A History of Elizabeth City, North Carolina

Pasquotank County Court House - Elizabeth City, North Carolina - 2016

Situated at the narrows of the Pasquotank River, Elizabeth City has been the leading town in the Albemarle area since the 1820s. Even though the Albemarle claims the earliest settlement in North Carolina - dating from the mid seventeenth century - Elizabeth City is not a particularly old town, having been incorporated in 1793. Its history as a town dates from the early republic years when North Carolina was growing in its statehood.

While local tradition states that a port was in operation at the present site of Elizabeth City as early as 1722, the first record of activity dates from 1757, when Daniel Trueblood was granted authority to build a grist mill along present-day Charles Creek. In 1764, a law was passed which designated "the Narrows of the Pasquotank River" as an inspection station for products from throughout the colony, including "Hemp, Flax, Flax Seed, Pork, Beef, Rice, Flour, Indigo, Butter, Tar, Pitch, Turpentine, Staves, Heading, Lumber, and Shingles." Thus the narrows was recognized early as an advantageous trading location.

The establishment of a ferry at the narrows in the 1770s was an important boost to the site. The ferry quickly overshadowed earlier ferries across the Pasquotank River at sites both up and down river from the narrows. Collet's Map (1770) reveals that the road from Norfolk to Nixonton (then the only town in Pasquotank County) passed by the narrows, a path now generally followed by Road Street in Elizabeth City. A road also ran south from the narrows to Newbegun, a trading community now known as Weeksville. The addition of the road from Lamb's Ferry, which crossed the Pasquotank River north of the narrows, formed another arm of the developing crossroads. During the 1770s and 1780s additional roads connected the narrows to other places in the county, particularly to Jones' and Pritchard's mills. The former was located west of town; indeed, as late as the 1880s, the western end of Main Street was known as the "Road to Jones' Mill." Another early road was the Pool Town Road, extending southwesterly to the crossroads of that name in the county; it is now known as Roanoke Avenue.

A small community had begun to develop at the narrows by the mid-1780s. A road building Act in 1784 mentioned "the school house on the Pritchard's Mill road leading to the Narrows." The Knobbscreek Church, the forerunner of Elizabeth City First Baptist Church, was organized in 1786 along Knobbs Creek, a large navigable creek that enters the Pasquotank River just north of the narrows; the site of the church was supposedly in the vicinity of the present US Highway 17 bridge. In 1792, Joseph Falney was given permission to operate an ordinary at the narrows "at the house Richard Smith formerly lived in."

This community at the narrows, consisting of a ferry, a mill, an inspection station (if it were still active), a nearby school and church, and an unknown (though certainly modest) number of dwellings and stores, was just a local transportation and trading crossroads until 1793. In that year the site was chosen for a town at the southern terminus of the Dismal Swamp Canal, the largest internal improvement project yet undertaken in the state of North Carolina. The canal was designed to unite the fertile but isolated areas surrounding the Albemarle Sound with the bustling port of Norfolk, Virginia. The marriage of canal and town would prove strong for more than a century.

Such a canal had been proposed as early as 1728 by William Byrd II of Virginia. A primary reason for Byrd's - and later George Washington's - interest in such a canal was to provide better access to vast stands of marketable timber (primarily cedar and juniper) that heretofore had been largely inaccessible due to the forbidding nature of the Great Dismal Swamp. The Virginia Assembly passed an "Act for cutting a navigable canal through the swamp" in 1787, stipulating that the Act was not to take effect until the passing of a similar Act by the North Carolina General Assembly; North Carolina did not reciprocate until November of 1790. Even then, it was three more years before construction would begin.

The route chosen for the Dismal Swamp Canal connected Deep Creek, a tributary of the southern branch of the Elizabeth River in Virginia, with Joyce's Creek, a tributary of the Pasquotank River that lies in Camden County, North Carolina. The actual terminus of the canal, therefore, was approximately ten miles north of the narrows. But the narrows was a logical choice for the development of a town because it marked the spot where the Pasquotank River changed from a relatively narrow and twisting channel to a broad and fairly straight body of water that then flowed southward to the Albemarle Sound.

In 1793, the same year that construction began on the canal using hired slave labor, the North Carolina General Assembly incorporated the town of Redding, stating that a town at the narrows would be "conducive to the welfare of Pasquotank County and of public utility." Commissioners were appointed and ordered to lay out a town consisting of regular lots with principal streets not less than fifty-six feet in width. The commissioners purchased, as required, five acres of the Narrows Plantation from Adam and Elizabeth Tooley. This was accomplished on June 10, 1794 and the first drawing and sale of town lots occurred the following November 3-6.

Presumed to honor the prominent early Redding family, the town's name did not endure long. In 1794, the General Assembly renamed the town Elizabethtown, but it was discovered that there were two other towns of this name within the state. To end the confusion, in 1801, the small town at the narrows of the Pasquotank River was given the name of Elizabeth City. Although there is no documentation, Elizabeth City (and its predecessor, Elizabethtown) is thought to have been named in honor of Elizabeth (Taylor) Relfe Tooley. She had inherited the Narrows Plantation from her father, William Taylor.

