|Aerial View 1940s . Image Courtesy North Carolina State Archives|
This page is a transcription from the application to nominate
Swansboro to the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES
Prepared and written in 1989 by architectural historian Daniel Pezzoni
STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE
Swansboro, a tiny port established in 1770 on Bogue Sound at the mouth of the White Oak River in Onslow County, is a remarkably unaltered waterfront village of approximately 150 densely-clustered houses and commercial buildings. The historic district includes the town’s surviving antebellum building stock of five houses and two store buildings as well as several virtually intact blocks of frame houses dating to the period of the town’s lumber boom, between the years 1880 and 1925. These lumber boom houses display a distinctive local variation of typical late Victorian exterior and interior milled ornament.
Swansboro’s major commercial and industrial role as Onslow County’s foremost port from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries is documented in the Onslow County Multiple Property Documentation Form: Naval Stores and Lumber Production in Onslow County, 1754-1938. The town served as a center for fishing, boatbuilding, and naval stores processing and shipment before the Civil War. After the war, the town hosted a succession of large lumber mills. Unlike the coastal towns of Beaufort and Morehead City in adjacent Carteret County, which grew large owing to fine harborage and rail connections, Swansboro remained isolated and tied to its immediate hinterland. Consequently, Swansboro represents one of the smallest and most traditional maritime communities surviving on the North Carolina coast.
HISTORIC CONTEXTS AND BACKGROUND
The town of Swansboro occupies one of the earliest settled locales in Onslow County. The town is situated on a point of land at the mouth of the White Oak River in extreme southeastern Onslow County. Within sight of the town lies Bogue Inlet, which is the most readily navigable inlet on the Onslow County coast. Swansboro’s accessibility from the ocean, and its proximity to the inland waterway of the White Oak River, were two of the precipitating factors in the town’s establishment.
According to Swansboro historian Tucker Littleton, the first individual known to have lived on the site was Jonathan Green Sr., a native of Falmouth, Massachusetts, who settled at Swansboro in 1730. In 1735 Green’s property was acquired by Theophilus Weeks, another Falmouth native. Weeks apparently developed an extensive plantation at the site including a wharf and an ordinary.
About 1770 Weeks established a town at his plantation. The earliest plat, dated October 20, 1772, portrays a town of forty-eight 60 X 200 foot lots laid out in three tiers parallel to the water. Running between the town and the waterfront is a forty foot wide street identified as “the Front Street” in the plat—the present Front Street. Perpendicular to Front Street is “Broad Street” (the present Main Street) which passes through the town and continues as the main road linking southeastern Onslow County with the courthouse at Jacksonville. Across Front Street, Broad Street terminates in a wharf—the first of several town wharves which stood at the lower end of the present Main Street until the end of the nineteenth century. The remainder of the town’s 1772 grid is transected by thirty-foot wide lanes which correspond to the present Church, Elm, Moore and Water street [noted as numbered streets in early censuses].
|Ringware House |
1962 Photo NC Archives
Swansboro of the late eighteenth century had probably already established the diversified economy that was to characterize it until the first decade of the twentieth century. In addition to providing a home port for sea captains and an emporium for merchants, Swansboro became the site of vigorous shipbuilding activities from the late eighteenth century until the Civil War. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century turpentine producers and marketers had located in the town, such as New Englanders Charles H. Barnum and Cyrus B. Glover. Scotsman Robert Spence McLean, and the Ferrands, father William and son William Pugh, from New Bern. Barnum and Glover also operated saltworks in the Swansboro vicinity.
The majority of Swansboro’s population derived their livelihood from the sea. The 1850 census of population lists seventeen “mariners” (sailors) out of a total workforce of fifty-one. Some of these sailors were probably also fisherman, as suggested by later censuses. They are rarely listed as owning considerable real estate, and one account of the town as it was in 1862 may refer to their houses. Union commander Thomas G. Stevenson described the town as “a small village, built on a slope of land rising from the marshes around a score of poorly-built, tumbled-down old houses.” Stevenson was probably describing housing in the lower section of town, along Front and Water streets, otherwise he would have made mention of the larger and well-built houses above the town, several of which survive to this day. Another oblique reference to Swanboro’s less-affluent citizens may have been made by Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury when he visited the town in 1785 and described it inhabitants as a “wicked people.” Asbury’s assessment was made two years after five of Swansboro’s citizens had successfully induced the state’s general assembly to establish a public school in the town, suggesting that not all the town’s people were irredeemably wicked.
MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY POPULATION
The earliest reliable figure for Swansboro’s population comes from the 1850 census, which lists 152 inhabitants. By 1860 the population had risen to approximately 200 but by 1870 it had dropped to 142 and by 1880 it had dropped still further to 128. The decline following the Civil War may have reflected general economic disruptions of the immediate area and the South at large.
