Aerial view of downtown Elizabeth City.

Elizabeth City, North Carolina

Elizabeth City is a small city in the southern US state of North Carolina. Founded in the late 18th century, the city was historically an important commercial port for the transit of both people and a wide variety of goods. Among other claims to fame, Elizabeth City is often associated with the Wright Brothers, the two brothers who built and flew the first airplane. Today, the city is named as one of the “100 Best Small Towns in America”. In fact, according to Money Magazine, Elizabeth City is “one of the best places to live on the East Coast.”

Geography Of Elizabeth City

Elizabeth city
A family spending a good time at a park in Elizabeth City. Image credit: Visit Elizabeth City

Elizabeth City is located in northeastern North Carolina, in what is known as the Inner Banks region. It lies on the western banks of the Pasquatank River, at the southern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway. The city is not too far from the Atlantic coast, located to the east. It has a total land area of 31.7 sq. km. The terrain of Elizabeth City is mostly flat and marshy. The city sits at an elevation of just 3.7 meters above sea level.

Demographics Of Elizabeth City

The population of Elizabeth City is 17,905. Just over half the population is African American, while about 43% is white. People of other racial backgrounds constitute the rest of the population. More than 92% of Elizabeth City residents speak only English. Spanish is spoken by 5.9% of the population. Over 95% of the people in Elizabeth City were born in the United States, while more than 56% were born in North Carolina.


Elizabeth City
The waterfront in Elizabeth City.

Average earnings in Elizabeth City are $31,329 per year. The city has a relatively high poverty rate of 22.81%. The largest industries in the city are healthcare & social services, educational services, and retail trade. Elizabeth City and its vicinity are home to several US Coast Guard stations, including Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, which is one of the largest Coast Guard stations in the country. There is also an airship factory in the city, where many commercial blimps are made and serviced. In addition, Elizabeth City is home to Elizabeth City State University, one of the constituent members of the University of North Carolina System. 

History Of Elizabeth City

The area in which Elizabeth City is now situated was first settled by Europeans in the 1660s. In the years 1677-79, the area was the site of Culpeper’s Rebellion, an early revolt by colonists against their British rulers. Tradition holds that there was a port operating in present-day Elizabeth City as early as 1722. In 1764, a law was passed making “The Narrows of Pasquatank River” into an inspection station for various products. In the 1770s, a ferry was established at the narrows. During the 1770s and 1780s, new roads were built linking the area to other parts of the county. A small community began to develop in the 1780s.

Elizabeth City was formally founded and incorporated in 1793, the same year that construction began on the Dismal Swamp Canal. Initially, the city was known as Redding. A year after its founding, however, the name of the city was changed to Elizabethtown, named after the wife of Adam Tooley, who was the original owner of the land on which the city is situated. In 1801, the city’s name was changed again to Elizabeth City in order to avoid confusion with another town called Elizabethtown.

The Dismal Swamp Canal made Elizabeth City an important commercial center, especially when the canal was widened and deepened in the early 19th century, allowing for the presence of larger boats. In the late 1820s, improvements to the canal led to a tripling of the tolls collected in Elizabeth City from ships passing through. Overland transportation was also improved in the city’s vicinity, making the markets and services of the city more accessible to farmers in nearby counties. Overall the antebellum period between 1830 and 1861 was a period of rapid growth for Elizabeth City.

During the American Civil War, Confederate forces established a small fleet in Elizabeth City. The city was eventually taken by Union forces, and remained under Union occupation for the remainder of the war. After the war, a few notable individuals from the northern states came to settle in Elizabeth City, where they established numerous successful businesses. Post-Civil War industrial expansion in the city was largely driven by northern capital and experience. By 1896, the overwhelming majority of merchants and tradesmen listed in the county in Branson’s North Carolina Directory were based in Elizabeth City.

Elizabeth City saw another period of significant growth during World War II. It was during this war that two of the US Coast Guard stations in and around the city were built. The city’s shipyards also produced watercraft for use during the war. After WWII, Elizabeth City grew at a more gradual pace. In the decades following WWII, services, government, and agriculture would come to dominate the city’s economy. In the 1990s, efforts were undertaken to revive the city’s historic landmarks in order to attract tourists. These efforts included the revitalization of the city’s downtown area and historic districts. 

Attractions In Elizabeth City 

Legacy of the Wright Brothers

Stamp printed by the United States, to honor the Wright Brothers and commemorate their invention of the airplane in the United States. Editorial credit: Spiroview Inc /

Elizabeth City contains several historic sites. Among them are the places frequented by Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Wright Brothers used the city as a stopover on their trip to nearby Kitty Hawk, where they made their first historic flight. The Mariners’ Wharf, for example, is where the two brothers contracted a sea captain to take them to Kitty Hawk, along with their supplies, some of which came from the Kramer Mill Company, which is now the site of Elizabeth City Middle School. The Wright Brothers also purchased oil from the N.G. Grandy Company located in the city, which was the first distribution point for the Standard Oil Company in the area. Elizabeth City is also home to the offices of newspapers that were the first to report the exploits of the Wright Brothers. All the sites in the city that are important to the legacy of the Wright Brothers are included as part of Elizabeth City’s Aviation Trail.

Other Attractions

Other attractions in Elizabeth City include the Museum of the Albemarle, which showcases the history of the city and the region; the Downtown Historic District, which contains homes and buildings from the antebellum period; the Elizabeth City State University, originally founded in 1891 to train African American teachers; and Waterfront Park, which is a landmark that commemorates the Underground Railroad.

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