BATH, AURORA, ORIENTAL
North Carolina’s first town makes a fitting start for this historical tour. Incorporated in 1705 on a grid drawn by early explorer John Lawson, Bath sits on a small point overlooking picturesque Bath Creek. Though once an important political and social center, the little village never grew much larger than Lawson’s original plan. It’s easy to see that the people here like it that way.
Historic Bath State Historic Site occupies the heart of Bath. A splendid walking tour guides visitors to an impressive collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings and to scenic views of Bath Creek. Among the notable buildings are St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the oldest church building in the state (1734), and the Palmer-Marsh House (1750), which is a National Historic Landmark.
The first of two ferry rides on our route takes you across the Pamlico River. Like most ferry trips in North Carolina, the ride is relaxing and scenic. After landing on the south shore, however, your senses are in for a bit of jarring. For the next few miles, you will drive through the largest industrial mining complex in the state. PCS Phosphate operates its Aurora plant here, mining the fossil-rich Castle Hayne formation for phosphate for use in fertilizer and food additives. The operation is so enormous that the History Channel featured it on a Modern Marvels episode. Don’t plan to stop for any pictures though; you’ll barely get your camera to your eye before a guard stops you and sends you on your way. So just drive through and marvel at how one company can so alter the landscape. If you’re wondering, yes, the mine creates enormous environmental problems. And if the company gets its way, it will soon begin mining thousands of additional acres in the largest single destruction of wetlands in North Carolina history.
Start out in Bath. Head east on NC 92. Drive 6 miles, then take the Bayview-Aurora ferry across Pamlico River. Drive 7 miles on NC 306, then turn left onto NC 33. Drive 16 miles (road changes to NC 304) to Bayboro, then turn left onto NC 55. Drive 10 miles to Oriental Road. Drive 3 miles on Oriental Road, then turn left onto Janeiro Road. Drive 6 miles to NC 306, then turn left. Follow it 2 miles to the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Ferry.
Abandoned boats are a common sight on the canals and marshes of the coastal plain. This dilapidated boat and boathouse lie on a canal near Bayboro.
Leaving these pleasant thoughts behind us, we drive into the little village of Aurora. Interestingly, were it not for the phosphate mining operations, this back-of-the-backroads hamlet might have been forgotten to the world. Millions of years ago, the sea covered Pamlico Peninsula. When the ocean receded, it left behind not only the phosphate but also an incredibly rich deposit of fossils. The Aurora Fossil Museum displays fossils retrieved from the mine and tells the prehistoric story of the North Carolina coastal plain. The museum’s collection is among the finest on public display in the country. Outside the museum are piles of material brought in from the mine, where adults and kids alike enjoy searching for shark’s teeth and other fossils.
If Aurora is considered off the beaten path, the route between it and Bayboro is what early-twentieth-century writer Horace Kephart might have called the back of beyond. You’ll want to drive slowly and savor this slice of remote eastern North Carolina. Make sure you turn off the main route to explore the end-of-the-road communities of Hobucken, Lowland, and, especially, the quaint fishing village of Vandemere. As the locals like to say, Vandemere is a destination, not a pass-through. From the little Pamlico County seat of Bayboro, our route follows NC Highway 55 to Oriental. Like the section from Aurora to Bayboro, a little exploring off the main route is well worth it.
Oriental is a sailor’s town, proudly proclaiming more boats than residents. Three times more, in fact. Idyllically situated on the Intracoastal Waterway where five creeks (Whitaker, Kershaw, Greens, Smith, and Raccoon) meet at the Neuse River, this village overflows with small-town charm and striking beauty. Yet it has somehow managed to avoid most of the trappings of modern society. You’ll find no stoplights, no fast food, and no traffic jams unless you count the occasional tight encounters of the sailboats. Truth is, it seems almost a sacrilege to drive a car through here. To borrow from Nancy Sinatra, Oriental’s streets were made for walking. But you don’t need to be wearing boots.
Our route officially ends with a ride across the Neuse River on the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach Ferry. If you turn left a couple miles from the ferry landing, NC Highway 101 brings you to Beaufort and the beginning of Route 26.
With three times more boats than residents, Oriental teems with sailboats.