Growth of Washington as a river port part 1

Published 4:34 pm Thursday, February 24, 2022

Strolling on the promenade along Stewart Parkway today, one would be hard pressed to envision the scene of the busy waterfront from almost 250 years ago. Instead of the plethora of pleasure boats we see today moored at the Washington Waterfront Docks, you would glimpse sailing vessels ranging from small cargo-carrying sloops to substancial ships ranging from schooners to brigs either at anchor in the river or secured to the many wharves extending from warehouses that lined the shore.

Because of its setting where the flowing Tar River converges to the navigable Pamlico River, Washington was destined to become a thriving river port and center of commerce. Naval stores such as tar, pitch, rosin, lumber, and agricultural produce were floated down the Tar on flatboats to be stored in warehouses along Washington’s riverfront. These goods were then loaded aboard moored sailing vessels headed for the thriving ports of the east coast of the U. S. and the West Indies.

The 337 acres on which Washington resides was first granted to Christopher Dudley on July 30, 1726. Dudley straightaway sold his holdings to Edward Salter, who sold it to John Worsley the same year. On this property, Worsley constructed the first recorded house built in Washington. Three years later, Worsley sold the estate to Captain Thomas Bonner. In 1748, Bonner gave his son James the western 130 acres, the south end of which turned into the roots of the town of Washington.

The first warehouses and wharves appeared in 1758 when James Bonner sold a large portion of riverfront property to an Edgecombe County merchant Aquila Sugg who would build these commercial structures adjacent to the river. By 1769 the settlement had developed enough industrial know-how to witness the construction of its first substantial seafaring vessel, the 70-ton brig Acorn.

James Bonner, realizing the value of his property due to its location, began to sell parcels in 1771. Construction of homes and stores soon followed. The first known reference to the village as Washington appears in 1776 in the journal of the Council of Safety. The council met at Halifax on October 21, 1776 and resolved “…that Captain John Foster, commander of the armed brig, the general Washington, now lying at Washington, do proceed with all possible dispatch to Ocracoke Bar and there protect the trading vessels.” Six years later, in 1782, the Town of Washington was incorporated, and in 1785 the county seat of Beaufort County was moved from Bath.

During the American Revolution, Washington became a center of privateering. American ships, outfitted in Washington and using the shallow sounds and inlets along the coast as shelter, preyed on British merchant shipping in the Atlantic. Ocracoke Inlet, through which Washington bound ships passed, was difficult for the British to blockade because of its location on such a remote seacoast. The port of Washington was one of the few southern ports to remain open during the entire Revolutionary War. The Blount brothers, John Gray and Thomas took advantage of the wartime situation and built warehouses on Washington’s waterfront and Castle Island. The Continental Army used these warehouses to store supplies throughout the conflict. Historian Michael Hill reported that so many ships called on the port during the war that the town’s meager docking facilities were vastly overburdened.

Washington continued to grow after the Revolution. In 1786 an Englishman named Robert Hunter described the town, “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 to seventy hogsheads each; the tobacco comes from the upper country… They are now building here a ship of six hundred hogsheads, rather too large, I fancy, for the navigation of this river… Their chief exports are chiefly tobacco, which they send to Europe. Tar, turpentine, naval stores, lumber, and pork, which they send to the West Indies.”

In 1787, William Attmore remarked, “The Merchants export from this Town, Tar, Pitch, Turpentine, Rozin, Indian Corn, Boards, Scantling, Staves, Shingles, Furs, Tobacco, Pork, Lard, Tallow, Beeswax, Myrtlewax, Pease [sic], and some other articles…”.

As often happens, war and conflict were key to Washington’s expansion as a center of commerce.

Next time: part two – Washington becomes a center of shipbuilding

Ray Midgett is a Washington resident and the president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.