Pamlico's Past

Exploring the History of the Pamlico River and Sound

The following article appeared in The Goose Creek Islander, 1874-1974.[North Carolina] : [Centennial Committee], [1974]

By Sandra Banks
A light and tower marker was placed at the entrance of the Pamlico River on Pamlico Point Shoal in 1828 by the United States Coast Guard. This lighthouse tower has an unusual history in that during the Civil War Federal troops set fire to the structure in an attempt to destroy it, but the Confederates arrived in time and put out the fire.

1828 Pamlico Point Lighthouse1828 Pamlico Point LighthouseLittleton Potter was an attendant for the tower in the middle 1800s. His grave bears no marker; but his wife's, Abby Gill Potter, bears the dates 1840-1881. The family lived in the attendants' dwelling located near the tower on the shoal. Noah Ireland (1832-1917) is reported to have been an attendant of the lighthouse at one time.

The United States Coast Guard had no information concerning the attendants; therefore, we obtained the data of Littleton Potter from the grave of his daughter, Laura Potter Lewis, in Campbell's Creek, North Carolina. The inscription from the grave marker reads, "Born at Pamlico Lighthouse."

1899 Chart of Pamlico Point Lighthouse1899 Chart of Pamlico Point LighthouseThe brick tower later crumbled and fell into the water. Residents hauled the bricks in boats to their homesites for personal use. The site of the remaining underground structure has become a popular fishing place.

A screwpile light station was erected on Gull Shoal near Pamlico Point in November of 1891 by the United States Coast Guard. The light station was hexagonal shaped, eight nautical miles from Goose Creek, and reached by boat.
The focal plane of the lantern was 40 feet above the mean sea level. The superstructure was wood, painted white. The substructure was brown, and the foundation was made of iron pilings. The lamp was a "Heap-Funck" and had a wick burner. The fog signal was a Stevens machine and had a double blow every 10 seconds.

1891 Pamlico Point Screwpile Lighthouse1891 Pamlico Point Screwpile LighthouseThe light station had one keeper and one assistant. Captain Robinson “Rob” Ireland (1844-1900) was me first keeper of the new light station; he had a wooden leg. He and his family lived in the "house" over the water.
Captain Bob Hopkins was assistant to Captain Rob Ireland and believed to have become the keeper at Captain Rob's "death. Captain Mumford Guynn (1862-1931), who moved here from Hatteras, was a keeper, and Jim Casey was his assistant. Peter Gallop and Vernon Gaskill were later attendants at the light station.
The use of attendants was discontinued when the wooden structure was disassembled. 

Pamlico Point Light TodayPamlico Point Light Today

The steel structure remains today with a light marker that is battery powered to mark the Pamlico Point and Gun Shoals.

(Information from Chris Taylor, Lieut. USCGR, Public Inf. Office, Fifth Coast Guard District, Portsmouth, Virginia and attendants names from Senior Citizens).

It may surprise you to know that the U. S. Coast Guard had a long tradition in the town of Washington, N. C. One of the first ten cutters of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, a predecessor service of the Coast Guard, was built on the Washington waterfront and launched in the summer of 1792. The cutter was named the Diligence and her first master was a gentleman by the name of William Cook. The light attendant station (known locally as the “buoy yard”) that stood on the southeast corner of Bridge and Main Streets was originally a facility of the U. S. Lighthouse Service, another service that merged with the Coast Guard in 1939. For many years lighthouse and buoy tenders that maintained the lighthouses and aids to navigation on the Pamlico River and Sound were moored at the station.

On August 4, 1950, Coast Guard Day and the 160th birthday of the U. S. Coast Guard, Washington was host to an gala event celebrating the Coast Guard. Highlights included speeches by Mayor Dr. L. H. Swindell, Coast Guard Commandant Merlin O’Neill and Washington native Congressman Herbert C. Bonner. Local dignitaries included Edmund Harding, John Rodman, Wayland Sermons, and Ashley B. Futrell. To emphasize its capabilities, the Coast Guard performed several demonstration including a rescue of a swimmer in the water by helicopter and the “touch and go” landing of a seaplane on the Pamlico River.