THE LUMBER BOOM: 1880-1930
|Swansboro Land and Lumber Company . Courtesy Jack Dudley . NC Archives|
Increased economic activity brought with it a renewal of and increase in Swansboro’s building stock. The Walnut Street tier of lots was laid out on the high land on the north side of town. Water and Elm streets were extended westward from town. A number of one- and two-story frame commercial buildings were erected on Front Street beginning in the 1890s. Tourism was another component added to the Swansboro economy at this time with the construction of the rambling, plainly-detailed two-story Tarrymore Hotel in 1910.
By contrast, the 1900 census lists seven carpenters: Johnson Cline, Edward Glancy, Edward M. Hill, John P. Rogers, Charles Russell and Edmond B. Russell (sons of Major Russell) and Charles Webb. Listed as boatbuilder that year was Robert Lee Smith (1871-1942), who in fact was embarking on a career as Swansboro’s most prolific carpenter.
Robert Lee Smith began his career as a fisherman and boat builder. With increased building in Swansboro following 1900—the years of the Swansboro Land and Lumber Company’s greatest activity—Smith turned to house carpentry. His earlier works included his own house at 202 Walnut Street and the Glen Irvin House at 205 Walnut, both frame “I” houses, and the two-story side-hall plan Bern Tolson House at 213 Walnut Street. All told, Smith is believed to have participated in the construction of thirteen buildings in Swansboro, mostly houses but including the 1910 Tarrymore Hotel and the first Swansboro graded school building (both demolished). One of his later houses is the cottage-like Amelia Canady House at 114 Water Street, dating to the early 1930s. The 1916 North Carolina Year Book lists Smith and John P. and I.E. Rogers as carpenters.
POST-LUMBER BOOM PERIOD
The 1920s and 1930s saw a decrease in lumbering activity in Swansboro, due largely to the depletion of timber stands in the town’s hinterland. This in turn led to a decline in population. From the 1916 peak of 575 the town’s population dropped to 420 in 1920 and 394 in 1930. Two events of the early 1930s reduced Swansboro’s isolation and helped to boost its economy. North Carolina Highway 24 was built into the town from Jacksonville and a bridge was constructed over the narrows of the White Oak River to Cedar Point in Carteret County. Also, the town’s harbor was dredged and connected to the Intracoastal Waterway. Fishing continued as an important component of the town’s economy. The 1940s saw an increase in the town’s population due to its proximity to the southeastern quarter of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.
|Main Street as viewed from White Oak River . Image courtesy North Carolina State Archives|
The Swansboro Historic District incorporates most of the historic center of the small port town. One- and two-story frame dwellings and commercial buildings dating to the period 1890-1925 represent the majority of contributing [retain architectural integrity] properties in the district—with a scattering of earlier buildings.
The town faces the Atlantic Ocean across three-and-a-half miles of intervening salt marshes and barrier islands. The land area of the downtown was appreciably increased by harbor dredging in the 1930s, which piled ballast stones and other spoil on the south side of Front Street. There are seventy-six contributing buildings and one cemetery in the historic district.
Swansboro’s domestic and commercial architecture includes some of the earliest representatives in Onslow County. Its small stock of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century housing is similar in form, plan and style to antebellum houses built elsewhere in the county. However, Swansboro’s later domestic architecture is stylistically distinct from contemporaneous late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century housing built in other sections of Onslow County. This is probably a result of stock decorative elements produced at Swansboro’s several lumber-boom period mills. Swansboro’s later housing is characterized by the “I” house and gable-fronted side-hall plan forms.
The town’s late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century commercial architecture shares similarities of scale and form with commercial buildings built elsewhere in the county, but differs from these building in one important aspect—the store buildings lining Swansboro’s Front Street are almost exclusively of frame construction; early-twentieth century commercial architecture of downtown Jacksonville and Richlands is built almost entirely of brick. Geography may lie behind this difference. Jacksonville and Richlands were connected to railroads and received many building materials from outside the area. Swansboro was never reached by rail but it did have easy water access to southeastern Onslow County’s extensive pine forests.
Fifty-five, or seventy-one percent, of Swansboro’s contributing properties are domestic in character. Five of these were built before the Civil War; the rest were built between the late 1880s and 1925—the period of Swansboro’s lumber boom.
|Jonathan Green House 1770|
|Peter Ringware House 1778|
|Bazel Hawkins House 208 Elm Street|
A study of the 1850 census suggests that these five dwelling represent the majority of the finer Swansboro houses built before the Civil War—a remarkable survival rate. Only the eighteenth-century Gibson House, the late-antebellum Barnum House and possibly one or two other fine houses have been lost. Less sophisticated early houses that have disappeared included the Pitt-Heady House and the Lambertson House, both with the coastal plain cottage form. The considerable number of small frame dwellings built before the Civil War may also have been typified by the coastal plain cottage form.
