New Bern was settled in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine immigrants led by Christoph von Graffenried. They named the settlement after Bern, the capital of Switzerland. But long before the Europeans arrived, the Tuscarora indians also lived along New Bern's riverbanks in a village they called Chattoka.
New Bern is the second-oldest colonial town in North Carolina and was the capital of the North Carolina colonial government. For a short period of time it was also the state capital. Given its picturesque setting and growing political prestige, New Bern quickly became known as "the Athens of the South." You'll find the Athens Theater and the Masonic Temple downtown, part of the rich culture of New Bern then, are still very active today.
City Hall is an unmistakable landmark in downtown New Bern. Located at the corner of Craven and Pollock streets, residents and visitors often stop to admire the intricate and beautiful architectural details of the building. At nighttime, drivers and boaters can't miss the brightly lit clockface, which serves as a beacon along the New Bern cityscape. Long admired as a symbol of progress and possibility, the building holds unique history for New Bern.
Thirty years after the founding of New Bern, the four large lots on the north side of Pollock Street (between Craven & Middle) were designated for religious purposes. A church was constructed on one of the lots, and in the mid-1700s, the North Carolina General Assembly granted use of the southeast corner lot for a school. Preferring not to have the school in the downtown business district, trustees of the Church Assembly substituted lots along New & Hancock streets for the school. After the Revolutionary War, the school was reorganized and was called the New Bern Academy, which still exists today.
The corner site where City Hall is located was purchased from Christ Church in 1891 when the church decided it no longer needed the property. Originally constructed as a Federal Courthouse, Customs Office, and Post Office, the building was finally completed in 1897. Nearly forty years later, it came under city ownership. Sessions of Federal Court were held in the upstairs courtroom, which is still used today by the Board of Aldermen and other quasi-governmental boards, for conducting official business.
This Romanesque Revival building is the only one of its kind in this area and its architectural and historical significance have merited its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Although first designed without a tower or clock, changes came soon afterward to incorporate one. James Knox Taylor designed the clock tower as it appears today, including the installation of a large Seth Thomas four-face clock.
The history of the City of New Bern Fire-Rescue, as it is known today, is both rich and unique. Originally it was comprised of three companies: the Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1, and the New Bern Fire Company No. 1. The first chartered fire-fighting organization was the Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company formed in May 1845; however, this company became inactive when its members began volunteering for military service at the start of the war between the states.
The New Bern Fire and Steam Engine Company, No. 1 was organized on January 1, 1865 by Union soldiers during the occupation of New Bern. The Union troops received a hand pump from the North, which reached its maximum output when eight men exerted their weight on each end of the pump’s cross-beam lever. A sixteen-man crew pulled the vehicle to the scene of the blaze. The pump drew water from one of five, strategically located wells. If the fire was near the Neuse or Trent rivers, water was pumped from the rivers. Three years later, the Town Council purchased a steam fire engine. When the new steam engine arrived in 1868, it too, had to be pulled by hand, but was later converted for horse pulling.
In 1879, the Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company received a new Silsby steam fire engine. Five years later, the city traded the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company, No. 1's steam fire engine for a new “Button Steam Fire Engine.” Shortly thereafter, the nickname “Button Company” came to be. Rivalry between the two companies played an important part in their advancements. Which fire company reached the blaze first became more important to New Bernians than the damage done or whose house was on fire. The rivalry continued until 1927, when the city housed both companies in a central fire station on Broad Street. Even then, however, the two companies still held separate meetings.
The old Button and Atlantic fire engines were eventually replaced by motorized trucks. Purchased for $1,500 in 1914, both trucks were American LaFrance. The Atlantic Company truck was white; the Button Company was red. The first motorized ladder truck was purchased in 1927 by Atlantic Company for $27,000 (versus today’s price of $750,000).
New Bern is rich in history and culture, part of its charm and appeal to visitors young and old. Visit the Firemen's Museum and NC History Center to find out more about the history of New Bern. Step back in time as you walk through the Governor's mansion at Tryon Palace. And top it all off with an ice cold Pepsi, in the city where Pepsi was born. Stroll our downtown and you'll find yourself amongst some of the most beautiful historic districts in the South. No matter your pleasure, there's something for everyone here. We hope you enjoy your visit.