August 28, 1928 was a big day in the history of Belhaven, North Carolina, as the tiny town celebrated the opening of the newest section of the Inland Coastal Waterway from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort Inlet, NC. The 22-mile dredged stretch along the Pungo River completed that project, and immediately became a vital link for Belhaven. The town was exuberant. Eighty-five years later, they want to do it again, revitalizing the town for a new kind of boating industry in the process.
Though the town’s population was only about 3,000 people when the waterway opened in 1928, more than 20,000 showed up that day to participate in the celebration of the waterway. Current Town Manager, Dr. Guinn Leverett, said the visitors hadn’t thought about food, and “cleaned out the grocery stores.” The townspeople filled 1,750 running feet of tables with picnic baskets for all to share.
The local fishermen brought in five tons of fish caught in the Pamlico Sound and Pungo River. “It had to have been the biggest fish fry in history,” Leverett laughed, “but the multitudes were fed.”
Don Stark, current Commodore of the Belhaven Yacht Club, explained the importance of the waterway’s opening, saying that while the town wasn’t incorporated until 1899, its location on the north shore of the Pungo River, eight miles from Pamlico Sound, was a crucial shipping area. “The town is here because of the water,” he said. “When the Intracoastal Waterway came, it made it even better.” Rail lines brought timber, cotton and other crops from inland to travel via water to customers.
Ben Dixon MacNeill, who covered the waterway’s opening for the Raleigh News and Observer, drew a more fanciful analogy in his August 31, 1928 article. He wrote that the water highway “fetches the ocean to Belhaven’s doorstep, whereas, for some thousands of years, it has been some 40 miles to the eastward, and a not very satisfactory ocean at that, having Cape Hatteras to keep it pretty consistently irritated.”
Not only did hordes of visitors descend on the town to mark the opening of the waterway, but a pretty distinguished list of guests and speakers arrived also. The former Congressman John H. Small, known as the “Father of the Waterway,” championed water transportation during his time in Congress from 1899-1921, and he was a key player in the passage of the law creating the east coast inland waterway. Also instrumental in the waterway creation was Congressman Lindsay Warren who had served as the Comptroller General of the United States. A bridge crossing the Alligator River, part of the Intracoastal Waterway, bears his name. Another key player in bringing the waterway to Belhaven was local farmer Fred Latham who not only served in the N.C. Senate but was an agricultural pioneer, creating the first hybrid corn. Josephus Daniels supported the waterway idea during the 50 years he was editor of the Raleigh News & Observer. He also served as Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson and as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A Navy band provided entertainment as did the flyovers by two naval aircraft and an Air Force dirigible. The harbor was reportedly filled with “the entire United States Coast Guard fleet assigned to North Carolina waters…the rum chasers were there, and…dozens of smaller craft, all gay with flags.” There were even power boat races.
MacNeill again best illustrates the image, saying, “This country down here has taken to the racing of these small boats powered with outboard motors…weighing less than” their drivers.
MacNeill prophesied that if Belhaven ever had a celebration again, “everybody who was here today will come back, if they are not bed-ridden.” The town wants to follow the spirit of the 1928 event as they celebrate its 85th anniversary on September 21st. The great grandson of Fred Latham, Chuck Latham, will be there as well as well as the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association (AIWA) Chairman Stephen Furlough and North Carolina State Senator Bill Cook. The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. on the lawn of the Wilkinson Mansion.
The committee organizing the festivities plans to stress the strategic value of the inland waterway to the recreational dollars it brings to the towns along its banks. “It used to be a boon for commercial shipping,” Dr. Leverett said, “But, over time and with shoaling, we see more pleasure boats now. In 1982, we had four fish houses operating from Belhaven. In 1998, the last went out of business and we lost 55 jobs in a town with a population of 2,000.” He thinks that industry will not come back. “Just as the Chesapeake Bay is becoming fished out, so is the Pamlico Sound, which is larger than the Chesapeake.”
Belhaven NC’s new economic emphasis is on a working waterfront.
Dr. Leverett stressed that the entire town is getting behind a “pro-boater attitude.” The town is setting up transportation for visiting boaters to stores, including the Ace Hardware “that has a terrific amount of stainless steel parts.” He added, “We don’t have a sanitary pump out system yet but we’re working on that. As well as on a mooring field.”
The only boatyard with a travel lift closed a number of years ago, but it has reopened under the ownership of Les and Brenda Porter who previously ran a marina on the James River in Virginia. Les is also serving as dockmaster for the new docks.
As for the upcoming celebration, following the speeches, everyone will head to the new docks along Win’s Cut for the Blessing of the Fleet. The town hopes the Coast Guard will do some flyovers with the original seaplanes but, Leverett laughs, “there are no more dirigibles in the Air Force. Maybe we’ll substitute a crop duster!”
Of course there will be picnics, music and games. The Belhaven Yacht Club is inviting surrounding yacht clubs to participate in a regatta, so the harbor should be filled with 50 or more sailing ships. In addition, the 72’ gaff-rigged schooner Jeanie B will be present, with the possibility of one or two other tall ships joining her.
Commodore Stark is looking forward “to celebrating the re-emergence of the waterfront.” After all, he emphasizes, “the waterways are such a key part of life here.” Dr. Leverett is hoping that the celebration will kick off more boater enthusiasm and participation in ‘Sea Port Belhaven.’”
For the most current information, call the town hall at 252.943.3055.