Jacksonville has grown rapidly since 1941 when Camp Lejeune was established. The same qualities that drew the Marine Corps to build the “Worlds Most Complete Amphibious Base” in Onslow County were also some of the same qualities that caused the City to be formed along the New River.
The County of Onslow was formed in 1731 from New Hanover. It was named in honor of Arthur Onslow, who for more than thirty years was speaker of the House of Commons in the British Parliament. In the early years the county Court, which also operated the government, sat at several different locations. After storms, a fire and other calamities destroyed or damaged early courthouses and homes where the court sat, a new courthouse was ordered built at Wantland’s Ferry. The first court was held there in July 1757. Jacksonville was authorized as a town in 1842 to honor President Andrew Jackson. It was not until 1849 that the town was laid out.
Agriculture and products that could be shipped along the New River were the mainstays of the economy during this time. Historical writer Bill Sharpe described the time as “the river yielded world-famous oysters and the hogs, world-famous hams. The county seemed heedless of the restless yearning of its neighbors for development.
That changed after December 15, 1940 when the decision was made to locate Camp Lejeune in Onslow County. Prior to that time, private business was conducted in the county courthouse because there was no other place. Former newspaper and magazine editor Billy Arthur wrote: “Agricultural income was $4 million from tobacco, corn, peanuts and hams. The fishing industry was comparably profitable.” He described the town before Camp Lejeune as quiet and where the most profitable business was operating a restaurant that fed the 10-member Kiwanis Club.
Within a few days, the population doubled from 800, with hundreds more workers coming to the area to work on defense projects as part of the war effort. Property values escalated according to how close they were to the base of operations. The Riverview hotel, where now the USO sits, was taken over by the Navy for the construction headquarters. The Register of Deeds office stayed open late into the night to accommodate the condemnation of land and the recording of the deeds.
The City of Jacksonville’s growth was steady until 1990 when the City annexed portions of Camp Lejeune. The 2000 Census reported the population of Jacksonville at 66,715. About half the population lives aboard Camp Lejeune and the New River Air Station.
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