Growth and development were slow but steady in the fledgling town. In 1799, Elizabeth City became the governmental seat for Pasquotank County and a court house, prison, pillory, and stocks were built. The court house was not completely finished until June of 1806, and, while no description survives of that building, it is known to have stood at the site of the present structure. The designation of Elizabeth City as the county seat had an immediate effect on the town's activity and business. It brought large numbers of Pasquotank County's population to town for the quarterly sessions of the court in order to transact all the official and semi-official business of the county. The little town was beginning to assume its eventual position as the center of activity for northeastern North Carolina.

By 1796, the Dismal Swamp Canal had been dug for five miles at each end, with these sections being put into immediate use by lighters and other shallow-draft vessels. To complement the canal, a stage road was constructed along the eastern river banks north and south of the canal, but not along the canal itself, at least not at first. The stage road was later extended the entire length of the canal system, a route now followed largely by US Highway 17. The annual report of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company of November 1804 stated that the stage road was passable even though one-and-one-half miles of canal remained to be dug. With the 1805 opening of the canal, Elizabeth City began to develop into the transportation, mercantile, and cultural center of the Albemarle area.

The Dismal Swamp Canal met with marginal success during its early years of operation, largely because of its narrow size and shallow draft. Because of these deficiencies, the canal was ineffective in alleviating the British coastal blockade during the War of 1812. A subsequent Federal investigation emphasized the canal's potential by reporting that during the few weeks it was open in 1815, more than 6.5 million shingles and over one million staves had been sent through. Yet, no attempt was made to improve the canal until 1819, when a lottery "for the Improvement of Internal Navigation between the States of Virginia and North Carolina" was held in Norfolk; subsequent lotteries were held in 1820 and 1829.

Nonetheless, a steamboat line existed between Elizabeth City and New Bern as early as 1817, and in April 1818 a stage coach line began operation between Norfolk, Elizabeth City, and Edenton.

The earliest evidence of business activity in the town is found in the North Carolina State Gazette (Edenton) on April 30, 1795, when John Micheau, John Henry, and company announced that they were selling their Pasquotank narrows store, "with a general assortment of wet and dry goods," to Charles Grice. Grice was the leading merchant in Elizabeth City's early years and remained in business at least until 1828. After 1799, the quarterly sessions of the county court created a business boom upon which the local merchants, vendors, and tavern owners were quick to seize. New stores and hotels were erected downtown on Main and Road streets, along with dwellings for the proprietors and shopkeepers. By 1819, Elizabeth City's improving economy could support a local commission merchant, a silversmith, and its first large hotel, the City Hotel.

The religious life in Elizabeth City during its frrst years was loosely organized. On March 16, 1804, the Methodist bishop Francis Asbury preached at the court house and recorded that "Many heard, but few felt." It is believed, nonetheless, that a Methodist Society was organized to some degree at this time. The congregation of Knobbscrook Baptist Church became Elizabeth City's first formally organized church when it relocated to their present West Main Street site in 1805-1806; the name was changed to Elizabeth City Baptist Church in 1815.

The only other known religious activity in the Elizabeth City vicinity during this period concerned the Society of Friends, or Quakers. While the Quakers were the earliest and most prominent religious denomination in Pasquotank County, their strength lay in the southern part of the county and not near Elizabeth City. In 1795, a meeting, later known as the Narrows Meeting, was established near the mill of Abel Trueblood on Charles Creek. Additional land was acquired in 1832 for a cemetery at what is now the southeast corner of Peartree Road and Tatem Lane, which is situated across from Hollywood Cemetery about six-tenths of a mile south of the courthouse. The Narrows Meeting ceased in 1839, and in 1844 the church property, except for the enclosed graveyard, was sold to the school committee for District 5.

The private academy movement that gained momentum in North Carolina early in the nineteenth century resulted in the chartering of the Elizabeth City Academy in 1807. Ten men, each one a prominent area resident, were named by the General Assembly as trustees for the school. However, there is no further record of this school and it may never have held classes.

While growth and development were slow but steady during the town's early years, activity quickened somewhat after the canal was opened in 1805. Only three buildings remain from the structures erected before 1820 within the original town limits: the original ca. 1798 Federal style, two-story, single-pile portion of the Grice-Fearing House (200 South Road Street); a small transitional Georgian-Federal style kitchen or office (ca. 1800, behind 404 East Church Street); and the ca. 1819 core (remodeled 1858) of the Cluff-Pool Store (100 South Road Street).

After the Baptist church erected a meeting house just west of the town limits in 1805-1806, the city's boundaries were extended in 1807 to include the Baptist property. At the same time, the northern and southern boundaries were extended to Poindexter and Tiber creeks, respectively, just beyond the original lines; the two creeks were in the vicinity of present Elizabeth and Grice streets, respectively. Another expansion occurred to the south in 1816, when the boundary was extended to Rum Quarter Road, now Ehringhaus Street.