26-foot, 1800-pound Surfboat26-foot, 1800-pound SurfboatBut the highlight of the day was a surfboat race among the crews of several Coast Guard Lifeboat Stations that was held off Washington Park. So popular was the event that it was reported that as many as 10,000 people were in attendance. Buoys were placed to mark off the course in the Pamlico River. Each crew consisted of a coxswain and eight oarsmen that had to row a 26-foot, 1800-pound surfboat ½ mile, capsize it, right it, and then row another ½ mile to complete the competition. The race was hotly contested with the winning crew from Fort Macon setting a winning record of eight minutes and 20 seconds. They were presented the coveted “Josephus Daniels Memorial Trophy,” named for distinguished Washington native and one time Secretary of the Navy as well as Ambassador to Mexico. During his career in Washington, D. C., Daniels was also a strong supporter of the Coast Guard. The crew from Virginia Beach came in second, less than two seconds behind the winners.

To bring Coast Guard Day to a festive finish, the Washington Spinster Club, a group of 100 local girls, held a dance in the American Legion Hut on Williamston Road for the more than 100 Coast Guardsmen that were in town. “After several opening dances to the music of Bob Jones and His Orchestra, Clyde Harrison called for three girl break numbers. Music varied from boogie to waltz.” states the Washington Daily News.

The U. S. Coast Guard continued to maintain a presence in Washington until 1966.  Following Congressman Bonner’s death in 1965, the Light Attendant Station was decommissioned and the personnel and material were moved to Hobucken, N. C.


150 years ago, at around 10 o'clock on the morning of April 30, 1864, one of the most devastating events in the history of Washington, N. C. occurred. Two weeks later, much of the town lay in ruin.

The time was spring of 1864. Union forces had occupied Washington for over two years. During that period, they were successful in holding off two attempts by Confederates to retake the town. Washington at the time was very different from the bustling Washington prior to the war. It had established itself as a major sea and river port serving as the hub for the exchange of crops grown on the farms and plantations lining the Tar River and the goods manufactured in the Northeast U.S. as well as the sugar and molasses produced on the islands in the Caribbean. But after two years of occupation, commerce was suffering and many of the white population had fled town. The 1860 census showed the number of occupants in Washington to be around 1,600 with roughly 45% listed as white, 45% listed as slaves, and 10% listed as free men of color. But by 1864, the number of white occupants had dwindled to less than 500. However, as a result of a large number of Union troops and the influx of former slaves seeking refuge, the overall population had swelled.

On April 20, 1864, Confederate forces under General Robert F. Hoke, with aid from the Confederate ram "Albemarle," defeated the Union forces occupying the nearby town of Plymouth and looked to push the remaining Yankees out of eastern North Carolina. Fearing that the Rebel forces would now turn south and focus on "Little Washington," Union commanders ordered the evacuation of the town.

Orders were given on April 26th to evacuate Washington as speedily and as secretly as possible. Guns from the surrounding forts were removed and sent by boat to New Bern and other nearby Union territory. General Harland, who commanded the Union troops in Washington, was given instructions not to abandon the refugees in town, both black and white, and to allow them sufficient time to flee. The First North Carolina (Union) Volunteers, local men who had served as garrison troops for the Federals, were commanded to proceed at once along with their families to New Bern for fear of Confederate retaliation. But specific orders were given forbidding the destruction of private property.

Tar River BridgeTar River BridgeWashington resident Martha Matilda Fowle wrote to her sister describing what happened next, "Thursday and Friday, the panic increased as the soldiers grew disorderly. Our situation was truly some parts of town houses were broken open. The soldiers stole everything they could." But on Saturday, April 30th, the situation became decidedly worse. Martha continues, "The soldiers had set fire to some stables on William DeMille's wharf. It was not done by orders ... (but) no attempt made to stop it." In addition, the bridge crossing the river was fired, the result of which led to several houses and warehouses being set ablaze. Because much of the town's fire fighting equipment had been vandalized during the previous three days of looting and the lack of able-bodied men, the blaze spread rapidly north up Bridge Street, east along Main Street and west toward the Grist Plantation. Most of the area bounded by Washington Street on the west, Fifth Street on the north, and Respess Street on the east was left in ruin. Few buildings were left standing. Among those buildings fortunate enough to escape the destruction and still in use today include the Fowle and Havens warehouses, the Fowle and Havens houses, and the Bank of Washington building. Four churches burned to the ground: the Methodist Episcopal (First United Methodist), the Catholic (St. John the Evangelist), the Presbyterian (First Presbyterian) and the African Methodist Episcopal.

