Origins of the Marine Lab in Beaufort

The Seaside School (Gibbs House) of Johns Hopkins University colorized sketch by Henry Osborne published in a special German edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper November 27, 1880

     Although many scientist and naturalists visited and documented the Beaufort, North Carolina area from the mid to late 1800s, Dr. Elliot Coues, an army physician stationed at Fort Macon in 1869-70, provided the greatest publicity for the potential of the Beaufort region for natural history research. The area became a significant place for scientist to gather information. From 1880-1886, professors and students of Johns Hopkins University maintained a laboratory at the Gibbs House, which was rented from Laura Gibbs Ramsey. 
     In 1880, the Johns Hopkins was provided a steam launch, which was built at Bristol, R.I., and arrangements were made to spend a longer period at the seaside. The session was opened on April 23rd at Beaufort, N.C., and closed September 30th. A house was hired and fitted with working accommodations for six investigators and directed by W.K. Brooks. Dr. Brooks supervised these advanced students.
     During about six weeks during 1881, an elementary class in Zoology was announced. Daily lectures were to be given along with dredging and collecting expeditions. Applicants were required to attend "the whole course, and to devote themselves to study, although, bearing in mind that most of the students will probably have just finished a year's collegiate study elsewhere, the work in the laboratory will be so arranged as to leave abundant time for out-door life, and for the enjoyment of fishing, boating and bathing." The fee for instruction was $25. Those qualified would be allowed to study for the rest of the season without extra charge. "Boarding and lodging can be obtained in the town of Beaufort, within a short distance of the laboratory, for from $20 to $30 a month. The diversified fauna of this locality, together with its mild and uniform climate, renders it a desirable place for study during the hot months of summer." (Johns Hopkins University Circular)

Excerpts from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper - November 20, 1880
The Johns Hopkins Seaside Laboratory

     ...Illustrations of the Johns Hopkins Seaside Laboratory, which has been located during the past season at Beaufort, on the coast of North Carolina. The work of the laboratory, which was organized three years ago, has been to study the marine life of Southern waters…The first season’s work, in the Summer of 1878, was carried on in Hampton Roads, Va., at Fort Wool…In the following Spring the laboratory was established at Crisfield, on the “Eastern Shore” of Maryland, a village which is the centre of the oyster trade for the Southern Chesapeake… 

     This season it was decided to push still further south in order to get within reach of the more Southern or semi-tropical forms of life, and, after some deliberation, Beaufort, N.C., and old and well-known collecting ground, was fixed upon as headquarters for the Summer…Our illustrations, most of which are from sketches by Henry F. Osborne, show some of the apparatus and the way it is used, and one or tow of the interesting forms of life are shown. One represents a party “dipping” and “towing” from the little steam launch, which has proved of invaluable, or, rather, indispensable, service in the work…
     The town of Beaufort, though a rather out-of-the-way place, is a well-known Southern Summer resort. The
prevailing cool sea breezes render the climate very delightful, and this is itself a sufficient inducement to many. But there are many other attractions, such as fishing, bathing, boating, etc., and the town rather picturesque. The attention of the newly-arrived visitor is immediately arrested by the old-fashioned windmills which grind corn for the omnipresent “pone” or Southern cornbread. Seen from a distance, they give a decidedly Dutch look to the place—an impression which is, however, scarcely sustained by a nearer view of the battered and weather-beaten old houses of which the village is largely composed.

      It is proposed to resume the work at Beaufort next Summer, and it is not impossible that a permanent laboratory may be there erected if the location is found, upon thorough trial, to be well adapted for that purpose. At present a large dwelling-house, situated at the water’s edge, is made use of for a laboratory. This mansion enjoys no little celebrity from its architectural superiority to its less pretentious neighbors, and from the fact, often reiterated by inhabitants of Beaufort—that it is built of cypress wood and copper nails.
After renting the house to Johns Hopkins from 1880-1886, about 1893, Laura Gibbs Ramsey added the upper front porch. (N. Russell) For three years (1899-1901), before a permanent laboratory was finished on Piver's Island in 1902, Laura again rented the house - this time to the U.S. Fish Commission.

1851 Gibbs House - 1972 National Register photograph
In the May 5, 1899 issue of Science magazine, the assistant Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, Hugh McCormick Smith, announced that the U.S. Fish Commission would maintain a marine biological laboratory at Beaufort, NC. The only other permanent station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, had been established in 1885. 

Joseph Austin Holmes, North Carolina State Geologist and head of Natural History Survey from 1891-1905, was primarily responsible for gaining support of the federal government for establishing the fisheries laboratory at Beaufort. Professor Henry Van Peters Wilson, professor and chairman of zoology at the University of North Carolina from 1891-1935, pressed for the establishment of the laboratory at Beaufort.
Professor Wilson
Dr. Henry Van Peters Wilson had spent several seasons in Beaufort as a Johns Hopkins graduate student. In 1899, Wilson, who had continued conducting research in Beaufort during the summers, was placed in charge of the new laboratory, which was for the study of questions pertaining to fish-culture, fisheries and marine biology. Professor Wilson was granted $300 with which he rented a "commodius building" (Gibbs House) on the waterfront and provided it with suitable laboratory equipment and a small working library.

A steam launch was assigned and on June 1, 1899 the U.S. Fish Commission Laboratory was opened for its first season. At this time Beaufort was reached by boat from Morehead City. Twelve men, faculty and students from various universities, had come to Beaufort by September - to use the laboratory for various projects. Even though these men conducted various research projects, all contributed in the effort to determine the animals and plants in and near Beaufort Harbor, including their abundance, local distribution, breeding times, habits, etc. The foundation was laid for a museum collection and a record book was opened.

Before the Laboratory reopened for its second season, President Theodore Roosevelt had signed an act of Congress authorizing the establishment of a permanent biological station on the coast of North Carolina. Land was acquired with the help of Alonzo Thomas and others - the laboratory on Pivers Island was officially opened on May 26, 1902.