From Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills to Kitty Hawk and Cape Hatteras, the communities that compose the Outer Banks of North Carolina are coveted by travelers who seek an escape to the sun, surf and sand of this popular vacation destination. While Roanoke Island is best known for the disappearance of an entire colony of settlers centuries ago, and Ocracoke Island is infamous for being a popular haunt for Blackbeard the pirate, it is farther south, on Portsmouth Island, that you will find one of the most unique treasures the Outer Banks has to offer. Once a thriving fishing and shipping village, this now virtually deserted island is the perfect place to get away from it all in a spot where time seems to stand completely still.
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pamlico Sound to the west, Portsmouth Island lies fewer than five miles to the south of Ocracoke Island. The tiny spit of sand comprises only 250 acres, but thanks to its location, lack of development and very few visitors, it offers some of the best opportunities for fishing and shelling on the entire Outer Banks. Accessible only by private boat or hired ferry, Portsmouth Island isn’t a simple spot to get to, but those who make the journey will be rewarded with pristine stretches of shoreline, a wide array of wildlife and a glimpse back in time to what life on the island would have been like in its heyday nearly two centuries ago.
The first visitors to settle on Portsmouth Island arrived on the sandbar shortly after 1753, when blueprints for the first planned village on the Outer Banks were initially drawn up by European settlers. Prized for its convenient location along the edge of Ocracoke Inlet, the island quickly attracted mariners and in no time became a bustling port. By the mid-1800s nearly 1,500 cargo vessels were passing through the inlet that separates the islands of Portsmouth and Ocracoke, and more than 500 residents called Portsmouth home by 1850. A series of houses sprang up around the island, as did a post office, general store and lifesaving station.
Despite enjoying success in the sea trade for a century after its founding, the port of Portsmouth Island saw a serious decline in the number of vessels passing through the Portsmouth Inlet after a hurricane cut two new inlets through Hatteras Island—Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet—in 1846, effectively joining the sound to the sea. These new inlets provided an opportunity for vessels to bypass Portsmouth Island entirely, favoring instead the points farther north, which offered easy access to inland points along the North Carolina mainland. With fewer and fewer vessels to assist and tend to as they passed through Ocracoke Inlet, the people of Portsmouth Island steadily began to lose their livelihoods in the lightering industry.
Slowly but surely, members of the tight-knit community parted ways, some in search of sea trade in other areas along the barrier islands and others in search of entirely new professions. By the turn of the 20th century, only a few dozen fishermen and their families remained on Portsmouth Island, along with a handful of island men who continued to serve at the lifesaving station that had been constructed in 1894. The lifesaving station was decommissioned in 1937, prompting more people to move away, and by 1955, only 12 islanders inhabited the village. Over the course of the next two decades, Portsmouth Island’s population continued to dwindle, and in 1971, only three people—two female residents, Elma Dixon and Marion Babb, and one male resident, Henry Pigott—were left. Later that year, Henry Pigott passed away, and rather than remaining on the island and continuing to rely on private boats to bring in supplies, Marion and Elma reluctantly relocated to the mainland.
Once the ladies left the island, the 13-mile-long stretch of sandbar and the tiny village was abandoned entirely. For years, the buildings on Portsmouth Island were battered by storms and salt air, and with no one to perform the upkeep, the structures fell into a state of disrepair and were left to further deteriorate in the harsh elements. In 1976, however, the Cape Lookout National Seashore was established, and an effort to restore the village and pay homage to its maritime heritage was launched.
Among the structures that were renovated to their original condition were Henry Pigott’s house, the lifesaving station, the post office, general store and a Methodist church. Today, visitors to the Outer Banks can travel to Ocracoke Island and take a private boat or ferry to Portsmouth Island to learn about the unique history of the centuries-old village that, in its day, was one of the most important and most prosperous ports on the entire Eastern Seaboard.