LUMBER-BOOM HOUSES 1880s-1925
|George Bell House 1881|
Apparently few houses were built in Swansboro between the Civil War and the late 1880s, a period of economic stagnation in the town. The earliest houses associated with Swansboro’s lumber boom, such as the George E. Bell House  and the circa 1893 James Elijah Parkin House are characterized by flamboyant interior and exterior ornament. Houses from the later 1890s, the 1900s and the 1910s exhibit a remarkable degree of ornamental similarity, likely evidence of the influence of the Swansboro Lumber Company Mill and its successor the Swansboro Land and Lumber Company Mill. There is no evidence that the mills built these houses directly. Instead it appears that a coterie of independent carpenters made liberal use of stock moldings and ornament produced at the mills.
The dominant house form of Swanboro’s lumber years was the “I” house, incorporating either two-room or center-hall plans. Many of Swansboro’s houses built during this period have the symmetrical two-story three-bay façades characteristic of the “I” house. Many one-story houses also have symmetrical three-bay façades reflecting two-room and center-hall plans within. In addition to these types, a number of two-story houses were built with side-hall plans.
Secondary characteristics which distinguish these turn-of-the-century houses include turned and sawn porch ornament, cornice and frieze board returns, decorative wood-shingling and louvered vents in gables, and entries flanked by sidelights with elaborate raised wooden panels under the lights. Several houses have chamfered porch posts with pronounced molded neckings and caps. Interiors are generally sheathed in beaded tongue-and-groove boards and mantles, and stairs are embellished with sawn and turned ornament. In both the inside and outside of Swanboro’s lumber boom houses can be found the delicate multiple moldings that superficially resemble Federal styling.
|Photo courtesy J. Dudley |
The Swansboro Land and Lumber Company was the only mill in Onslow County to have a band saw, and subsequently Swansboro houses and other buildings built during the years of the mill’s operation have framing members bearing vertical saw marks.
Two antebellum commercial buildings survive in Swansboro: the William Pugh Ferrand Store and the Robert McLean Store, both dating to the period immediately following an 1838 fire that ravaged Front Street. The Ferrand Store is the only nineteenth century brick structure to survive in Onslow County (and apparently one of the few to be built in the area.) The frame McLean Store may originally have been only one story in height with a storage garrett; during the nineteenth century it was given a full second story. Both of these structures retain many original interior and exterior features. Both were associated with the turpentine trade in late antebellum Swansboro. The gable-front form of these two buildings relates them architecturally to commercial buildings built throughout the United States during the antebellum period.
|Ferrand's Store |
Commercial architecture built during the lumber boom years also adopted the gable-front form. Some of these buildings were quite small, such as the Richard Riggs Store on Front Street. Others were large such as the two-story Watson-Parkin “double store” on Front Street built as a speculative venture by coastal North Carolina hosteler William J. Moore in 1910. Six of Swansboro’s commercial buildings are contributing.
The majority of Swanboro’s surviving historic architecture is domestic or commercial in character, although the town’s building stock was formerly complemented by many buildings of diverse function. Not buildings per se, but vital to the town’s early economy, were shipyards. Shipyards were located at several points along the town waterfront, most notably at the ends of Main and Moore streets. Iron rails once used to launch ships extend underwater at the end of Moore Street. Wooden piers once thronged the waterfront; remains of one possibly dating to the colonial period survive at nearby Deer Island.
One of the few classes of structures related to Swansboro’s maritime economy to survive in the town are fish houses, small gable-front frame structures where seafood was processed and packed. The 1930s Jim Canady Fish House is the best preserved of these traditional fish houses [135 South Front].
Of the succession of sawmills that operated in the town between the 1880s and the 1920s, nothing survives other than the domestic and commercial infrastructure created by them. The largest of these, the circa 1900 Swansboro Land and Lumber Company Mill, included at least three large two-story machinery sheds and a commissary and office building.
Another industry that has vanished without leaving any above-ground trace is grist milling. According to Swansboro historian Tucker Littleton, the town featured, at different times, as many as five windmills for the grinding of corn meal.
Until the 1890s the Methodists were the only sect to erect a church building in Swansboro. In 1897 the Baptists raised a large church building on Main Street which survives today. The earliest school in the town may have been established as early as 1783. A one-story frame Methodist academy stood on Walnut Street during the second half of the nineteenth century. The only educational building to survive in the district is the 1920s Emmerton School [currently town hall].