About Washington, NC
The area currently known as Beaufort County was originally explored by the English in the late 1500s but was not settled until about a century later. Bath was founded in 1705 and became the first incorporated town in North Carolina. James Bonner started the town that is currently known as Washington on his farm in 1770. Originally, Washington was known as “Forks of the Tar,” but the name was changed to Washington in 1776 to honor General George Washington. The town was actually the first in the nation to be named after our first President, earning it the designation, “The ORIGINAL Washington.” Present day Washington is a small town of approximately 11,000 residents, which is nestled on the banks of the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina. Many people from eastern NC refer to our town as “Little Washington.”
From before the American Revolution, until the early 20th century, Washington served North Carolina as a major center of trade. Due to its favorable location and navigable waterway, Washington played a significant role in the Revolutionary War after more southern ports were blockaded by the British. This prominent location established Washington as a cultural center of the area. The docks along the waterfront were often packed with vessels bringing in goods essential to colonial life and carrying out items that were plentiful here. As one might expect, these items included many shipbuilding products, such as tar, rosin, pitch and turpentine. Washington even boasted a successful rum distillery, the by-product of which was likely shipped to far and near. Naturally, furs were included, along with a product that would become North Carolina’s cash crop for years to come, tobacco. As this trade center prominence evolved, Washington superseded its older upstream neighbor, Bath, as the more dominant market, eventually leading to it being chosen as the county seat of Beaufort County.
Washington continued to thrive until it was captured by federal troops early in the Civil War and, consequently, played a small part in that conflict. Ironically, it was likely its prominence as a trade center that attracted the attention of the Union Army. The town remained under the control of the Union forces for much of the war. The decision was made for the Union forces to abandon Washington after the Confederate Army won the Battle of Plymouth in 1864. Before leaving, these forces ransacked both the commercial and residential districts, looting and destroying everything possible.
However, the worst blow to Washington was the fire that erupted as the troops were departing. Much of the town was reduced to ashes in two fires, the second of which burned everything from Market Street eastward. Afterwards, the population of Washington was reduced by 80-90%, leaving the remaining population of the area a monumental rebuilding task to resurrect this vital trade center.
Over the next 30-40 years, the hard work and natural resources of the area raised Washington back to an area of prominence. Trade flourished again, this time with the assistance of the newly constructed Atlantic Coastline Railroad, an industry part of which was destined to replace the beautiful Pamlico River as the area’s main avenue of trade. After rebuilding the town, fire again destroyed much of it in 1900.
Despite the evolution of maritime trading centers on relatively small bodies of water, the Pamlico River has remained the keystone of our area. Interestingly, it is commonly known that the iconic musical, “SHOWBOAT,” was inspired by Edna Ferber’s visit to Bath and Washington in 1925. The focus of this visit was a floating theatre that made scheduled appearances in various waterfront towns.
A rebirth of Washington as a vacation and retirement destination that began in the late 60s with the construction of Stewart Parkway continues today. In the last 30-40 years, Stewart Parkway on its waterfront has evolved into a beautiful park-like setting. In addition to the docks and amenities along Stewart Parkway, the renovation of the shops, restaurants, etc. in the downtown area is an integral part of this renovation. The shops on Main Street have started to blossom on the riverfront side. People from far and near gather once a month in the warmer season for Music in the Streets, an old-fashioned street dance. A marina has been constructed along the parkway with a limited-stay dockage available for traveling mariners. Festival Park has sprung up between Stewart Parkway and the North Carolina Estuarium. This park is an integral part of Washington’s Summer Festival, Smoke on the Water and many other celebrations. You will want to visit the North Carolina Estuarium, “Where the rivers meet the sea.” This facility is a wonderful mix of education and entertainment for kids and adults alike. Take a walking tour of Washington, the childhood home of Cecil B. DeMille! Did you know that Murray Hamilton, of “Jaws” fame was born and died in Washington? OK, that’s enough name dropping!
Boaters and golfers, as well as families looking for a temperate climate and the warm atmosphere of a small town, are finding Washington a wonderful location for their new homes. Washington also offers a somewhat unique situation in Eastern NC. We maintain the “Mayberry” small town feel but relish the advantage of being situated just 25 minutes from Greenville, the medical and cultural hub of eastern North Carolina. Many of our residents live in Washington, enjoying its slow, easy pace and the amenities of the Pamlico but commute to Greenville to work.
I hope that you will visit our town sometime. Learn more about “Fun on the Pamlico!”
Come to see us!