Greenville was once known as the “Queen City on the Tar,” because of its location along the Tar River in the history-rich heart of Eastern North Carolina. The city has provided a stage for a colorful cast of characters and intriguing events, having been visited by such noted people as General Tom Thumb, William Jennings Bryan, Tom Mix, Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, and Carl Sandburg—all the way to political contenders for the top offices in the country in the 2008 election.
With a beginning stretching back nearly 240 years, Greenville has survived fires, wars, Reconstruction, economic depression, and more recently, urban sprawl. The founder of what was to become Greenville could hardly have envisioned what would become of the 100 acres he laid off into a fledgling village. Greenville has a rich tradition; an engaging history that deserves to be shared.
It all began by 1771 when Richard Evans, a Pitt County legislator, was granted permission by the colony of North Carolina to divide his plantation to form a town. This town was named “Martinsborough” in honor of the then-royal governor, Josiah Martin. Richard Evans died soon after, and his widow, Susannah Evans, completed the town. The newly chartered town on 100 acres was laid off into half-acre lots by seven appointed town commissioners who sold the lots by public auction. In 1774, the original town charter was amended, and Martinsborough became the county seat of Pitt County.
Martinsborough remained a small river village until the Revolution. After the war ended, by an act of the North Carolina General Assembly on January 8, 1787, Martinsborough became “Greenesville,” in honor or General Nathanael Green, Revolutionary War hero.
The same act of assembly also chartered the Pitt Academy. This first academy was the beginning of Greenville’s interest in education, starting a long history filled with numerous schools and academies under the auspices of many noted national and North Carolina educators.
“Greenesville,” which later became simply Greenville, remained a small courthouse village with several stores and wharves, one that did not prove too impressive to notable visitors. During his Southern Tour in 1791, President George Washington came through the area and noted in his diary that Greenville was an “indifferent place” of about 15 families and had a large tar and turpentine market.
Greenville continued to grow slowly, but by 1810 it had numerous prominent merchants, a shipyard, and even a jockey club. In the 1830s a bridge was built over the Tar River, and steam boats came up the river, which opened Greenville up to the world. A number of factories were established, manufacturing such products as guns, carriages, cotton gins and silk. The town began to fade in the 1840s, when many of its prominent citizens left North Carolina during the mass exodus to the newly opened territories of the United States.
During the Civil War, Greenville’s location on the Tar River made it a target for both Confederate and Union forces. The town was overrun and raided by Union forces several times, and several skirmishes occurred here. Greenville was surrounded by earthworks and boasted several Confederate hospitals under the control of its female citizens. Reconstruction brought a carpetbagger-type of government to both Pitt County and Greenville politics. Numerous killings and riots in the city streets only added misery to the poverty brought on in the aftermath of the war.
It wasn’t until the late 1870s that Greenville began to come alive again. The town began to expand, nice homes were built, new businesses flourished, and by 1890, with the coming of the train, Greenville again was opened up to the world. In 1891, the first tobacco warehouse was built, and Greenville later developed into the largest tobacco market in North Carolina. With all this tobacco money, Greenville expanded its boundaries, new industries came, and beautiful mansions were built to match the prosperity of their owners.
In 1907, the North Carolina legislature established the East Carolina Teachers Training School, and with its opening in 1909, Greenville became the educational and cultural center of Eastern North Carolina.
Greenville’s prosperity and beauty as a city was well known since the post-Civil War era, and in 1919, an Atlanta newspaper voted Greenville as one of the 10 most beautiful small towns in the South.
Prosperous times gave way to the devastation of the Great Depression. Money was tight, businesses closed, and houses were neglected. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a new spirit of building and renewal began. Urban renewal plans in the 1960s tried to create a renaissance in Greenville, and many old buildings were demolished in hope of stimulating new development. Unfortunately, while many neglected buildings were razed, much of Greenville’s past fell to the wrecking ball. The dubious advantages of modernity led to neighborhoods of beautiful homes being torn down for parking lots, and tree lined streets being cut down to enlarge them.
The 1970s saw Greenville stretching out several miles from the old city center. The teachers college had become East Carolina University, and ECU’s Brody Medical School made Greenville the center of medicine in Eastern North Carolina. A growing prosperity brought different businesses and industry to Greenville, as new neighborhoods and business districts spread out in all directions. The original downtown, now called “Uptown,” is in the midst of redevelopment with new specialty shops, art galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, concerts, and festivals. Different historical and architectural groups, along with the city government, are trying to save what remains of Greenville’s great past for future generations.
As it was in the past, Greenville is growing and expanding to meet the economic, cultural, and recreational needs of its citizens. With a population of over 90,000, Greenville still hasn’t lost its Southern graciousness, and visitors will find their own place in this special part of the world we call Greenville.