North Carolina has never been a major center for shipbuilding, but the activity has been present since colonial times, and has at various junctures contributed significantly to the economy and job base of the coastal region. The North Carolina Maritime History Council has compiled a list of approximately 3,100 ships built in North Carolina from 1688 to the 1920s. Five of them were built before 1700, but all of those were of six tons or less (three shallops – likely flat-bottomed, and two sloops).85 Total output amounted to approximately 170,000 tons, making the average vessel size about 55 tons. Vessels ranged from two to 545 tons, but only about 75 were larger than 200 tons, and more than 2500 (80%) were below 100 tons.86 The earliest of the ships were built at the most expectable locations: Edenton, Bath, New Bern, Beaufort, Port Roanoke and (after 1745) Wilmington.
Not surprisingly, North Carolina’s entire shipbuilding industry virtually shut down during the Civil War. Almost 2000 ships had been built by 1860, but only nine were completed between 1861 and 1865. It revived fairly quickly, however; seventy-six were built between 1865 and 1870, 126 between then and 1880 and over two hundred in the following decade. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, smaller towns such as Smyrna also produced a substantial number of vessels, though Smyrna’s tended to be small (10-20 tons).87
In the table below (data selected from the Maritime History Council’s large data set), one can observe several salient facts, some with special relevance to the Cape Lookout section of the southern banks. Shipbuilding at Portsmouth, for example, was minimal, focused on small vessels, and confined to a relatively short (early) period, while on the other side of the inlet at Ocracoke, more vessels were built, over a longer time, and tended to be considerably larger. Meanwhile, activity at Edenton and New Bern was many times greater than at either of those locations (5,000 to 10,000 total tons) and continued for many more decades. The largest producing locations south of Portsmouth were Morehead City (though production there began late), Wilmington, New Bern, Beaufort, Morehead City, and Carteret County.88
Table 4-1: Ships Built in Selected North Carolina Cites, 1727-1917
Since it leaves off about 1921, the Maritime History Council list does not take into account World War II shipbuilding, when Newport News Shipbuilding Company operated (under the name North Carolina Shipbuilding Company) a large yard at Wilmington that employed 20,000 workers (at an annual salary of $50 million) and produced 243 vessels, including 125 liberty ships and 64 C2-type fast freighters. The first liberty ship out of the Wilmington yard was the SS Zebulon B. Vance, launched the day before Pearl Harbor.89