“Summer Capital by the Sea”; The Atlantic Hotel (1880-1933)
At the height of the Gilded Age, North Carolina’s wealthy and prominent social elite found a summer home at The Atlantic Hotel. Located on the Bogue Sound waterfront in Morehead City, N.C., this sea-side resort attracted visitors looking for a retreat from their inland city life. From the first season in 1880, summers here were filled with parties, dances, sailing, fishing and excursions.
The hotel charmed its guests from the moment of first arrival. Guests traveled to the resort aboard the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad. A novel rail connection brought the train within feet of the hotel’s front steps. As they disembarked from the train, guests were greeted by an impressive white wooden three-story building with a two-level porch. Nearly every window and piazza opened to a water view and breezes coming from the Bogue Sound and surrounding Newport River kept the temperatures mild.
Nearly 300 guest rooms accommodated more than 3,000 guests each season. Room rates in 1884 were $2.50 per day and up to $60 per month. Lengthy stays were common and special round-trip railway tickets that didn’t expire until October allowed guests to stay for the entire summer.
Guests amused themselves with a billiard room, ten-pin alley, soda shop, barber shop, store and bar. After a successful fishing trip, guests could expect a supper of their personal catch-of-the-day prepared by the hotel’s French chef. The dining room was the largest in the state and extended out over the Bogue Sound offering true waterfront dining.
The ballroom was equally impressive with a high-vaulted glass roof and large windows opening to the water. From a second floor balcony called the “Buzzard’s Roost”, older hotel guests would observe and critique activity below. Dancing would begin around 10 p.m. and breakup at midnight for midnight suppers or midnight sails on Bogue Sound.
Ladies staying at the hotel would plan and host events for the other guests. Dinner parties, costume balls, card parties, sailing parties, pajama parties, ice cream parties and cake walks were popular diversions. A reporter dispatched from the Raleigh News and Observer would spend the summer at the hotel and send reports of these events back to the capital city.
Sixty children were guests of the hotel on an average day. Each summer, the children would reconnect with friends from the year before. They fished, swam in the sound and held sand castle competitions in the shade of the hotel veranda. Each Tuesday evening the ballroom closed for Children’s Hour from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. and no adult guests were allowed to enter.
Boating was a regular pastime at the hotel. Excursion boats took guests to view Cape Lookout Lighthouse and to see the wild ponies at Shackleford Banks. Guests used small sailing vessels called sharpies to sail around Bogue Sound or up the Newport River. Boat races were not uncommon. Local boat captains manned boats for fishing trips into the Atlantic Ocean and reports of their hauls of fish were prodigious.
Visitors also went to the seashore for a surf-bath. Guests could choose from the calm waters of the sound or venture to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Those disinclined to sun-bathe could relax under the large open pavilion. A sea-side livery stable presented guests the opportunity to enjoy a ride or drive down 25 miles of beach flattened by the receding tide.
The Atlantic Hotel became known as the “Summer Capital by the Sea.” Many of the State’s governors and other influential leaders were on the annual guest list. While the family might spend the entire summer at the Atlantic Hotel, the men would sometimes return to Raleigh for business. An evening train bringing the men back from the city would arrive just in time for the men to change into their evening attire for the night’s dance in the ballroom.
The heyday of the hotel lasted into the 20th century. Visitation waned during World War I and the following flu pandemic. Additionally, the regular families began to build their own cottages along the shore and their visits to the hotel declined. Tragically, on April 15, 1933, fishermen noticed smoke coming from the resort. Fire departments from five other cities responded to the blaze, but the fire was beyond control. The hotel’s heart pine construction made it vulnerable to the flame and in little more than an hour, the building was reduced to ruins. The resort, already struggling from the Great Depression, was never rebuilt. The hotel had served guests for 53 seasons.
“Atlantic Hotel, Morehead City, N.C. Open from June First to October” by R.B. Raney & Co., E.M. Uzzell, Steam Printer and Binder, Raleigh, 1885.
“Tales of the Atlantic Hotel; 1880-1933” by Virginia Pou Doughton, Griffin & Tilghman Printers, Inc., New Bern, 1994
“Morehead City; A Walk Through Time” by Jack Dudley, Coastal Heritage Series, Morehead City, N.C., 2003.
Featured image credit: Detail from Atlantic Hotel, Morehead City, N.C., ca.1910. Postcard published by Wootten Studio, New Bern, N.C. From the North Carolina Postcard collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.
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