History, stories, waterfront define 'Original Washington'
Formerly called the Forks of the Tar before being renamed after the famed general who would go on to become the nation's first president, the so-called "Little" Washington is a natural historic district and home to a beautiful waterfront and estuary.Posted — Updated
The 'Original Washington,' as Washington, N.C, is commonly referred to, is exactly what it claims to be — the first city named for Gen. George Washington in the country.
Formerly called the Forks of the Tar before being renamed after the famed general who would go on to become the nation's first president, the so-called "Little" Washington is a natural historic district and home to a beautiful waterfront and estuary.
"Washington was founded in the location where the Tar River flows into the Pamlico River. It was the ideal location to establish a trading port. Farmers and plantation owners in late colonial times could float produce, lumber and naval stores downriver on flatboats to Washington to store in warehouses," said local historian Ray Midgett. "The wide Pamlico River allowed ocean-going vessels to sail as far as Washington to pick up the goods and forestry products and ship them to distant ports. Those ships brought back to Washington manufactured goods from northern ports and sugar and molasses from the West Indies."
It's start began in the 1690s.
"Settlers from Virginia began to appear on the river," said born and raised resident Blount Rumley, referring to the Tar and Pamlico Rivers.
"Washington was founded in the location where the Tar River flows into the Pamlico River. It was the ideal location to establish a trading port. Farmers and plantation owners in late colonial times could float produce, lumber and naval stores downriver on flatboats to Washington to store in warehouses," added local historian Ray Midgett. "The wide Pamlico River allowed ocean-going vessels to sail as far as Washington to pick up the goods and forestry products and ship them to distant ports. Those ships brought back to Washington manufactured goods from northern ports and sugar and molasses from the West Indies."
Small settlements began to pop up in the area and across in what is now Beaufort County, but the Tuscarora War in the early 1700s wiped out much of the population in Washington.
After the dust and fear had settled, a man by the name of Christopher Dudley sold 337 acres of land in the area that is now Washington to a man named James Bonner in 1726. Rumley said the first official reference to Washington wasn't until 1776 in a journal to the Council of Safety.
"That defines when Washington became Washington," Rumley said. "People always ask [if] George Washington visited here — no."
Back then, Washington was a hub of activity, thanks in large part to its waterfront location.
"The town itself was huge. You'd have massive wharfs and lumber businesses, as well as massive docks where the ships were big schooners that would come up to the actual waterfront and unload. Then the waterline was filled with factories and smokestacks," said Stephen Farrell, reference specialist/genealogist at Washington's Brown Library. "When the railroad came in, it was able to build on that and bring goods and services to the whole waterfront. There was even a six-story grist mill that was right downtown. That's no longer there today, but it was a hundred years ago."
While there isn't anyone around who saw that phase of Washington firsthand, Rumley has been around town long enough to have his own share of historical experiences.
Rumley, who was born in 1941, grew up listening to stories about Washington from his father, who was born in 1910. The house Rumley's father was born in is still standing and occupied by a family.
"He liked history. He kept scraps of paper in his pocket every time he thought of something," Rumley said. "I just picked it up. When he died, I got all of his materials. I interviewed him before he passed away and got some audio tapes of him telling things you couldn't find in any books or anywhere else."
One of Rumley's favorite stories is about when the Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town in the 1940s during an awful storm. The pouring rain caused the tent to sag, so members of the Wild West show act used their pistols to shoot holes into the tent roof to drain the water and keep it from collapsing. A different circus came to town in 1957 and Rumley's mother took it upon herself to feed the entire circus because they needed a "good, home-cooked meal."
"We had the whole crowd, all the people in the circus — with the clowns, the aerial trapeze folks — they all came and ate supper with us," Rumley recalled. "We had a whole house full of circus people, and they very much enjoyed the meal."
Just like Rumley, other local history buffs and historians in Washington also have their own favorite hidden gems from the area's past.
