KINSTON — The CSS Neuse, a Confederate Navy gunboat that was pulled out of the Neuse River 51 years ago, is getting a new home downtown.
The boat’s wooden remains were moved earlier last year from a shed in a flood-prone park near the river, just off U.S. 70, and are now housed in a climate-controlled museum on Queen Street. Museum officials and city residents hope it will help restore Kinston to its former glory days, when Queen Street was known as the “Magic Mile,” downtown was filled with people and the city was more than a stop on the way to the beach..
“We’ll be nestled in a much more desirable area, and we’ll be offering so much more,” said site manager Sarah Ristey-Davis.
The state-run museum is scheduled to be finished by fall, but temporary exhibits should open as early as February, Ristey-Davis said. The CSS Neuse Foundation donated the property, including a former bank building, in the heart of downtown.
But the advantage of being downtown comes with one drawback – the new site is about three quarters of a mile further from U.S. 70. While this could keep some beach-goers from stopping in, Ristey-Davis said she’s confident the new location will result in more visitors as downtown Kinston becomes less of a stop and more of a destination.
“There’s been a real resurgence in downtown Kinston,” she said. “I came up in New Bern, and this is not the Kinston I remember.”
The museum will open amidst a changing downtown. The Chef & The Farmer restaurant has attracted diners from the Triangle. Mother Earth Brewing gave the city its own brew pub. A new jazz venue recently began hosting area talent. A local resident purchased several homes in a nearby historic neighborhood that he is restoring in hopes of converting the area to an artist community.
Laura Lee Sylvester, president of the Kinston-Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce, said visitors seeking Civil War history won’t be daunted by the added distance.
“The fact that we have the remnant of a boat and it’s going to be in a museum with hundreds of other artifacts to support the historical data is really big for Kinston and eastern North Carolina,” Sylvester said. “People that look for this kind of experience and trip will seek it out no matter where it’s located, and where it used to be located versus where it is now is such a short distance.”
The Confederate Navy Department hired a firm to build the ironclad CSS Neuse in 1862, and construction began on the banks of the Neuse River, in what is now Seven Springs, just upriver from Kinston. The boat measured 158 feet long and 34 feet wide and was armed with two swiveling Brooke Rifle guns.
Delays in construction kept it from entering combat below Kinston, and the boat’s crew burned the Neuse in March of 1865 when Union soldiers occupied the city. There was an explosion in the port bow, and the boat sank, where it remained until the hull was raised in 1963.
The ship had shared a site with a memorial to Richard Caswell, the state’s first governor, on West Vernon Avenue. The shed had a roof but no walls, leaving the ship susceptible to weather damage; it was twice flooded by hurricanes – Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999.
“This museum was originally planned to go on to West Vernon Avenue,” said Morris Bass, the museum’s operations manager. “Those two hurricanes came in and threw a monkey wrench into it.”
The ship took on 3 1/2 feet of water during Floyd.
The new location is not only indoors, but also on higher ground, he said.
The state spent about $2.8 million on the new museum, about $400,000 under budget. The project was also partially financed by a $100,000 donation from the local chamber of commerce and $750,000 from the gunboat foundation.
“All of this has been an effort to save the largest artifact that the state owns,” Bass said.