The four decades preceding the American Civil War were a period of considerable growth and change in Elizabeth City. Most of this growth came as improvements to the Dismal Swamp Canal finally made the endeavor a financial and commercial success.

In 1826, the Federal government purchased 600 shares of stock in the Dismal Swamp Canal, acquiring an additional 200 shares in 1829. This infusion of Federal funds enabled the canal company to enlarge the locks and deepen the channel so that larger, more profitable schooners and sloops could be admitted. A third lottery in Norfolk on February 4, 1829 raised additional funds. Two years earlier, in 1827, the growing importance of Elizabeth City had been recognized with the relocation of the customs house of the port of Camden to the city. As this customs district exercised jurisdiction over shipping arriving at and departing from the eastern Albemarle Sound, its location necessitated captains and merchants to come to Elizabeth City in order to obtain clearance papers. These events furthered Elizabeth City's position as the area's commercial and administrative center and foretold a bright future for the growing city.

The improvements of the canal during the late 1820s resulted in such an increase in traffic that tolls collected more than doubled during the first three years after the canal was reopened, from $13,040 in 1829 to $33,290 in 1832. The Dismal Swamp Canal was so successful in attracting commerce to Elizabeth City that in 1830 the editor of the Edenton Gazette complained that, while the canal "may be of incalculable benefit . . . to Virginia, . . . to North Carolina [it was] a blood-sucker at her very vitals." In the eariy 1840s, improvements were made which greatly increased the efficiency of the canal. These included new locks at the canal's northern end (at Deep Creek, now part of Chesapeake, Virginia) and a new channel at the southern end south of South Mills. The new channel, which cut in half the time required for a trip from Elizabeth City to Norfolk, greatly improved the profitability of merchants and shippers in both cities, thus encouraging even greater commercial investments.

In 1829, the Virginia and North Carolina Transportation Company, which had been formed as a logical offshoot of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, acquired several canal boats for use on the region's waterways. The ambitions of the company, and the seemingly unlimited prospects of the canal itself, were reflected by naming these barges and schooners after the rivers in North Carolina and Virginia that emptied into the Albemarle Sound, the very regions which the company intended to serve: the Meherrin, the Elizabeth, the Staunton, the Roanoke, the Dan, the Chowan, the Pasquotank, and the Halifax. During the antebellum period, steamboats played an increasingly important role in transportation through the canal. The steamboat Petersburg, purchased in March of 1829, met the company's barges in the Pasquotank River and towed them to various ports on the sound and rivers. The successful transport in May of 1829 of a barge of cotton from Weldon - a journey that took it down the Roanoke River, across the Albemarle Sound, up the Pasquotank River to Elizabeth City, and through the canal to Norfolk - illustrated the canal's immense potential in bnnging eastern North Carolina produce to Norfolk. The fact that all this traffic passed through Elizabeth City and the Dismal Swamp Canal meant considerable activity and business for the town's merchants, brokers, and laborers.

In addition to the canal, other modes of transportation added to Elizabeth City's growth and importance. Overland travel during the antebellum period, while far from good and often difficult, nonetheless underwent gradual improvements, making the markets and services of Elizabeth City increasingly accessible to farmers in Pasquotank and Camden counties. Both the Lamb's and Narrows ferries continued to provide access across the Pasquotank River to Camden County. Various lines of stage coaches provided passenger service to Norfolk, Hertford, and Edenton, connecting with vessels in either Elizabeth City, or Edenton for continuation to North Carolina towns south and west of the Albemarle Sound.

Elizabeth City's role as the transfer point for regional commerce, however, was lessened in the 1830s with the completion of the Portsmouth and Weldon Railroad between those two cities in Virginia and North Carolina, respectively. Not only was produce from the upper Roanoke River (known as the Dan River in Virginia) diverted to the railroad at Weldon, but much of the produce of the western Albemarle Sound (the lower Roanoke, the Meherrin, and Chowan rivers) was subsequently shipped up the Chowan River for transferral to the railroad station at what is now Franklin, Virginia. Thus the products of both these regions no longer came through Elizabeth City and the Dismal Swamp Canal. The lure of the railroad as an advanced means of transportation led to the incorporation of the Norfolk and Edenton Rail Road in 1836. This road was to run through Elizabeth City, and would most likely have ushered in an era of unbridled economic development. However, for reasons not understood, it was too ambitious a scheme for the troubled 1830s economy.

