Saturday, May 16, 2015

NC Portsmouth Island abandoned settlement

     In the last two days we have taken a look at Ocracoke NC.  But there is a big part of the Ocracoke story we have been missing.

     Ocracoke used to have a "sister city" named Portsmouth.  But Portsmouth was abandoned 44 years ago.  To get there we have to cross a few miles of water - across the inlet between Ocracoke Island and the northern end of Core Bank.

    Meet Captain Rudy Austin.

     When the last man living in Portsmouth took sick, Rudy'a parents allowed him to move in with them in Ocracoke for the last year of his life.  Rudy's wife Pat turned her ankle the other day, so on top of trying to keep on top of business and dealing with pesky reporter types, Rudy has to figure out if she needs to be taken off the island for x-rays.

     Rudy's son Donald also has a unique business here.

     On top of taking people duck hunting and on visits to the abandoned village of Portsmouth, he takes folks for ATV tours on the northern reaches of Core Bank.  You can visit his website by Clicking Here.

     On the way out to Portsmouth, we pass another abandoned structure.  This was the clubhouse for a fishing and duck hunting club for a while that is now defunct. 

     There was also a company out here that gathered guano to be sold for fertilizer on farms from these sandbars.  Guano is dried dung, and from centuries of birds visiting these small sandbars there was a foot or two of build up on them.  It only took a year or so to clear them and that company was gone as well.

     Speaking of birds they are not a dumb lot.  This is the pier that the National Park Service has built by Plymouth.  No sooner did they build it than the seagulls started using it to drop clams on.  The birds have figured out that if they drop a clam from high enough, the shell shatters and they can get a meal they otherwise wouldn't have.

     I was told that during the off winter months, the shells build up to where you are afraid that you will twist an ankle trying to walk down the pier.  During the season the pier is cleaned off daily.

     And so we approach Portsmouth.  The large building on the left is the old coast guard station that watched the entryway to Pamlico Sound.

    For centuries, the opening between Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth was the only shipping channel from Beaufort to Chesapeake - about two hundred miles.  But there was a problem - sand bars were still high enough that most ships couldn't make it through.

     So the town of Portsmouth would send out boats to offload enough cargo that the ships could clear the sandbars.  This was called "lightering,"  and besides the coast guard station here it really was the core of the local economy.

     Portsmouth was established in 1753, was the outer bank's larges community in the 1770's and began its decline in the 1860's when 685 was the population given on the census.

     A great thing that the National Park Service does is attract volunteers to act as interpreters in exchange for room and board.  We have seen this in a couple of the states also, and it seems to me it is a win-win for everyone. 

     Meet Ed Burgess.

     I didn't get a good photo of his wife Rene, but the two make a great team.  Their favorite thing to do is take an occasional excursion over to Beaufort and get an ice cream.  There aren't any provisions in Portsmouth besides what you bring, and no source of well water.  But the two of them love their half a year each year together here in this remote corner of the earth.  

    After arriving on the pier, a road leads back to the village.

     The beach here runs 57 miles all the way to Cape Lookout, and villagers used to drive their cars down the beach on Sundays to meet with the coast guard fellows down there.

     The National Park Service took this property over before the last residents left, with an agreement that they could live out their lives here.  The properties that are maintained are in surprisingly good shape, and several of them are furnished in part with things that were here and with replicas.

     A number of these houses are built on top of cedar logs, like the base of a primitive raft.  The "raft" is then tied to blocks of concrete that are poured deeper in the ground.  When the storms come, the houses float on the rising water, and then (hopefully) settle back into place after the storm passes.

     But there are 57 miles of abandoned bank here - land that used to host a number of small villages and camps.  Those not maintained are quickly reduced to rubble by the hostile marine environment.

     There are several cemeteries that dot the town - it seems every family had their own.

     The town church still stands but has some renovation work going on currently.  It got knocked off level by a hurricane a few years back, but seems to be back on an even keel now.

     As you can imagine, the residents here were a hardy lot - and fiercely independent.

     But life was not completely barren.  Photos show old cars, musical instruments and there was at least one piano and one organ.

     The post office held the general store, and was the center of social activity.   

     When the boat with the mail came, one of the local fellows would bring it up in a wheel barrow to the post-mistress.  After the coast guard left in 1937, the post-mistress was the only one on the island with a salaried job.  

     But that too passed as the post office closed here in 1959.  For a while this held South Carolina's smallest public school - two students.  And Portsmouth Island was the site of the first public road built by the state of North Carolina.

     There was one fellow who lived here back in the 1800's who didn't fare so well.

