Riverwalk Gives Founder's Commons New Life
The Town of Smithfield was founded ten months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Its origins, however, date back to the 1750s with the arrival of John Smith, one of the area's earliest settlers.
Neuse River Ferry Landing
In 1759 Smith petitioned to operate a ferry where the Neuse River cut through the land he owned. The site became known as Smith's Ferry. In 1762, Smith's son, John Smith, Jr. purchased 228 acres of his father's tract, including the ferry. The younger Smith was 26 years old. In 1771, Smith and his wife took up residency on the land, building a home on a rise overlooking the river and the ferry. The home became a public house, providing overnight accommodations for travelers.
Johnston County Courthouse
Also in 1771, construction began on Johnston County's third courthouse not far from Smith's residence, and soon the name Smith's Ferry was replaced by Johnston County Courthouse.
Town of Smithfield
The town of Smithfield came in to being with the inaugural session of the General Assembly of the newly proclaimed State of North Carolina in 1777. Smith, Jr. had agreed to provide 100 acres for the town and an additional 50 acres for a "common" along the Neuse River south and west of his riverside home.
Bridge Over the Neuse
Eventually, a bridge was built across the Neuse River, eliminating the need for Smith's Ferry. This bridge was burned during the Civil War to hinder the Northern army in its march through the county. The bridge was rebuilt after the Civil War by J. Bryant Alford and used until the early 1900s. Mr. Alford was a free black during slavery and Johnston County's first African-American merchant. He opened a saw mill, cotton gin and a store here.
The Neuse Riverwalk
Although the town's 1777 charter set aside the land along the Neuse River as a commons, it wasn't utilized as a park until nearly 200 years later. The Neuse Riverwalk, the trail stretching from the Girl Scout Hut at Second Street to the boat ramp at Bridge Street, was first conceptualized by Smithfield's Year-Round Garden Club and was called the Neuse River Nature Trail. The trail opened in 1972, and improvements to it were made by the town's Appearance Commission, Public Works Department and Parks and Recreation Department in conjunction with Smithfield's Bicentennial celebration in 1977.
Improving the Riverwalk
In 1999, the Downtown Smithfield Development Corporation recognized the need for future improvements to the riverwalk and started a capital campaign to raise the money needed. The corporation commissioned and original painting of the colonial-era ferry landing on the Neuse River. Numbered prints signed by the artist, Renee K. Langdon, were sold to raise funds for the Riverwalk. Since 1999, these and other funds have been utilized to improve the Neuse Riverwalk by paving the trail and adding lighting. The riverwalk became part of the Buffalo Creek Greenway when it was completed in November 2009. The greenway is part of North Carolina's Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which extends from Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey's Ridge State Park.
(upper center)Smith's Ferry by artist Renee K. Langdon
(lower center) A 1970s photo of Year-Round Garden Club members (left to right) Mattie Lassiter, Josephine George, and Ruth Booker