Most native North Carolinians have seen their neighbors and friends wearing a popular tourists’ t-shirt advertising the “Sanitary Fish Market” in Morehead City.  Perhaps some University of North Carolina alumni notice the similarity between the town’s name and one of UNC’s most recognizable names, John Motley Morehead.  While many people know this region as a tourist destination because of its beaches, proximity to historic towns like Beaufort, and fishing, few people know of the town’s relatively short history and economic importance to the state.

Morehead City is relatively young compared to other North Carolina towns.  Settlers founded nearby Beaufort, NC in 1709, making it the third-oldest town in the state.  In contrast, state officials only incorporated Morehead City in 1861 (“Morehead City”). How did this region become a home of research institutes and a tourist attraction with an active port in fewer than 150 years?  Four major factors contributed to modern day Morehead City: interest from John Motley Morehead; a railroad that extended from Morehead City, NC all the way to San Diego, CA; increased tourism during the 20th century; as well as economic and educational revitalization.

John Motley Morehead’s Influence

Most of Carteret County existed as farmland as recently as the mid 1850s.  John Motley Morehead, governor of North Carolina from 1841-1845, proposed a commercially driven port town in an area then called Shepherd’s Point (Morehead City Centennial 8).  According to the John Locke Foundation, in 1853 “John Morehead and Silas Webb visited Carteret County to study Beaufort Harbor and Port and determine whether a larger port could be developed” (“Morehead City”). Shepherd’s Point eventually became Morehead City and was viewed as a commercially viable city because of its unique deep-water ports and proximity to Beaufort.  It was because of these characteristics that Morehead expressed economic interest in the area before the North Carolina legislature provided partial funding for a railroad across the state.  This railroad legislation may have been the final push needed to create the thriving place we now know as Morehead City.

Railroad Comes to Morehead City

This is the first detailed map, by Charles Ludwig, which outlined a plan for Morehead City.

A new railroad that would connect the area to greater parts of the state and the nation sparked the development of the town.  Town planners lauded the railroad as early as 1857, as evidenced by text on the original town map: “The North Carolina Rail Road now in course of construction will form a direct line of communication between the Harbor & Memphis” (Charles Ludwig).  When considered in a historical context, this railroad’s importance becomes even clearer because it was the “most direct and shortest communication between the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans” (Charles Ludwig).  Today, North Carolinians are able to drive to Morehead City in a matter of hours, but before the railroad’s arrival and spread throughout America, transportation took a long time and cost a lot of money.

The railroad provided multiple benefits to the new community.  It enabled transportation for tourists from central and western North Carolina to reach the coast.  In addition, fishermen could sell their seafood and transport it much further inland with the railroad in place.  As a result, Morehead City attracted more businesses and residents because the town provided another avenue to make a livelihood in the fishing or port trade industries.  Finally, the railroad offered transportation of imported goods, such as natural rubber, westward.

The Rise of Tourism

This man, in front of the Sanitary Fish Market, is likely its founder Tony Seamon. This picture was taken by Hugh Morton in the 1950s.

After the end of the Civil War, an increase in tourism helped propel Morehead City to become, during the 20th century, more of a tourist destination than an economic hub.  Both the railroad’s influence and increased tourist destinations like hotels and restaurants contributed to the boost of tourism in Morehead City.  For example, the Atlantic Hotel provided a place for North Carolinians to travel, and railroad companies promoted it and Morehead City in order to increase ridership.  According to the Morehead City Centennial Jubilee Book,  the “Atlantic Hotel was recognized as the place for discerning North Carolinians to spend the summer” and it was “publicized and promoted by the owners, the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad” (10).

In addition to the railroad and lodging, North Carolinian seafood and proximity to historic Beaufort, NC also added to the boost in tourism in Morehead City.  Along Morehead City’s main streeet, Arendell Street,  there are several restaurants that offer freshly caught seafood.  One restaurant, the Sanitary Fish Market, became famous within the 20th century because of its popular t-shirts and its waterfront location.  Most recently, Morehead City has been home to the North Carolina Seafood Festival, an annual three-day celebration of seafood which contributes about $32 million in tourism to the Carteret County region (“About Our…”).  If visitors are looking for attractions outside the city, Beaufort NC is only four miles away by car.  Beaufort is North Carolina’s third oldest town and is home to multiple historic landmarks and attractions like the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

While tourism helped Morehead City grow in the twentieth century, the town’s economy became stagnant during winter, a problem which prompted change within the young community.

Economic and Educational Revitalization

During the off-season, Morehead City needed to remain economically active in order to sustain the town’s growing population.  Thankfully, the port of Morehead City is one of America’s deepest ports, imports the second most natural rubber in the nation, and is a leading exporter of phosphate (“Port of Morehead City”).  The port is also important because it offers a trading post in North Carolina, a state where most shorelines are not easily accessible because of the Outer Banks, barrier islands that flank most of the North Carolina coast.  This port was not always this successful, however, and constant renovations or additions are currently making the port a more viable option for importers and exporters of goods.  For example, as recently as December 2010, new upgrades were proposed that would permit larger vessels and increased traffic in and out of the port (“Port…”).  Governor Beverly Perdue acknowledged the value of Morehead City’s port industry in a 2009 report by News 14 Carolina.

Morehead City was also revitalized during the mid-twentieth century when the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and Duke University all created satellite campuses in Morehead City.  In 1947, The University of North Carolina built the Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City.  Its mission is:

To serve the state and nation through the conduct of high quality basic and applied marine sciences research, the training of students and young scientists, and the provision of professional expertise and leadership in marine issues ranging from local to global scale.

(“Institute of Marine Sciences”).

Duke University has a similar marine sciences building located in Morehead City, and both institutions serve the Morehead City community by providing employment opportunities, attracting an educated workforce, and hosting graduate level researchers.  The research from these institutions help both North Carolina and the greater united States.  For instance, NPR recently featured research by a graduate student from UNC’s Institute for Marine Sciences that investigated the effects of newly discovered oil plumes that resulted from the BP Horizons oil spill (“Following the Plumes”).  This research connects people that live and work within Morehead City to the greater community to create solutions to some of our nation’s most troubling issues.

Looking Forward

Morehead City’s dynamic character didn’t come about overnight but instead owes its identity to multiple factors.  The ideal town set forth by John Motley Morehead has been achieved and exceeded; Morehead City has grown from a small trading city to a moderately sized town with a mix of touristic, industrial, and educational uses.  The combination of these three forces in the town make Morehead City important to not just residents of North Carolina but all Americans.  Hopefully, the diversity and importance of Morehead City to her residents and the greater citizens of North Carolina will continue as the town grows and embraces change in the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

About Our Festival.” North Carolina Seafood Festival. Web. 28 Mar 2011.

Charles Ludwig. “Plan of the city of Morehead: at the termination of the Atlantic & North Carolina Rail Road, Beaufort Harbor.” 1857. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.

Following the Plumes.” Web. 16 Mar. 2011.

Institute of Marine Sciences.” Web. 16 Mar. 2011.

Morehead City.North Carolina History Project. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.

Morehead City Centennial Jubilee Book. Morehead City, N.C.: Produced by Herald Print. Co.,, 1957. Print.

Morton, Hugh. Tony’s Sanitary Fish Market : Hugh Morton Collection Of Photographs and Films. 1960. Web. 23 Feb 2011.

Port of Morehead City.” Web. 16 Mar. 2011.

About the Author

Pierre Lourens studies English and Spanish at the University of North Carolina.  For the past four summers, he has visited Atlantic Beach, a beach town which lies right outside Morehead City and historic Beaufort.

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