As one of the initial 13 British colonies in the New World, North Carolina has a history that predates the United States itself. Its oldest cities started when much of the state was densely forested wilderness. The transformation today is remarkable, with the state’s major cities driving technological research and modern manufacturing in the information economy. In this article, we explore five of the oldest cities in North Carolina, learning a little about their history and what they have to offer visitors today.
1. Edenton, 1658 (population 4,460)
History of Edenton
Edenton is located on the inner banks coastal region at the north end of Edenton Bay. It was the first permanent European settlement in North Carolina after explorers from Jamestown, Virginia made their way to this small harbor. Because of its location, the community was under threat from pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard. When news of the Boston Tea Party reached Edenton in 1774, a group of 51 women led by Penelope Barker staged an “Edenton Tea Party” of their own, to the shock of British authorities. Edenton produced a signer of the Declaration of Independence who also became the first Secretary of the Navy and a governor, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Attractions of Edenton
Here are some things to do and see in Edenton:
- In Edenton’s waterfront park, you can see Civil War-era cannons that were made from the bronze bells of local churches.
- Roanoke River Lighthouse, active from 1887-1941, is the last example in the country of a rectangular frame building built on a screw-pile base for stability during hurricanes.
- Penelope Barker House was the home of the female leader who organized the “Edenton Tea Party.” She married three times and cared for her own children and those of her sister. After inheriting several estates, she became the richest woman in the colony.
- Edenton Trolly Tour is a 45-minute guided and narrated tour of several Victorian mansions, the Edenton Cotton Mill Historic District, the Collon Mill Museum of History, and other interesting sites.
- At Edenton Bay and Chowan and Pasquotank River Basins guests can take a narrated electric boat cruise, or they can do other water sports like kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, or fishing.
2. New Bern, 1710 (population 31,291)
History of New Bern
New Bern is an Inner Banks city located where the Neuse and Trent Rivers meet before emptying into Pamlico Sound. Founded by Swiss settlers, it gets its name from Bern, Switzerland where most of them had originated. The layout of the original town was a cross shape, as seen on the Swiss flag, but this pattern became obscured as the town grew over the centuries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the town thrived on the lumber industry. New Bern’s greatest claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. Caleb Bradham, a town pharmacist, invented and sold the drink in his shop and registered a patent for it in 1902, little knowing it would one day become a multi-billion-dollar product.
Attractions of New Bern
- Visit the birthplace of Pepsi Cola on Middle Street and enjoy a fountain soda.
- Check out over 60 bear statues around town. (“Bern” means “bear.”)
- Tryon Palace is the first permanent capitol building of the state, before Raleigh became the state capital.
- Lawson Creek Park runs along the waterfront of New Bern. It’s a great place to fish or boat.
3. Wilmington, 1730 (population 115,451)
History of Wilmington
Wilmington is a port city in southeastern North Carolina. An Italian explorer commissioned by France first explored the area, but it became part of the British Empire. During the Civil War Wilmington was a port for imported goods from Europe, smuggled through the Union blockade. In World War II, Wilmington produced 243 warships. Three POW camps in the area housed 550 German prisoners. Today, it is the home of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, the largest domestic TV and movie production company outside California. It has the largest special-effects water tank in North America. Some of the films and programs produced in part there include Super Mario Bros., Iron Man 3, The Conjuring, Sleepy Hollow, and Dawson’s Creek.
Attractions of New Bern
- The Battleship North Carolina was the fastest and first battleship of its kind built in the 1940s. Once considered “the world’s greatest sea weapon,” it was decommissioned in 1947. Nine levels of it are available for self-guided tours.
- Riverwalk, completed in 2017, runs along the beautiful shore of Cape Fear River as well as restaurants, bars, parks, and the Port City Marina.
- The Historic District is your go-to place to enjoy historic homes, churches, and museums. A favorite way to drink it all in is with a horse-drawn carriage ride down cobblestone streets.
- Poplar Grove is the oldest peanut plantation in the country.
- Kure Beach is a pristine white sand beach on Pleasure Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast. In addition to the beach and all the sports, fishing, and other recreation on the water, you can visit the North Carolina Aquarium which has exhibits of sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, and other marine life.
4. Greensboro, 1740 (population 299,035)
History of Greensboro
Greensboro is in the central Piedmont region of the state, 45 minutes south of the Virginia border. Many of the early settlers there came from Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Quaker community was particularly well-represented in Greensboro. The original name of the settlement was Capefair, but after the Revolutionary War, it was renamed “Greensboro” in honor of Major General Nathanael Greene. The city prospered as a transportation hub, a center of tobacco production, and the center of the Southern textile industry. Significant events in the Civil Rights Movement occurred in Greensboro, including a black sit-in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Attractions of Greensboro
- Greensboro Science Center includes the Carolina SciQuarium (an inland aquarium), the Animal Discovery Zoological Park, a museum with live snakes, a T-rex model, and a 3D theater.
- The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is located in the same Woolworth building where the Greensboro sit-ins took place in the 1960s.
- Carolina Theater dates to 1927 and seats 2,200 people. You can see live shows and modern movies on the silver screen there.
- The Idiot Box Comedy Club is for you if you’d like to see hilarious comics or would like to try your own standup comedy skills at open mic night on Thursday evenings.
- Greensboro Historical Museum will orient you to local history and culture, from the initial settlement of the area, through the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the city’s role in the modern world.
5. Charlotte, 1755 (population 874,579)
History of Charlotte
Charlotte is in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina, 83 miles southwest of Greensboro. The Catawba tribe lived in the area prior to European settlement. The early settlers were Germans and Scots Irish. The city was named for the wife of King George III, a German princess named Charlotte.
Surprisingly enough, the country’s first gold rush happened when gold was discovered in Charlotte in 1799, though the volume discovered never compared to later gold rushes in the American West. Today Charlotte is a major financial and business center, hosting the headquarters of numerous banks and multinational companies.
Attractions of Charlotte
- The U.S. National Whitewater Center has artificial rapids of various degrees where U.S. Olympic teams train. It’s open year-round for people wanting to do a variety of sports like paddle boarding, kayaking, and deep-water solo climbing.
- Charlotte Motor Speedway offers NASCAR, NHRA, and World of Outlaws races.
- Carowinds is an amusement park with 400 acres of games and rides, including 14 roller coasters and a waterpark.
- The city has a lot of specialized museums for all interests, including the Billy Graham Library, Carolinas Aviation Museum, NASCAR Hall of Fame, and much more.
- For those who enjoy performing arts, the city hosts the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, PNC Music Pavillion, Charlotte Ballet, Charlotte Symphony, Charlotte Orchestra, and Carolina Theatre.
As you can see, North Carolina has a ton to offer visitors of every age and interest. When will you go, and which city will you visit first?
The photo featured at the top of this post is © niroworld/Shutterstock.com
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