An even greater challenge to Elizabeth City's position as the region's transportation hub was the construction between 1855 and 1859 of the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal twenty-five miles northeast of the city. The new canal, wholly within Virginia, connected a tributary of Currituck Sound to the same branch of the Elizabeth River to which the Dismal Swamp Canal was connected. This canal was only six miles long and its single lock was twice as long as the largest lock on the Dismal Swamp Canal. The Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal, which opened in January of 1859, was able to attract not only traffic that had been too large for the older route, but also vessels interested in a shorter route from the eastern end of Albemarle Sound to Norfolk. Commerce from the Pamlico Sound, New Bern, and Washington bypassed Elizabeth City for he newer and shorter canal. The editor of the Democratic Pioneer, a newspaper published in Elizabeth City from 1850 through 1859, warned that, with this new rival, "The large trade that now centers in Elizabeth City from the hundreds of vessels that yearly pass through the Dismal Swamp Canal, will be, in large measure, carried to other places."

However, traffic through the Dismal Swamp Canal was still reported as being heavy in October of 1860, and before the new canal could become established as a serious competitor, the nation was plunged into war. Nonetheless, the economic competitiveness of the older canal, and Elizabeth City's vitality, was threatened; indeed, in a 1878 report to Congress it was stated that the financial difficulties of the Dismal Swamp Canal after the Civil War began with the completion of the rival canal.

The antebellum years from 1830 to 1861 were ones of unprecedented growth and prosperity for industry in Elizabeth City. Leading the way were those industries directly related to shipping and transportation. Unfortunately, no antebellum buildings associated with these industries remain.

Although shipyards had existed in Elizabeth City since the first decade of the nineteenth century, the industry expanded rapidly after improvement in the canal undertaken during the second quarter of the century. One of the local newspapers reported in 1831 that the riverfront was “a scene of bustle and activity such as we never witnessed before." The 1840 Census recorded twelve men employed in the navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers; manufacturers (including building) and trade employed 128 workers. In 1849, it was reported that two vessels "of large size and intended for the West Indian trade" had been launched at the local shipyards.

The next year the census listed three shipbuilding and repairing businesses - those of Burgess and Lamb, Timothy Hunter, and Richard M. Ammon - that gave employment to forty-nine men. The prosperity of the waterfront shipyards was indicated by the boast in 1856 that 119 vessels were in commerce from the city's shipyards. Other ship builders of the antebellum years included John Boushall, James Grice, R. G. Newman, and Charles M. Laverty. In addition to providing passenger service throughout the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, packets and schooners from Elizabeth City also provided passage during the summer to the fledgling but popular ocean retreat at Nags Head from the 1840s through the 1930s.

A wide variety of other industries opened in Elizabeth City during the antebellum period. The 1840 census listed a brick and lime manufacturing plant that employed twelve men. Murray and Clark, Millwrights, Pattern, and Machine Makers, operated on Elizabeth City's waterfront and won the premium for the best and most improved corn sheller at the 1849 Baltimore Fair. While Murray moved to Baltimore in 1851, William H. Clark remained in business locally, changing the firm's name to the North Carolina Agriculture Store and Machine Manufactory. His waterfront workshops are clearly identified in views published in Harper's Weekly Magazine on March 15, 1862.

In 1850, William R. Palmer marketed Palmer's proved Rotating Flail Threshing Machine. The 1850 census lists such industries as the tannery of banker John C. Ehringhaus (which was one of the largest in the state), the carriage and coach factories of Robert Watkins and John Day, and the harness and saddle shop of Robert Newbold. William Glover operated a fishing concern, employing sixteen men and shipping 1,000 barrels of herring and shad. A new steam grist mill was added to the town's industry in 1854 by Griffin and Gaskins.

The Schedule of Industry for the 1860 Census reported further industrial expansion, including the output of each establishment. Among the manufactures were horse plows, wheat thrashers, corn shellers, roekaways, buggies, sulkies, shoes, boots, harnesses, saddles, and bridles. Most of the farm-related products found ready buyers among the region's farmers. Four makers of “furniture of all kinds” - Thomas Parr, John H. Ziegler, Caleb Sikes, and Rufus Madrin - employed eleven men. The materials they used reflect the refinement of taste and lifestyle that was enjoyed by their clients: $3,900 worth of mahogany and $1,500 worth of rosewood, in addition to locally obtained woods such as walnut, poplar, and maple. While the county's three sawmills produced 570,000 feet of plank, it is not known where these mills were located. Shipbuilder Charles M. Lavetry had a lumber yard on the waterfront in the 1850s, but whether he also operated a sawmill is unknown.

Growth in Elizabeth City after the 1829 re-opening of the enlarged Dismal Swamp Canal was so fast-paced that on October 31, 1831, the Elizabeth City Star, one of the town's earliest newspapers, trumpeted that Elizabeth City was the "Eastern Emporium of North Carolina.... where [customers] can be suited from cambric needle to a sheet anchor." Unfortunately, no business directory from antebellum Elizabeth City survives and current research of commercial establishments of the period is limited to the years between 1825 and 1834. During that period, at least nineteen general mercantile stores advertised in the Elizabeth City Star. Other businesses included milliners, a hat factory, a boot and shoe store, several tailors, two grocery stores, a bakery, and a clock and watch repair store.