     The old photo of him isn't very good, but the story is that he so represented the image of James Wilkes Booth (assassin of Lincoln) that he was arrested and taken inland.  Only after townsfolk put up a big stink was he released.  But it is said the incident changed him - he returned to the island and started isolating.  After his death scores of empty bottles of Laudanum.  Back in those days, this was an oft prescribed remedy that was 10 percent opium.

    Shipwrecks were not an unusual here.  And when the crew got what they could, the ship was left to break apart and rot in the seas.  So the villagers would scavenge what they could.

    For instance, this cupboard came from a shipwreck.

     There is the story of a boot-legger that ran aground here back in the prohibition years.  The crew ran off as quick as they could, and it was a day until word got around and federal agents could come out and examine the wreck.

    Agents didn't find one barrel or bottle of booze in the ship, and so they turned their attention to the town and surrounding brush thickets, searching everywhere for the contraband.  They finally gave up and left empty handed.

    Turns out the good towns folk hid the booze down in the waste pits of their outhouses.  Gotta love folks ingenuity when it comes to squirreling away booze.


     Water was scarce, and kitchens were simple affairs.  If you didn't believe that fellow a few days ago that said he least favorite job was cleaning the cistern, here is what one looks like after it hasn't been cleaned for a while.

    Refrigeration is a huge problem in an area like this,  If you try to dig a root cellar you are going to have nothing but a pit of brackish water.  So the islanders used the principle that evaporating water absorbs heat.

     Each house has a little outdoor coop that held a large pan of water.  As the water evaporated it would cool, keeping things like milk and eggs good for an extra day or two.

     One of the biggest stories on these banks is the formation of the Coast Guard.  In the 1840's the Coast Guard expanded its responsibilities to aiding vessels in distress.  Prior to this many communities had volunteer groups that handled this, most of them ill equipped and with little or no training.

     The Coast Guard Station here was first commissioned in 1893, and saw much service in the few decades it operated.  

     Today it serves as a museum of the Coast Guard's implements and techniques during that time period.

     A quick segue before we look around inside - there is one story told about the coast guard station here as was told about the one just across the water in Ocracoke.

     Whenever a new guy would show up at either Coast Guard Station, all of the single women on both islands got all atwitter.  They would all try to figure out all the particulars on the fellows various assets and liabilities and if he was eligible and desirable, there was quite the effort to snare him into matrimony.

    It is said that the Coast Guard Commanders would warn the newcomers to the station about this situation, and there is an old quote about not taking off their shoes on the island because once the sand got between your toes you weren't going to be able to bring yourself to leave.   Of course, many of the men were willing participants, and a number of the island's families trace their roots back to fellows who stayed.  

     One of the large rowboats they used has been restored and is on display with its horse drawn carriage.

     The rescue folks would go out in the boat if they had to, but heading out into the surf is a very dangerous proposition.  They had a system they used for boats when they could get close to the boat on land.

     It involved a small cannon that was used to fire a projectile out to the ship.  

     The projectile was an iron torpedo of sorts that would be attached to a small diameter rope.

     The rope was woven around a sort of pegboard so that it wouldn't tangle while it was unraveling.

     Once the fellows on the ship had the small rope in hand, they pulled over a larger rope that was on big spools on another carriage.

     A harness was hooked to a pulley, and sailors could be ferried to the beach.  Below is an old photo of a shipwreck and this system in use.

     The island's last male resident was Henry Pigott.  Henry never had an education because it was against the law in North Carolina for blacks to attend school with whites, and since there was only one school house and the island's two white children took priority, he and his wife were denied any formal education.  Here is a photo of him as a dashing young fellow.

      Nevertheless, Henry was a good fisherman and provided well.  Here is the house he lived in up until he fell ill and had to move over to Ocracoke.

     There is another old photo of hi with a grand-daughter after a day of flounder fishing.

     And on his end table in the living room, a collection of his favorite things.  His bible, playing cards and dice and his liquor jug.

     There are a few gifts of gratitude that were given him by sailors who had been stranded here over the years.

     I spent most of the day with a fellow who came over with me from the Winston Salem area of North Carolina.  Regrettably, the piece of paper I was taking notes on was lost somewhere, so I don't have his name and phone numbers anymore.  If you know this fellow, please EMAIL me his info.

     He is a retired utility worker in his seventies, and after 40 some years of marriage his wife died.  His daughters help him get online and book excursions like this so he stays active.  He and I shared a number of quiet moments exploring, and hopefully his daughters read this.

     That brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd" photo.  Remember that fellow that looked like James Booth?

     I don't think he liked photographers much.  And today's parting shot - showing the latest trend in evolution of tan lines - 

     On the personal front, steady as she goes.

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Make it a great day !!

1 comment:

  1. You have a nice series of images here it makes the post. Good Job. The tan line picture is someone snapping an image for instagram or is that a life jacket??? An internet query for Henry Pigott brought me to your blog. once again Good work.