The Fascinating Story of Beaufort's Atlantic Hotel 1859-1879

A significant part of the Beaufort waterfront in the mid 19th century was the Atlantic Hotel, often referred to as the Atlantic House. Gray’s New Map of Beaufort, shows the hotel as the only structure on the waterfront between Pollock and Marsh Streets. Today that block includes the Beaufort Post Office along with the Duncan, Jones and Wheatley Houses.

In her 1991 book The Atlantic Hotel, Virginia Pou Doughton compiled information from various sources including the memories of her grandmother—Mrs. Floyd S. Davis. Doughton described the hotel from its beginning to its unfortunate demise. This account below paraphrases her text and includes specific quotes. The text also includes descriptions by Amy Muse in her 1941 The Story of the Methodists in the Port of Beaufort.

In 1857 the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad extended service to Morehead City. Captain Josiah Pender, born into a wealthy family in Edgecombe County, was one of the people who recognized what the train could mean to the coast. In 1859, he built the Atlantic Hotel on the Beaufort waterfront. According to Doughton, “the structure was three stories high, with triple porches and numerous windows to catch the breeze. It was a light framework covered with squares of planking to resemble stucco and was supported on pilings out over the water. The original cost was $4,000 and many said it was too splendidly fitted up to bring in profit. The Goldsboro Messenger said that it was the largest coastal resort hotel in North Carolina.”

The hotel quickly became a popular destination and its reputation attracted guests from all over North Carolina, as well as other states. However, in its third season, in 1861, there was a turn of events—the start of the Civil War.

As the events of the Civil War began to unfold and escalate, Josiah Pender decided he could not take the chance Fort Macon might be taken by Federal troops before the state could seize it. So, without notifying the Governor, Pender decided he would seize Fort Macon himself. He formed and led the Beaufort Harbor Guards to take over the fort. On April 14, 1861, Ordnance Sergeant William Alexander and his wife, alone at the fort, surrendered to Pender and his men. Shortly afterward Governor John W. Ellis ordered four of North Carolina's regular military units to proceed immediately to Fort Macon. Pender was relieved of duty. According to Fort Macon history, Pender formally volunteered to join the State Troops. He was commissioned on May 16 as Captain of Company G, Tenth North Carolina State Troops. 

Fort history goes on to say that is wasn’t long before Pender began to test the limits of military authority. When his wife, Maria, was seriously ill in Beaufort, his request for leave was denied, he decided to go home anyway. At a Court Martial in Morehead City, November, 1861, Captain Josiah S. Pender was convicted of being absent without leave and of making false statements to the Fort's commandant, Colonel Moses J. White. Captain Pender was dismissed from the Confederate Army. This finally marked the end of Josiah Pender's bizarre military career.

He brought most of his nine children home to Tarboro for relatives to look after them. He became reacquainted with a cousin, Laura Melvina Pender. Laura was the daughter of Louis Pender, a cousin of Josiah. Perhaps he needed a wife to help care for the children and perhaps he fell in love with the young Laura.

The couple married on Sept. 23, 1862, and Josiah took Laura to Bermuda where he was part of a blockade running operation, smuggling goods into the port of Wilmington for the Confederate cause. While in Bermuda, they moved in high social circles and traveled with the Colonial Secretary Miles Keon and the Archbishop Thomas Connolly. On one occasion they sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, according to letters Laura sent home.

Laura became pregnant and wanted to return home to Tarboro to have her baby at home in Tarboro. Josiah had to go to England to get more goods. He put Laura on another ship with orders to the captain to take the ship into Wilmington. Various versions of her story have been passed down through family lore and even published in United Daughters of the Confederacy articles.
When the ship got close to the Carolina coast, the Union ships tried to capture it. The captain was ready to surrender until Mrs. Pender persuaded him, some say with a pistol, to escape the blockade. 

The ship arrived safely in Wilmington, and Laura took the train home to Tarboro. Two weeks later on Oct. 19, 1863, she delivered her son Josiah Keon Pender, named after his father and for Miles Keon of Bermuda.

In 1864 Pender, still at sea, contracted Yellow Fever but somehow managed to return to Beaufort, where he died on October 25, never making it home to see his son. He was 45 years old. Josiah Pender, the man who loved to play soldier but couldn't stand to take orders, is buried by his first wife in Beaufort's Old Burying Ground.

A ‘Friends of Fort Macon’ Ramparts article states the following: “Before the Union attack on Fort Macon began on April 25, 1862, the Federals established several signal stations in order to facilitate communications and coordination between General Parke’s attacking forces and General Burnside’s command aboard the Alice Price in the sound. One of these semaphore signal stations was located on the top porch of the Atlantic Hotel in Beaufort. Although it hadn’t been planned, the Beaufort signal station was in a position to see that most of the artillery rounds fired by the smoke blinded Union gunners were passing over the Fort and splashing harmlessly in the water of the sound."
Ironically, signals from this hotel, previously owned by Josiah Pender, enabled the correction of the artillery fire. Several hours later Fort Macon was in Federal hands once again.

When the hotel was taken over by the Federal troops, according to Doughton, the War Department requested seven Sisters of Mercy chosen from St. Catherine’s Convent in New York. They were ordered to proceed to Beaufort and were accompanied by physician Dr. John Upham. At the time of their arrival there were many sick and wounded soldiers in the hotel. “The conditions were deplorable; blood and filth covered the whole structure.” The Sisters were soon put in charge, getting rid of the barefoot overseer whose “hair was matted and his scraggly beard stained with tobacco juice….constantly sitting in a wheelbarrow near the door…with a huge bunch of keys dangling from his belt.” The Sisters “performed miracles in cleaning up this filthy, foul-smelling, vermin-ridden building into the clean and sanitary Hammond Hospital. The hospital closed in the fall of 1862.