Unfortunately, on May 9th, about two weeks following the Federal troops' departure; a second fire broke out in the old Lafayette Hotel on the northeast corner of Main and Market Streets. Without the necessary fire fighting equipment, the conflagration spread rapidly north up Market Street and east down Main Street devastating much of the town not already destroyed by the previous fire. The courthouse survived but a fourth church, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, was destroyed.

A board of investigation was later assembled by the Union Army, which issued a statement of condemnation for the pillaging, but did not find fault with the burning of the town. Restitution was not offered for the loss of property, but three of the four churches eventually received compensation in 1910 for their losses through the Federal "Court of Claims."

For the last year of the war and because of two devastating fires, Washington lay in ruin, with commerce dead and farming almost nonexistent. Much like the rest of North Carolina and the South, Washington was to suffer through the turmoil and social upheaval of the Reconstruction Era. But eventually, toward the end of the 19th Century, Washington managed to rise from the ashes and rebuild its economy. The shipping industry returned, agriculture recovered and a flourishing lumber trade was established.

Windmill at HatterasWindmill at HatterasWindmills, much like those found in Holland, once stood along the Outer Banks and the banks of the Pamlico and Pungo rivers. Records indicate that at one time or another over the last 200 years as many as four existed along the shores of these rivers, and mainland Hyde County, including Ocracoke, had as many as 24. On the Outer Banks and along the sounds and rivers of eastern North Carolina were built upwards to 155 over that same period. Of that total, Carteret County had the highest number at 65. Hyde County was second and Dare County came in third with 21. By the late 19th Century, most coastal communities had at least one, some as many as two or three. In his book The Long Roll, Union Civil War soldier Charles Johnson declared about eastern North Carolina windmills "...there are a greater number than I supposed were in existence in the whole country." George Nowitzky, while sailing the Pasquotank River in 1887, stated in his narrative Marine Metropolis of Virginia, and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina "A powerful marine glass ... showed me plainly the lonesome looking banks of the opposite shore, and revealed, to my surprise, a number of mills with large sweeping arms." Reaching their peak following the Civil War, the number of mills declined until, by 1900, only a handful remained along the entire coast.

Millstone in AvonMillstone in AvonThese coastal windmills were almost all of the "post mill" variety. Post mills were constructed by mounting the housing that contained the mill works on a massive central post allowing the entire structure, including the sweeps or "sails," to be turned so as to face into the wind for maximum efficiency. The gears and mechanisms used to transfer the power from the turning sweeps to the millstone were made from readably available wood, and the numerous sail makers found in these maritime communities easily fabricated the sails. The two millstones, one stationary and the other turning, were acquired during trading expeditions to the West Indies, most often from the island of Martinique. Because windmills were so numerous along the Outer Banks, relic millstones can still be found in many of the old villages. On your next visit to Ocracoke, visit the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum to see one on display. For the most part, Outer Banks windmills were used to grind grist (wheat or corn) that fishermen on the islands procured from mainland farmers in exchange for oysters and salted fish. In some locations, mostly along North Carolina's southern coast, a few mills were operated to pump water for coastal salt works.

In Beaufort County, at least four windmills have been documented. Two were located in the eastern part of the county, one on the south point at the mouth of Pungo Creek and a second one further south on the western shore of the Pungo River. A third windmill was situated along the south shore of the Pamlico River in what today is known as the Goose Creek State Gameland.

