal Church was finished in 1873, a Presbyterian church was completed in 1871, a Methodist church in 1878, the First Christian Church of Washington in 1893, and the Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church for Colored of Washington in the 1870s. This flood of building could not have been successfully completed had not the area possessed a large group of skilled carpenters and builders.
By 1900 Washington's population had increased to almost 5,000. Some of Washington's antebellum importance had passed to the newer commercial centers of the Piedmont, a fate shared by other eastern cities, but much of the damage of the Civil War had been repaired. Just as successful rehabilitation was complete however, much of Washington was again destroyed by fire. On September 13, 1900, a defective stove flue in a restaurant sparked a blaze that would consume much of the city's rebuilt business district. The fire raged for eight hours and destroyed fifty buildings, mostly commercial in nature, on Water Street and Main Street.
For the second time Washington's citizens were faced with the task of rebuilding its main business district. Once again its builders and carpenters were mobilized, once again its businessmen and community leaders were activated, and once again the town was reconstructed. Much of present day Washington dates from the building spurt forced on Washington in the early part of this century.
The newly rebuilt Washington remained a vital community in the early twentieth century. Its forests continued to feed a productive sawmill industry. The nearby Pamlico Sound enabled the city to carry on a lucrative seafood business. Farming continued to be the largest business in the county, particularly cotton, corn, beans, tobacco, and potatoes. Much of this produce made its way to the cotton gin, feed mill, and grist mill of Jonathan Havens, probably Washington's leading businessman in this period. Leading merchants included J.K. Hoyt, the town's leading clothier; Samuel Fowle and Son, J.F. Buckman & Sons, Seth Bridgeman, M.T. Archbell, and others. A distinguished new post office built in 1918 enhanced the town.
Washington's greatest importance in this period was as a regional center for shipping and distributing. Merchandise came into Washington's warehouses by rail, by ship, or by barge. Washington was filled with wholesale establishments which distributed groceries, hardware, dry goods, and other merchandise to a variety of eastern North Carolina markets by rail and by water. Gradually with the advent of paved roads and commercial trucking in the 1920s the importance of Washington's wholesale business seriously declined. In particular the lucrative upriver traffic with Tarboro and Greenville that had been a characteristic of Washington's commercial life since its beginning virtually disappeared.
The post Civil War industrialization that encompassed much of North Carolina largely by-passed Washington, with the notable exception of the lumber industry. Since the end of World War II a concerted effort has been made by Washington City and Beaufort County officials to attract new industry to the area, and diversify the region's economic base. This effort has been met with some success. Beaufort County has attracted plants that manufacture furniture, heavy equipment, rubber products, and appliances, in addition to a growing business in phosphate exploration. Agriculture has remained a bulwark of the area's economy. Corn, tobacco, and soybeans are Beaufort County's primary cash crops today, while the old staple, cotton has almost completely disappeared. A vigorous program of urban renewal during the 1960s succeeded in eliminating what had become a serious problem of substandard housing. Tourism has dramatically increased in recent years, as has the town's awareness of its historic heritage, as epitomized by the successful effort to save the town's historic courthouse, which now houses a regional library and various town offices.
Attmore, William. Journal of a Tour to North Carolina by William Attmore, 1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1922.
Barret, John G. The Civil War in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.
Beaufort County Deed Books. Microfilm copy, Division of Archives & History, Raleigh.
‡ H. McKelden Smith and Jim Sumber, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Washington Historic District, Beaufort County, NC, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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