Heirs of Josiah Pender, encouraged by summer visitors, renovated what appeared as a “giant haunted house”, in desperate need of repair—curtains flapping through the many broken windows. The patrons of the Atlantic Hotel were anxious to get back to Beaufort and resume the festivities of the pre War days.

The Atlantic Hotel reopened in June 1866, according to Doughton, “and almost immediately recaptured its former reputation of being the social and political headquarters of North Carolina during the summer season. The Pender heirs operated the hotel for a number of years under the name of Pender and Page, but later leased the management to different innkeepers.
George Taylor of Beaufort was the resident manager in 1872. In 1874 Robert D. Graham of Charlotte purchased the hotel and George Charlotte, the resident manager, was given strict orders to admit “only guests of the highest quality….. Excursion trains were arranged from Charlotte to Morehead City, where sailboats were boarded for the last leg of the trip to Beaufort....The sail over to Beaufort was the highlight of the trip and a wonderful relief from the hot cinders of the rail ride....Salt air was breathed deeply as it was supposed to relieve any type of illness, mental or physical……The hotel stayed full…Capt. R.D. Graham refused an offer of $20,000. He had paid $5000 in 1874…….before long excursion trains came from Baltimore, Richmond and out west to enjoy the delights of Beaufort.”

Amy Muse quoted an advertisement in The Journal: “Rooms at ‘$2.00 per diem’ with ‘bathing in ocean or surf, in the sound, or in bathing houses immediately contiguous to the hotel.’ Elsewhere the editor enlarges on the grandeur of the Atlantic House with its one hundred rooms: ‘Probably no hotel short of our large cities can make such a display of splendid silverware for dinner service. We noticed among other things: splendid magic wine stands; magic casters; egg cups; cups lined with gold, very beautiful; egg spoons; pickle stands; fruit baskets’ and so on.”

Doughton goes on to write that “entertainment at the Atlantic Hotel included “fast-sailing boats available for trolling or just plain sailing. The bar provided the best wines, cigars and liquor for the men……a billiard room and ten-pin alley….there were amusements for children, croquet on the lawn and every night there was a dance with a well-known string band…Every summer there was a pony penning on Shackleford Banks and for some this was the highlight of the season….Hotel guests also loved taking a boat to Shackleford Banks to talk to the whaling crews who harpooned the large mammals….tourists were spellbound when they heard firsthand accounts from actual whalers.”

The 1879 season opened with Major Benjamin Perry as manager. The hotel had been refurbished and every room freshly painted—expecting a summer. North Carolina’s new Governor T. J. Jarvis and Mrs. Jarvis were guests for the month of August. The North Carolina Press Association had a convention planned at the hotel for August 20-23. Major Perry prepared to entertain 1000 guests at the Grand Dress Ball to honor the Press Association on the 21st. Guests from many parts of the country were expected for a five-week visit.

Governor Jarvis was told there was a major storm in the Caribbean and that the hotel could be in danger. But he and Major Perry dismissed the possibility since Beaufort had not had a bad storm in over 20 years. Besides, events had been planned……

“Local boatmen recognized the ominous signs on August 15, like the Man O’War bird, began moving their boats up the creek.” Rooming house on the waterfront moved their clientele to private homes on Ann Street.

On August 17, 1879, the wind shifted…….“a Coastguardman from Fort Macon came to give warning of the approaching deadly storm, but Major Perry became adamant and shouted that the U.S. government wouldn’t tell him how to run the Atlantic Hotel.” But the vacationers at the hotel remained. Mr. Perry convinced them “that there was nothing to worry about”….they went to bed that night “without a care in the world.”

At 3 AM an alarm was sounded by a local man, Henry Congleton—for everyone to evacuate the building. “There was no time to gather belongings and most people escaped with only their nightclothes.” Palmer Davis, a local black man, carried many children “through high water and falling debris…….Governor Jarvis later declared him the hero of the hour…”
Young men and boys saved themselves by jumping into the water from 2nd and 3rd story windows. “The Hester brothers from Morehead City were in Beaufort at the time and they helped many guest reach safety." David Hughes, from New Bern, died trying to save another, as did Henry Congleton of Beaufort. “It is assumed that both men were killed by falling debris and timbers. Their bodies were later found on Bird Shoal.”

The Beaufort waterfront was demolished and under eight feet of water. The guests, along with Governor and Mrs. Jarvis, lost all of their clothes and personal belongings. “The waterfront was strewn with lumber, trunks and goods; crowds of people, some of them barefooted, were trying to identify their belongings…….The good people of Beaufort went to their attics and found clothing for the 150 destitute refugees. Governor Jarvis was given a sailor suit that had been used in the War of 1812; his elegant wife seemed happy for a calico wrapper, the equivalent of today’s housecoat.”

On August 20 the few undamaged boats were used to transport the group to Morehead City and a special train was sent to carry them home. After a few weeks it was decided that a new Atlantic Hotel would be built in Morehead City.

100 years later the US Weather Bureau listed the storm of 1879 as being violent with winds estimated to have reached 125 mph.

Virginia Pou Doughton's book, The Atlantic Hotel, can be purchased at The History Place in Morehead City, North Carolina.