"In Washington, you're looking at 300 years of influential history. One of the interesting things from the town's past is the James Floating Theatre, which was massive. It was literally a floating theater on a huge barg, and it would take people up and down the Pamlico," said Farrell. "The Broadway musical Showboat was actually written about going up and down the Pamlico out of Washington."
There are plenty of gems hidden in Washington's history, as well as famous figures from its past. In fact, Farrell and Midgett shared that Cecil B. DeMille, famous for directing films such as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Show on Earth," often visited Washington in his youth since his parents were from the area.
Other celebrities from the town's past include Murray Hamilton an American stage, screen, and television character actor who appeared in such films as "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Hustler," "The Graduate" and the mayor in the movie "Jaws," as well as Dr. Susan Demmick, the first female doctor in North Carolina.
As Rumley pointed out, it's snippets of local character like this that can't be found in a textbook. However, one thing in Washington has remained constant throughout the years — the waterfront.
"The water has played the most pivotal role in shaping Washington's history, and even today, a large part of the recreation, tourism and the retirement here all revolves around the water," said Farrell.
Rumley noted the river's name changes from Tar to Pamlico as you go upstream, yet there's nothing geographically distinguishable about it; it's just a name change at a point in the river. It's a quirk that reflects the quaint whimsiness of the area. The waterfront, since Washington's founding, has been a way of life.
For example, the shallow waters of the area helped protect Washington from intruders. While port cities like Wilmington, Savannah and Charleston were under British control in the 1700s, Washington was not. Vessels meant for the deep ocean couldn't successfully navigate the river waters.
However, these shallow waters also provided escape routes for infamous pirates like Blackbeard.
In 1790, Congress established Washington as a legal port. A customs house was later established in 1812. Much of Washington's imported goods such as sugarcane, salt, molasses, fruits and coffee came from the West Indies and Barbados. Rumley said there would also be an "occasional monkey or parrot" who came along for the ride too, and it wasn't uncommon for children to eagerly wait for the molasses to be rolled off the ship so they could scoop up any sweet nectar that had leaked from the barrels.
During the Civil War, northern forces took over during a Federal occupation of Washington. Many local men left to fight for the "rebel cause," as Rumley put it, and Washington had to rebuild itself after the war.
"Washington was a barge port that was captured early on in the war. By General Foster's men under Burnside, and Washington was kind of docile the whole war. There was a siege in 1863 where the Confederates tried to take the city back and ultimately failed. As the Federals retreated in 1864, they burned the city to the ground, including most of the churches, homes, downtowns and wharfs," said Farrell.
Since the Civil War, Washington has undergone several periods of reconstruction, growth and stagnation. It is experiencing a renaissance of its historic downtown as colonial buildings are being re-purposed and turned into restaurants, a distillery and storefronts.
Still, many historic buildings dating back to near the town's founding are still standing.
"There are several homes that still exist and date back to the 1700s, like the Meyers house, which actually had a cannonball shot through it from the other side of the river," said Farrell. "Our courthouse is the second-oldest standing courthouse in North Carolina, and the Hotel Louise downtown was infamous for holding all the traffic from the rail system and the theater."
Rumley admitted Washington has changed from his first memories of the city when it was still a commercial waterfront.
"As highways were built and people converted to rail and highway transportation, the city turned its back on the river for a few years because it wasn't valuable for anything really anymore," Rumley said. "Then around the 1960s, through urban renewal programs, they reconfigured the waterfront — put a bulkhead out there. As it turns out, the river was a big asset. The town gradually became more tourist oriented. We have what a lot of other towns don't have — a good, long waterfront."
It seems the water has and always will be a part of Washington's history, and its waterfront dwellers will have more stories to tell for years to come.
"We have such a rich history, and that history needs to be preserved," said Farrell. "That's what we're here to do today — make sure that the future generations will know about their ancestors, what the past has to offer and where we can go in the future."
Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.