To offer protection to the town's merchants and businessmen, the Elizabeth City Insurance Company was organized as early as 1829. Surviving antebellum newspapers indicate that the town's commercial activity increased steadily throughout the period, and was located primarily along Main Street. On October 4, 1851, the Old North State reported the construction of two new stores, the remodeling of a third, and the erection of several large warehouses along or near the waterfront. While none of these buildings mentioned in 1851 remains, several other antebellum commercial buildings are still standing. The brick Cobb House and Store (ca. 1840s, 111 South Road Street) is an unusual combination of general store with connecting residence for the proprietor. In 1858, druggists W. G. and William Pool remodeled the old general mercantile store of Matthew Cluff (ca. 1819, 100 South Road Street), giving the building a fashionable Italianate appearance.

As industry and the number and variety of general and specialty mercantile houses expanded during the period, there were increased calls for a local banking facility. In 1836, a branch of the Bank of North Carolina was opened, and business was so brisk that it was soon reported that the lone employee, cashier John C. Ehringhaus, was working both late at night and on Sunday. As businesses continued to prosper (dependent, of course, on the national and state economy), there was need for additional financial services. The private Farmer's Bank was chartered in 1852. By October of 1854, it was erecting new quarters, and the dramatic Gothic Revival building at 108 East Main Street remains as one of the state's oldest bank buildings.

The antebellum period witnessed the formal organization of Episcopal and Methodist congregations, the erection of stylish buildings by the three major denominations, and the organization of the earliest black congregation. Christ Episcopal Church was organized in 1825 and erected two buildings, the first in 1825-26 and a larger edifice in 1856-57; the latter, at 200 South McMorrine Street, is the oldest church structure in Elizabeth City. The Methodists built their first church building in 1828 and replaced it in 1856 with one that survives today as the Perry Apartments at 305 East Church Street. The Elizabeth City Baptist Church enjoyed considerable growth and erected a new structure in 1847; it was replaced in 1889 by an edifice that is still used by the congregation.

During most of the antebellum period, slaves and free blacks attended the same churches as whites. However, the growing number of non-whites resulted in the establishment of a "Colored Mission" by the Methodists in 1850. Membership that first year was 273 persons, and by 1861 the church had grown to 363 members, making it not only the largest church in town, but one of the largest black congregations in the state. In 1856, land was purchased on African Street (later known as African Church Street and now as Culpepper Street) for the erection of a building for the Methodist Colored Mission. This congregation continues in a 1905 building on an adjacent site as Mount Lebanon African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

The Elizabeth City Academy, which was chartered in 1807, was apparently less than successful, for in 1820 the legislature named new trustees and authorized a lottery for $4,000 to raise funds to erect a building. The academy reopened in January of 1821, and four years later the trustees acquired the northern half of the block bounded by Fearing, Pool, Church, and Martin streets (now a municipal parking lot); a building presumably was erected here soon thereafter. In August of 1850 it was announced that the Academy was moving to "the large and commodious house formerly occupied by John J. Grandy" (location uncertain, but perhaps on Water Street where the Male and Female Academy reopened in 1872 in the "old school room"). That fall principal Stephen D. Pool opened a night school for the "benefit of young men and apprentices of the place, whose business pursuits prevent them from attending day school."

The academy was the only known educational institution in Elizabeth City until December of 1835, when two additional schools were announced. However, no records prove that either was ever in operation. Further educational opportunities were made available by several private and three church-related schools (one for each of the town's three white denominations) which operated between 1845 and 1860. After the passage of the Public School Law of 1839, a system of common schools was developed in Pasquotank County. The 1860 Census reported that there were twenty-one common schools in the county. Surely one was located in or near Elizabeth City even though there is no record of such a school.

To broaden the educational and social climate of the town, a succession of private teachers offered instruction in various arts. While such classes probably existed during the early years of the century, they are not mentioned by surviving newspapers until 1841. During the next twenty years, lessons were given for instrumental and vocal music, dancing, landscape drawing, and monochromatic painting. French and Spanish language lessons were available during the early 1850s.

The municipal limits of Elizabeth City were expanded only once during the antebellum period. In January of 1851, the southern boundary was extended to Body Road (now Roanoke Avenue) and a line running nearly due east from the intersection of Body Road and South Road Street to Charles Creek. Even though the northern and western extensions were minor, and the eastern boundary remained the same (the Pasquotank River), the 1851 changes enlarged the city by more than half. This expansion encouraged the erection of large impressive residences along what is now South Road, Speed, Shepard, Southern, and Ehringhaus streets. Included in the newly annexed city was an area known as the "Race Tract," the former race course in an area now roughly bounded by Southern Avenue and Shepard, Brown, and South Road streets. Horse racing in Elizabeth City reached its zenith in the 1823, after which nothing was mentioned of the old race track in the city's newspapers until 1854, three years after it had become a residential area.