Hyde County WindmillHyde County WindmillThe fourth windmill in Beaufort County was located on the north shore of the Pamlico River on a spit of land once known as Windmill Point at the mouth of a stream once called Windmill Creek. Today that stream goes by the name of Jack's Creek. Where East Main Street in Washington, NC crosses Jack's Creek, there once stood a windmill next to the river not unlike the mills that dotted the coast. Ample evidence of its existence can be found in the historical record. A passage in The North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register describes the1788 tomb of Captain John Bonner, son of Washington founder James Bonner, as being located on Windmill Point. An early 1826 deed describes the corner of a plantation belonging to Benjamin Runyon (for whom Runyon Creek is so named) as "...Beginning at a hickory standing on the side of a small creek which empties into the river at the windmill," the small creek being today's Jack's Creek. In his November 24, 1939 Washington Daily News column, John Bragaw quotes Mr. Henry Blount discussing Windmill Point, "Years ago, I asked my father why the point was called Windmill Point. He said he had been told by older people that there used to be on the point a windmill that ground corn for the public. He told me the creek was also named Windmill Creek. In later years, in talking about the land grants in that section from the King of England, he again called it Windmill Creek, stating that it was so recorded in the county records at the court house." Blount continues by recounting an 1890 deed describing a property adjacent to the creek as "the Windmill Point land bounded on one side by Pamlico River, on another by the McNair land and on the east by Windmill Creek." So it appears that a windmill did exist at the mouth of Jack's Creek and it's quite possible that it was built around the beginning of the 19th Century, making it one of the earliest in North Carolina.

See a Post Mill in operation in Holland

By the start of the 20th Century, the people of Washington had begun to refer to Windmill Creek as Jack's Creek. In the 1903 act to incorporate the City of Washington, the description of the boundary of the town starts with "Beginning on Pamplico River at the mouth of Jack's or Wind-mill Creek, and running up said creek to the mouth of the Cool Spring Branch..." So one last question remains. Why is Windmill Creek known today as Jack's Creek? John Bragaw posed the question in a 1939 column and received several responses. Mr. J. B. Sparrow, a banker in town and a member of an old Washington family, recalled a little hut that once stood where East Main Street crosses said creek. He stated that the hut was occupied by a "venerable" African-American named Jack and that the creek was frequently spoken of as "Jack's Creek." As an aside, Sparrow added, "Just in front of Jack's hut, nearer the point, stood an old windmill, its long arms still intact..." Washington businessman J. B. Fowle is cited as corroborating Sparrow's story. It seems a plausible explanation but we may never know for sure. But, as John Bragaw stated, "Windmill Creek is the more euphonious name, is the more fitting name, and above all, is undoubtedly the correct name."

Map by Tucker R. Littleton (click to enlarge)Map by Tucker R. Littleton (click to enlarge)


Brawgaw, John G. "Now and Then." Washington Daily News [Washington, NC] 24 Nov. 1939: N. pag. Print.
Brawgaw, John G. "Now and Then." Washington Daily News [Washington, NC] 04 Dec. 1939: N. pag. Print.
Dunbar, Gary S. "The Banks in the Federal Period." Historical Geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1958. 32-33. Print.
Johnson, Charles F. "Chapter VI." The Long Roll. East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1911. 53-54. Print.
Littleton, Tucker R. "When Windmills Whirled on the Tar Heel Coast." The State Oct. 1980: 8-12. Print.

Washington Tower in 1905Washington Tower in 1905Washington's historical 1900 weather signal tower is again displaying flags notifying passers-by of what to expect for the day's weather. Before the existence of daily weather radio broadcasts, the public would check the local weather flags to know what kind of weather to expect for the day. This system of signal flags was established in 1887 by the U. S. Army Signal Corp and was continued by the U. S. Weather Bureau into the 1920's.

The Washington tower is displaying the old signal flags, which are fairly easy to understand. A white flag means fair weather, a blue flag means rain or snow, and a white over blue flag means "local rain," what we know today as scattered showers. A fourth flag, a black pennant, flown with one of the previous three flags indicates a temperature change from the previous day. Black pennant above any flag indicates that the temperature will be noticeably "above" what it was the previous day. Flown below, the temperature will be below yesterday. No black pennant, the temperature will be close to the previous day's temperature.

 In addition, the Washington tower will be displaying coastal warning flags. Many people are familiar with the hurricane warning flags, two square red flags each with a middle black square. Additional warning signals are small craft advisory (single red pennant), gale warning (two red pennants), and storm warning (one square red flag with a middle black square). Flags will be displayed according to the marine zone forecast issued by the National Weather Service for the Pamlico River, the river being in the same zone as Pamlico Sound.

The displays of weather signal flags on the Washington tower are a representation of a historical method of communicating weather related information and should not be used for planning purposes. The public is urged to tune to National Weather Service radio broadcasts or check on-line for the latest weather forecast.


Weather Signal Flag GuideWeather Signal Flag Guide


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