The historic downtown area of New Bern offers charming views of the past, while just 30 miles away, Atlantic Coast towns have treasures of their own.
By Phil Bowie
Almost 300 years ago, Swiss Baron Christopher de Graffenried led a ragged band of settlers across the Atlantic. They landed in today’s North Carolina in 1710 and established a village at the confluence of two broad rivers, the Neuse and the Trent. He called the place New Bern. (“Bern” is the Swiss word for “bear.”)
New Bern soon became a busy port, shipping out pine tar, pitch, and turpentine to the other colonies and to Europe, and unloading molasses and sugar from the West Indies. In the late 1700s, British Royal Governor William Tryon chose New Bern to be his capital, and he erected an elegant Georgian mansion overlooking the Trent River to serve as his government building. He also constructed a home befitting his lofty station. Many poor colonists, who wore homespun and shot squirrels for food, and who were becoming increasingly unhappy with British rule, called it “Tryon’s Palace.” When such bewigged royalty were summarily driven out, New Bern became home to privateers who fought for both freedom and profit.
Today, stuck muzzle-down in the sidewalk at the corner of Middle and Pollock streets, is a cannon from the British warship Lady Blessington, which was taken by the men of local privateer John Wright Stanley. During his southern tour in 1791, George Washington stayed in Stanley’s home, near the then-declining Tryon Palace.
Along with this sort of history, the Swiss influence still can be seen; the city hall clock tower resembles the one in Europe, and cast-iron black bears adorn several buildings.
You can be royalty for a day by visiting Tryon Palace. It has been restored to all its former glory, replete with formal gardens and flanking kitchen and stable wings, and furnished with a wealth of 18th-century antiques and art. Interpreters in period costumes demonstrate cooking, spinning, weaving, candle-making, and blacksmithing throughout the 14-acre complex.
The palace is the centerpiece of a shaded, restored historic district that contains more than 150 sites listed on the National Register, including the no-nonsense New Bern Academy Museum (housed in the state’s first school building); the 1790 Attmore-Oliver house on Broad Street, which is headquarters for the Historical Society; and the Firemen’s Museum on Hancock Street, which displays steam pumpers, early fire trucks, old photos, and even the mounted head of a faithful fire horse named Fred, which died in its traces on the way to answering an alarm.
New Bern is a city of many firsts. It was first in North Carolina to celebrate Independence Day and George Washington’s birthday; first in the state to have a printing press, postal service, and public banking; first in the state to establish a school for African Americans; and first in the state to decorate the streets with electric lights at Christmas.
An unusually cosmopolitan small city has emerged from all this history. The many fine churches are a good example, representing most Protestant sects, as well as Catholic, Jewish, and Christian Science faiths. Many people you’ll meet are from somewhere else and have been drawn to this place to start businesses, to work at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in nearby Havelock, or to retire.
A good first stop is the visitors center in the Craven County Convention & Visitors Center on South Front Street, where you can pick up a fistful of brochures and some friendly advice. You can take a nice, healthful, self-guided walking tour (for the exercise), or hop a trolley for regular narrated tours that focus either on local heritage in general or on Civil War history in particular. Trolley and buggy tours operate daily during the warmer months.
The downtown area will reveal many interesting highlights. For example, back in 1893 pharmacist Caleb Bradham stirred up a concoction that included the pepsin enzyme as a digestive aid. The drink became Pepsi-Cola. Today a Pepsi memorabilia store on Middle Street features souvenirs and a re-created soda fountain. A bit farther along that street is the Cow Café, a sort of factory outlet for a large local dairy and ice cream operation. Its specialties are “cow conies,” southern barbecue, and milk shakes. Also on Middle Street is Baker’s Square, an Amish restaurant that serves three excellent meals daily with an admittedly fattening selection of homemade goodies such as coconut cream pie, which probably ought to be illegal.
Several other eateries are scattered among assorted interesting shops offering everything from handcrafted jewelry and designer clothing to antiques and works of art. Get your souvenirs at Bern Bear Gifts across from City Hall on Pollock Street, and just around the corner on Craven Street, why not stock up on a slab or two at Bear City Fudge Company?
A block down Craven Street, you’ll discover a rare glimpse of Americana. Founded in 1898 and operated continuously ever since, Mitchell Hardware is a pleasant reminder of the way such stores used to be before the sprawling superstores all but wiped out the Mom-and-Pop competition. Its display windows are filled with ingenious old tools, the floorboards inside are creaky, and you can find stuff here that you won’t anywhere else, from cast-iron cookware to old-fashioned pocket knives to handcrafted gifts. Greg Smith will personally give you a warm welcome. If you have an ounce of love for bygone days, don’t miss this place.
Take to the coast
Because New Bern is only 30 miles from the Atlantic coast, you have your choice of several enticements:
On the way to the ocean, you’ll likely pass through Croatan National Forest. It encompasses 70,000 acres between New Bern and the coast, with five big lakes, 40 miles of streams, and miles of hiking trails. This is home to exotic venus flytrap plants and four other bizarre insectivorous species.
Fort Macon, constructed after the War of 1812 right along the coastline, is now part of a state park by the same name. It has a great public beach nearby with a bathhouse, picnic pavilions, and lifeguards. The park is located near Morehead City.
The Maritime Museum in the town of Beaufort includes relics from Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, discovered recently not far off of Beaufort Inlet.
A little longer drive will take you to Harkers Island, where, for a round-trip fee of $10, you can board a very small ferry (at Calico Jack’s Marina on Harkers Island) and go out to Cape Lookout National Seashore. On the way you’ll likely see a few of the wild ponies that populate the sandy islands, as well as brown pelicans and bickering gulls. A historic lighthouse; a gentle, protected crescent of beach (often littered with hundreds of good shells); and pounding surf all set the scene. Stay all day if you like, and hop the last ferry back at sunset.
Restaurants in the area are replete with fresh seafood. If you wind up in Morehead City, try one of several eateries, such as the Sanitary on Charter Boat Row. It was started by two fishing buddies in 1938, who came up with the unusual name to assure local inspectors and the public that their rustic establishment was indeed clean. Today it seats approximately 600 patrons.
Try New Bern and its neighbors, too. You will want to stay.
Craven County Convention & Visitors Center
203 S. Front St.
New Bern, NC 28563
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
New Bern KOA
1565 B St.
New Bern, NC 28560
This campground has full and partial hookups; a long list of amenities, including a laundry and camp store; and is located along the Neuse River.
Paul’s RV Park and Boat Ramp
311 Mill Dam Road
New Bern, NC 28560
The campground has 16 large sites (nine with full hookups), a boat ramp, and access to fishing and hunting.
Croatan National Forest
Ranger District Office
141 E. Fisher Ave.
New Bern, NC 28560
(877) 444-6777 reservations
Two RV campgrounds are available in the national forest, each with electrical hookups. The Neuse River campground and Cedar Point campground also have rest rooms, showers, drinking water, and dump stations.