An unusual feature of downtown Elizabeth City was the existence of two business districts. One, located near the intersection of Main and Road streets, contained the major mercantile establishments, the largest hotel, and the banks. The other district was located along the river and Water Street and housed the shipping and transportation services along with much of the industry. The Market House, where vendors could rent stalls, was situated at the corner of Main and Water streets. Between the two districts were residences and the county court house. Property along Poindexter, Tiber, and Charles creeks also provided important sites for manufacturing.

Larger public buildings that reflected the city's growing influence and prosperity were constructed in Elizabeth City during the antebellum years. In 1836, a new court house was erected on the public square bounded by Main, Elliott, Pool, and Matthews (now Colonial) streets, although there is disagreement as to whether it was built of brick, as originally intended, or of frame; whichever, the structure was burned in 1862. A new brick jail was built in 1826 on the square to replace an inadequate structure erected ca. 1810. About 1847, a county poor house and asylum were built outside the city limits (adjacent to present Elizabeth City State University).

Civic improvements undertaken during the antebellum period included the chartering of fire companies in 1824, 1829, 1844, and 1850. To lessen the frequency of fires within the city, in 1832 the town forbade the existence of wooden chimneys; these highly combustible elements were a vestige of medieval building practices that were imported by the early colonists. During the 1850s, the sidewalks on Road Street were paved, an inquiry was made into the acquisition of gas lighting for the town, and at least one water tank was constructed.

Health concerns were often addressed in the newspapers, and sometime before 1829 a marine hospital was established to protect the citizens from contagious diseases brought by seamen; the hospital, located at the corner of Main and Poindexter streets, burned in 1858. Nonetheless, serious epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, and smallpox occurred throughout the period; in fact, the smallpox epidemic in 1835 was so severe that the town commissioners required that all residents be vaccinated. Medical services were improved in 1854 when Dr. Piemont announced the establishment of an infirmary to treat "all sick persons," stating that he "is fully prepared to perform all surgical operations."

Although the life of blacks - both slave and free - in Elizabeth City has yet to be fully researched and understood, fheir role in the city was important. The percentage of blacks within the city probably was similar to that of the county as a whole. The first census of 1790 (three years before the city was chartered) reported that 31.0 percent, or 1,702, of the county's 5,497 inhabitants were non-white, both slave and free. As the farm economy became increasingly dependent on slave labor prior to the Civil War, this percentage increased gradually to 50.2 percent in 1860, or 4,490 blacks out of a total population of 8,940. The 1860 census also recorded that 624 slaves resided in Elizabeth City, occupying 56 slave houses. This was approximately one-fourth of the slaves in rural Pasquotank County. It is interesting to note that the slave-to-house average in the city was eleven, as compared with only five in the county.

While the numbers and percentages of slaves in the county and city are in line with neighboring counties, the numbers and percentages of free blacks are not. For reasons not understood, Pasquotank County had a disproportionate number of free blacks from 1810 until 1860. In 1810, the 550 free blacks in the county comprised nineteen percent of the total black population and seven percent of the total population of the county; both percentages were more than three times the state average. The number and percentage of free blacks in the county increased dramatically throughout the antebellum period. The 1,507 free blacks in 1860 constituted thirty-four percent of the black population and seventeen percent of the total population in Pasquotank County. Statewide, free blacks made up eight percent of the black population and three percent of the total population, percentages four to five times less than those in Pasquotank County. In comparison, the counties near Pasquotank--Camden, Perquimans, and Chowan--had numbers and percentages of free blacks closer to the state averages throughout this period. Why Pasquotank had such a high percentage of free blacks has yet to be determined.

A closer analysis of the 1860 census reveals additional, but still limited, insight into the role of the free black in Elizabeth City. The 217 free blacks recorded as residents of the town comprised just fourteen percent of the county's total of free blacks. Among the eighty-eight men, the most common occupation was farm hand (nine), followed by house carpenter (eight), mariner (seven), servant (six), and blacksmith (four); over one-third of the men were too young to work. A majority of the employed women were washerwomen (thirty-four), followed by servants (twelve), and domestics, cooks, and seamstresses (three each). The fact is that the vast majority of the county's free blacks remained on the farm, where the men were employed almost exclusively as farm hands and the few women who were employed were washerwomen. This certainly suggests that free blacks did not, for whatever reasons, enjoy the benefits of the town's commercial and industrial prosperity.

The prosperity of the antebellum period came to a halt with the economic, social, and political upheaval of the American Civil War. While the Union blockade of the North Carolina and Virginia coasts did much to hinder oceanic shipping, during the early stages of the war transportation between the sounds and Virginia suffered little because of the effectiveness of both the Dismal Swamp and Albemarle-Chesapeake canals. Great quantities of supplies for the Confederacy passed through these waterways in both directions, and Elizabeth City prospered for a short time.

