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Discover the Deserted Village on Portsmouth Island

Discover the Deserted Village on Portsmouth Island

Photo: Friends of Portsmouth Island

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. 

Photo: Our State Magazine

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.

Photo: Ocracoke Observer

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.

Photo: Village Craftsmen

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.

Photo: Our State Magazine

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.

Photo: Michael Halminski Photography

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.

Photo: Michael Halminski Photography

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.

 

The History of Jennette’s Pier

Whether you’re an angler hoping to snag the catch of the day or you’re a sightseer searching for the perfect spot to snap a photo of a sunrise over the sea, you won’t find a better place to spend the day than one of the many fishing piers situated along the Outer Banks. From Frisco to Kitty Hawk, the Outer Banks is home to eight fishing piers, and while these structures that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean all vary in terms of their age, length and current condition, each has a unique and storied past worth telling. Perhaps the most popular and famous of all Outer Banks fishing piers is Jennette’s Pier, whose history dates back to its original construction in 1939.

Pier House New

Located within the heart of Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, Jennette’s Pier was initially built to meet the needs of vacationers and fisherman who ventured to the Outer Banks as the region first began to gain popularity among visitors. Recognizing the demand for a prime spot to cast a line far out into the surf, the Jennette family purchased five acres of property along the Nags Head oceanfront and set out to build the very first fishing pier on the Outer Banks.

Pier from endThe old adage “build it and they will come” proved true, and visitors from up and down the East Coast and beyond soon flocked to the newly constructed pier to cast their lines into the Atlantic Ocean. A series of small, bare-bones oceanfront cottages—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes from Corolla to Ocracoke during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations just a few steps from the fishing pier.  

old pier jennettes

The original wooden pier—built by Virginia Dare Construction and Salvage Corporation—stood 16 feet wide and stretched 754 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean. In an effort to provide anglers with ample space to set their lines and plenty of elbow room for reeling in their catch upon the most coveted spot on the structure, the builders of Jennette’s Pier also included a 28-foot-wide T-shaped section at the end of the pier. One of the original cottages from the fisherman’s camp was moved to the dune line and transformed into a pier house that served as a spot for fishermen to change their clothing, have a cold drink or grab a snack.

For decades, the pier was a prime attraction along the Outer Banks, and fisherman came from far and wide to catch species ranging from flounder and mackerel and red drum to bluefish and striped bass. As more and more fishermen and vacationers visited the pier each year, the demand for additional features grew greater. Throughout the mid-20th century, the Jennettes added a restaurant, tackleshop and arcade to the pier house, providing something for everyone in the family—not just fishing enthusiasts. In 2002, surviving members of the Jennette family sold their interests in the pier to the North Carolina Aquarium Society with the goal of the organization turning the pier and attached pier house into an educational facility.

Pier Sign

Not long after the purchase of the pier was complete, however, Hurricane Isabel—one of the most devastating hurricanes to strike the Outer Banks in over a decade—struck the barrier islands. Strong winds and rough surf slammed against Jennette’s Pier as the Category 2 hurricane edged closer to the coastline and eventually made landfall near Drum Inlet. In addition to cutting a new inlet straight through a portion of Hatteras Village and causing hundreds of oceanfront homes to fall into the Atlantic, Hurricane Isabel sliced more than 540 feet off the end of Jennette’s Pier and forced the pier to close down its operations.

old pier house

The North Carolina Aquarium Society quickly came up with a plan to replace the severely damaged wooden pier with a brand-new concrete structure that could withstand the force of the many hurricanes that frequently target the Outer Banks. A groundbreaking event was held on May 22, 2009, and in May 2011 the new pier was officially opened to the public.

Jennettes Construction

Today, Jennette’s Pier stands on thick, concrete pilings and stretches 1,000 feet into the sea, making it one of the longest fishing piers along the Eastern Seaboard. The pier house also underwent a complete renovation and now houses a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The facility also offers a wide array of programs designed to educate visitors about the history of this iconic landmark and features an assortment of live animal exhibits that teach visitors of all ages about the myriad species of marine life that call the barrier islands of the Outer Banks home.

Pier sunrise

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