By Michael B. Alford & David Cecelski
A waterfront scene in downtown Beaufort, N.C., ca. 1900. The sloop Nettie B. Smith and other boats nestle up to the county dock at the foot of Turner Street. As it does now, the town sat on a broad peninsula that was surrounded by oyster bays, salt marsh and tidal flats.
This landing was on Taylors Creek, just opposite Town Marsh and Pivers Island.
At the turn of the 20th century, Beaufort was above all a fishing town. An oyster cannery, a sizeable gill-net fishery and at least one boatyard all enlivened local life. That was quite a change after what had been a rather sleepy 19th century, with the exception of the Civil War.
This is the 2nd in an occasional series of posts in which Mike Alford and I are exploring historical photographs of the North Carolina coast that feature scenes of boats, boatbuilding and maritime life.
Beaufort was also a market town, but for a small watery world: east to Cedar Island, west to Bear Inlet and north, by way of an old slave-dug canal, to the little settlement of Harlowe.
Neither railroad nor paved road extended yet to the town, assuming the photograph was taken before the end of 1906, when the railroad arrived, and no bridge yet crossed the Newport River. Travel and trade still relied heavily on boats like the ones we see here.
Built in Beaufort in 1897, the Nettie B. Smith is a small freight hauler designed to carry goods from fairly close by. She would have typically stuck to local sounds and rivers and rarely, if ever, ventured beyond the inlet.
Maritime records list the little sloop as 35 feet long, with an 11-foot beam and a depth of hold of just 2 feet, ideal for local shoal waters. She is rather slab sided, almost like a sharpie, and gaff-rigged.
On this day, she had perhaps sailed into town from a farm up the Newport River or from one of the villages Down East.
At the turn of the century, travel by boat was still very common in and around Beaufort. You could see this downtown. Grocery and dry goods stores often sat on pilings over Taylors Creek and had two storefronts, one on Front Street, the other facing the water.
In many cases, those stores also had their own docks as a convenience for the Down East people who came to town by boat.
In the extreme foreground, we can see the stern of a kunner, this one outfitted with a steering yoke instead of a tiller. In Beaufort, steering yokes— a clever system for allowing a sailor to steer with a line from foreword in the boat— were standard in spritsail skiffs. They were probably also fairly common in kunners.
On the far side of the Nettie B. Smith, a sharpie lies next to the landing. You can see the sprit (see illustration to the right) of her leg of mutton sail on the far left.
One of the boat’s hands is unloading split firewood, undoubtedly cut somewhere close by. A pair of high-wheeled drays pulled by mules wait to carry the firewood into town. Evidently the draymen are quite confident that unloading cargo is not their job. Barrels of naptha also lay on the shore.
The naptha— possibly just crude oil, but more likely a light petroleum distillate like kerosene or one that was even lighter—of course was not distilled anywhere near Beaufort.
The destination of the naphtha is anyone’s guess. Locals commonly used kerosene lamps in their homes, but in this quantity the oil might have had an industrial use. Perhaps they are bound for a local menhaden factory, where heavy presses and furnaces turned the fish into fertilizer and oil.
Another, rather more romantic possibility, is that the Nettie B. Smith’s master intends to ferry the naphtha barrels to the Cape Lookout Light.
One can only conjecture how the naphtha arrived at the county dock. If they were part of a coastwise schooner or sloop’s cargo, they likely arrived from Norfolk or Baltimore. The town’s shipping merchants had close ties to both ports, and to few others.
More likely by this time, the naphtha arrived by rail at the nearest depot, the one in Morehead City, and one of these boats picked up the barrels and carried them across the Newport River.
Next to the landing is Davis Hall and, across the street, the post office. Behind the landing, a row of storefronts extends up Turner Street. Beyond the stores, we can see several residences and, beyond them, another dray moves up the street and, in the shade, more homes.