This advantage, however, did not last. Two days after the fall of Roanoke Island on February 8, 1862, a Union fleet sailed to Elizabeth City and quickly overwhelmed an outnumbered Confederate "mosquito fleet" in a brief battle a few miles downriver from Elizabeth City. This skirmish left Elizabeth City unprotected, and the panicked residents then set fire to several of the principal buildings, including the court house and the largest hotel. Since Union control of Elizabeth City effectively choked access to the Dismal Swamp Canal, no attempt was made to seize the canal for two months. In mid-April, a force of about three thousand Union soldiers marched from near Elizabeth City to the locks and bridge near South Mills and took control of the canal after the brief Battle of South Mills. With the surrender of Norfolk on May 10, 1862, the canal was rendered useless to the Confederate cause. For the duration of the war, the town and canal remained in Union control even though a majority of citizens continued to support the Confederate cause.

The late 1860s and early 1870s saw the arrival of ambitious northerners who assumed leading roles in the post-war development of Elizabeth City. Among the first was Dr. Palemon John (ca. 1827-1902), who published The North Carolinian in 1869. Through his newspaper, Dr. John espoused the economic, industrial, and social advantages of settling in eastern North Carolina, and helped to attract a number of northern businessmen to Elizabeth City and the Albemarle area.

Two of these new residents stand out. Charles Hall Robinson (1848-1930) came in 1868 from New York to look after his father's vast timber inierests in northern Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. This venture became the Land and Lumber Company of North Carolina, one of the area's large pioneer lumbering businesses; it ended in total failure in 1873. In 1877, Robinson formed the C. H. Robinson Company, a mercantile firm, the first of his many successful ventures in retail and wholesale merchandising, textile manufacturing, banking, electrification, and ferry operations; he also had extensive farming interests in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. Daniel Stiegerwalt Kramer (1834-1899) came to Elizabeth City in January of 1870 from Pennsylvania, where he had been involved in a successful lumber business with his father and brothers. In August 1871, Kramer began operation of a lumber mill at the foot of what is now Burgess Street. While saw mills had been operating in the Elizabeth City area for at least twenty years, Kramer was the first to successfully engage in lumber manufacturing on a large scale.

Other northern citizens attracted to Elizabeth City included: Dr. William Underwood, a hotel proprietor and a major supporter of the railroad, who arrived in 1867; merchants J. D. Fulmer and Peter W. Melick, both in 1870; and Samuel S. Fowler, a dry goods merchant and later owner of a net and seine factory, who arrived in 1871. All four men were from Pennsylvania.

Because the prospects of business success in Elizabeth City were brighter than in much of the Albemarle region, ambitious men from nearby counties flocked to Elizabeth City. Some of these men were: H. C. Godfrey, who left Perquimans County to establish a junk shop in Elizabeth City and later became a hardware dealer and proprietor of the Elizabeth City Cedar Works, a manufacturer of cedar pails; merchant and tailor Samuel Weisel, a native of Bohemia, who came to Elizabeth City in 1867 from Plymouth, where he had been since 1852; furniture and agricultural implement dealer John L. Sawyer, who came from Perquimans County in 1867; grocery proprietor Jerome B. Flora, a native of Currituck County who came to Elizabeth City in 1879; and, in 1880, attorney E. F. Lamb, who came from Camden County and became one of the town's foremost early realtors. These men joined others in not only rebuilding the local economy into the most robust one in the region, but in making Elizabeth City the educational, social, and cultural center of northeastern North Carolina.

The industrial capacity of Elizabeth City in the years following the Civil War was limited. The Branson's North Carolina Business Directories provide a periodic list of industrial concerns in operation between 1867 and 1898. In 1867, the only industry in town was the steam grist and saw mill of White and [W. W.] Griffin, located along the riverfront. By 1869, the saw mill of the Land and Lumber Company was in operation, there were several additional grist mills in the county, and George W. Bell was operating a gun shop at 104 South Road Street. The accuracy or completeness of these lists is open to question.

The industrial expansion of the town quickened during the 1870s, in large part because of the introduction.of northern capital and experience. Lumber industries led the way. By 1873, the saw mill of D. S. Kramer was building and selling windows, doors, blinds, moldings, flooring, siding, and "scroll work," and in early 1877 it was making 1,500 fish boxes a month. With the failure of the Land and Lumber Company in 1873, their plant along the river was taken over by the planing mill of Conroe, Bush, and Lippencott, another endeavor financed by northern capitalists. Lumber activity quickened and at the close of the decade the town could boast of four saw mills - Kramer, J. R. Dillon and Company, W. W. Griffin, and D. P. Miller - with a total output of 14,800,000 feet of lumber, 180,000 feet of lathing, and 50,000 shingles; the Kramer mill manufactured over half of the lumber. To meet the growing demand for North Carolina lumber, in 1880 Kramer expanded again, constructing a large saw and planing mill along Poindexter Creek, a stream that was channelled and covered in the 1920s for the construction of East Elizabeth Street. Kramer's old site at the end of Burgess Street was acquired the next year by the Elizabeth City and Norfolk Railroad for their railroad shops.

