Pamlico’s Past: Washington and the US Coast Guard

Published 3:37 pm Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Today, Aug. 4, is the day celebrated as Coast Guard Day or the birthday of the U. S. Coast Guard. You may be intrigued to know that Washington, North Carolina, has had a long and noteworthy history with our nation’s oldest, continuous seagoing service. But first, let’s take a look at the Coast Guard’s history and lineage.

Today’s Coast Guard traces its ancestry back to two major organizations, the U. S. Life-Saving Service and the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service. It was on Aug. 4, 1790, that Congress authorized the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to create the U. S. Revenue-Marine, later known as the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service.

During the Revolution, not paying taxes to the British Crown was considered reasonable behavior and smuggling was considered an acceptable profession. But the new nation was in dire need of revenues from the taxes levied by Congress, so the primary mission of the Cutter Service was to prevent smuggling operations and to make sure that tariffs were collected. Since the Continental Navy was disbanded following the Revolution, the revenue cutters were assigned the additional task of protecting the nation’s maritime interests and guarding the coast until the U. S. Navy was formed in 1797. Based on these details, the Coast Guard claims seniority as our nation’s oldest, continuous seagoing service.

During times of war, the Cutter Service participated along side the Navy in all major naval engagements from its inception through and including the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish American War. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service joined forces with the Life-Saving Service to form today’s U. S. Coast Guard. In 1939, the service further expanded its mission by assuming responsibility for all lighthouses and aids to navigation in the United States assimilated the U. S. Lighthouse Service.

The affiliation of Washington with the Coast Guard began with the construction of one of the first cutters built for the Revenue-Marine. Under the service’s enabling legislation, a “System of Cutters” consisting of 10 vessels was assembled. One of the cutters, the Diligence, was to be built in North Carolina and assigned to patrol the state’s waters. The town of Washington was likely chosen as the location for the cutter’s construction based on two factors: Washington was a thriving shipbuilding center and local merchant John Gray Blount was influential in the political life of the young nation.

One of Blount’s employees, local sea captain William McDaniel, applied to be master of the Diligence. But after commissioning, it was William Cooke of Wilmington who assumed command of the cutter and moved it to his hometown. The naming of a cutter “Diligence” has been a longstanding tradition with the Revenue Cutter Service and Coast Guard as six ships have been so commissioned. Today “Diligence” number six, a medium endurance cutter, is station in the port of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Another longtime Washington connection with the Coast Guard was the “Government Buoy Yard.” Mention of the yard can be found in records and newspaper articles as far back as 1884, but it was most likely established much closer to the end of the Civil War. The facility was located near the intersection of West Main and Bridge streets in the approximate location of today’s “Buoy Tender Station” condos. Lighthouse tenders, such as the Maple, Violet and Holly (traditionally named for plant and flowers), would visit the Washington depot to unload buoys for maintenance or to pick up supplies to deliver to the many screw-pile lighthouses in Pamlico Sound. All that remains of the facility today are the bollards placed along the river to securely moor the lighthouse and, later, Coast Guard buoy tenders.

During the 1950s, the buoy tender Verbena made Washington its homeport. The Coast Guard continued to maintain the station in Washington through the mid-1960s, most likely because of the influence of Washington native and long-time U. S. Representative Herbert C. Bonner. Bonner served as chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, which had considerable influence over the Coast Guard’s budget. He died Nov. 7, 1965 and the following year, the buoy yard was decommissioned and the entire operation moved to the Coast Guard station in Hobucken.

An interesting aside concerning the buoy yard is the role it played in bringing a sitting President of the United States to Washington. In May 1894, the tender Violet visited Washington on a regular tour of North Carolina lighthouses. Aboard was President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland, as he was apt to do, tagged along on the tender so that he might do some hunting and fishing at lighthouse stops along the Outer Banks. Cleveland never came ashore in Washington, but his party expressed to a local news reporter “surprise and pleasure to see such a hustling little town and so beautiful a waterfront.”

Discussion of the role that the Coast Guard has played in the history of Washington would be incomplete without mention of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Established by Congress in 1939, the Auxiliary’s aim is to support and augment the Coast Guard’s mission. An Auxiliary flotilla was established in Washington in 1943 with Roy Mayo serving as the first flotilla commander. Membership grew through the 1940s. After a brief period of deactivation in the 1950s, the flotilla was re-established in 1964 and has continued to assist the Coast Guard in carrying out its mission and to maintain a presence in the town of Washington.

Ray Midgett writes about the history of eastern North Carolina at his blog, He grew up in a Coast Guard family and is a proud member of the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.