With lumber manufacturing leading the way, industrial endeavors increased during the late 1870s. 1872 and 1877-1878 editions of the Branson directories record a variety of industries in or near Elizabeth City. Several antebellum industries continued in operation: William H. Clark's agricultural implement factory until the mid 1870s; W. W. White's flour, corn, and saw mill until the turn of the century (both located along the riverfront); and George W. Bell's gun shop (104 South Broad Street) until the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1877-1878 there were also three manufacturers of carriages and wagons, two shipbuilders (James F. Snell and J. Lawrence and Son), a saddle and harness shop, a brick making establishment, a blacksmith shop, and two cabinet makers, both of whom were also undertakers.

The depressed economic conditions in Elizabeth City during the post war years are indicated by the listing in the 1867-1868 Branson's North Carolina Business Directory, of only five merchants and two hotels in operation; the accuracy or completeness of this list, while not verified otherwise, is questionable. Two years later, in 1869, Branson listed twenty-three general mercantile establishments, ten grocery stores, and three liveries. The town's political prominence is indicated by the fact that among its eleven lawyers were a United States Senator (John Pool), a United States Representative (C. D. Cobb), a United States District Judge (George W. Brooks), and a State Superior Court Judge (C. C. Pool).

A decade of gradually improving economic conditions, minor improvements on the canal, and a steady influx of regional and northern merchants and capital is reflected in the Branson directory for 1877-1878. The commercial sector of Elizabeth City in 1878 consisted of nineteen general stores, thirteen groceries, three liveries, three drug stores, and three variety/dry goods stores. Numerous other concerns catered to the needs and desires of the residents not only of the town, but of adjacent rural areas: gunsmith, confectioner, furniture dealer, hardware dealers, jewelers, photographer, tinsmith, printers, butchers, commission merchants, and tailor. Almost all of the businesses were located either on Main Street or along the waterfront. Two weekly newspapers, The North Carolinian of Dr. John and The Economist of Mr. Creecy, provided news and advertising to readers in several counties. The professional establishment consisted of sixteen lawyers, twelve physicians, and, for the first time, a dentist. The post-war economic recovery was well underway and heading for prosperous years in the 1880s.

Residential construction in Elizabeth City between 1865 and 1881 was limited primarily to lots within the old antebellum boundary lines. Development was particularly intense in the old Race Tract area in the Shepard-Road Street area where both Olive Branch Baptist Church and Cardozo's school were situated. This area, which was gradually becoming the heart of the city's black community, had the advantage of being located along the two major roads leading south of the city-now South Road Street and Southern Avenue. Other residential construction, while limited in number, was primarily infill among older neighborhoods and along the main roads and streets leading into the town: West Main Street, North Road Streets, and Rum Quarter Road, now Ehringhaus Street.

Commercial development occurred almost exclusively in the two business districts at Main and Road streets and at Main and Water streets. Among the few surviving commercial structures erected between 1865 and 1880 are The North Carolinian Building (ca. 1871) at 106 East Main Street and the Wood Building (ca. 1892) at 111 South Road Street buildings, both in the old mercantile center at Main and Road streets. The two business districts remained distinct from each other until the turn of the century. The period's industrial buildings, none of which survives, continued to be clustered along the waterfront on either the Pasquotank River or Poindexter, Tiber, or Charles creeks. With the construction of two mills by the Kramers along or just north of Poindexter Creek, that area was becoming an industrial center for the city, a location that would increase in importance for the next sixty years.

The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of numerous mercantile, commercial, and financial enterprises in Elizabeth City and the subsequent erection of modern brick buildings in the downtown area. These new, supposedly fire-proof structures, were particularly numerous along Water, Poindexter, Main, and Fearing streets and are exemplified by repetitive two-story buildings displaying modest Victorian elements in the 200 block of North Poindexter Street. By 1896, the town's merchants were providing services for most of the county and much of adjacent Camden and Perquimans counties. In fact, of the 117 merchants and tradesmen listed in the county in the 1896 Branson's North Carolina Business Directory, 98 were located in Elizabeth City, even though, according to the 1900 census, the city contained less than half of the county's total population (6,348 city, 7,312 rural). Furthermore, the various steamship companies enabled city wholesalers to supply retail general stores throughout the eastern Albemarle Sound. Two banks - the First National Bank (1891, 501 East Main Street, demolished) and the Citizen's Bank (1899, 200 South Poindexter Street) - were organized in the 1890s to provide the financial resources required by this growth. These banks expanded the private banking services of Guirkin and Company, which operated from ca. 1872 until ca. 1897 in the antebellum Farmer's Bank Building (108 East Main Street), and the Albemarle Bank, which operated only briefly during the late 1870s.

Elizabeth City was granted a US Post Office on January 1, 1798, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Charles Grice. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved