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Ocracoke Pony Pen: Home of the Wild Horses of Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Pony Pen: Home of the Wild Horses of Ocracoke Island

Photo: Trip Advisor

From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial to Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the site of the Lost Colony, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are brimming with attractions and activities for everyone in the family to enjoy—and when it comes to area wildlife you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to witness unique species in their natural habitat. While most people planning a vacation on the Outer Banks are familiar with the wild horses of Corolla, far fewer are aware of another herd of ponies that have called the barrier islands home for centuries: the wild horses of Ocracoke Island.

Photo: VisitOcracokeNC.com

Situated to the south of nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island spans just 16 miles of land from one end to other, and ranges from three miles wide in some spots to only a half-mile wide in others. Because the narrow spit of sand is only accessible by air or water, Ocracoke Island has retained a laidback island vibe and experienced minimal development over the past several decades, making it a prime vacation destination for those in search of a relaxing Outer Banks vacation off the beaten path and away from many tourist attractions that dot the northern beaches from Corolla to South Nags Head. But if there’s one thing everyone traveling to Ocracoke Island should put on their to-do list, it’s taking a trip to the Ocracoke wild pony pen to check out the island’s most famous residents.

Photo: National Park Service

Following a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Village to the port at the northern tip of Ocracoke Island, visitors who travel south along N.C. Highway 12 toward Ocracoke Village will discover a small paved parking area on the west side of the road. Upon pulling in to park, you’ll spot a wooden fence that sections off a 188-acre plot of land that extends along the soundside of the island and serves as the home of Ocracoke’s herd of wild horses whose story dates back several centuries. Although the herd that once freely roamed the island consisted of as many as 300 horses, the Ocracoke pony pen currently contains only 16 horses, the youngest of which is a female named Hazelnut who was born in February 2015.   

Photo: Britannica.com

Just like their neighbors to the north—the wild horses of Corolla—the wild horses that call Ocracoke Island home are the direct descendants of Spanish mustangs who swam to shore when the ships upon which they were traveling ran aground while attempting to navigate the shifting shoals that make up the infamous Graveyard of the Atlantic. Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers started to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean with their sights set upon North America, where they eventually landed and established colonies within what is frequently referred to as the “New World.” Before the explorers embarked on their long and arduous journey from Europe to the present-day United States, they loaded their vessels with an abundance of supplies ranging from food and clothing to a variety of livestock—including, in many cases, domesticated Spanish mustangs.

Photo: Sara Maglieaene

As the ships neared the coast of the Outer Banks, however, they encountered the dangerous Diamond Shoals—a series of underwater sandbars that begin near Cape Hatteras and extend outward from the shoreline for several miles in different directions depending upon the currents. Frequently hidden well beneath the waves and constantly shifting into new formations of varying sizes and depths as the currents flowed around them, the Diamond Shoals posed a considerable threat to sailors, who often didn’t know the treacherous sandbars sat in their path until their ships crashed right into them, causing them to run aground and remain stuck—or to take on water and slowly sink to the seafloor. An extreme challenge to spot from the surface of the water and virtually impossible to navigate, the Diamond Shoals were responsible for approximately 600 shipwrecks along the coastline of the Outer Banks, earning the region its nickname of “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Photo: National Park Service

Desperate to lighten their loads enough to free a ship that had become stuck on one of the sandbars in shallow water, sailors frequently tossed unnecessary and heavy supplies overboard. According to the Ocracoke Current, the herd of wild ponies that occupies Ocracoke Island are believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs unloaded onto the beach by Sir Richard Grenville, the captain of an English ship called Tiger, when the vessel ran aground near Ocracoke Island in 1585 during Grenville’s voyage in search of the missing settlers of the Lost Colony who had just mysteriously vanished from nearby Roanoke Island. Although this theory has never officially been proven, historic documentation indicates that the wild ponies of Ocracoke were definitely present on the island as far back as the 1730s, and in the years since they have played an integral role in the lives of many residents and visitors.

Photo: Pinterest

As the population of Ocracoke Island slowly grew, its residents began to see an array of opportunities in which they could use the herd of wild horses that roamed the area beaches and salt marshes to their advantage. After capturing and taming some of the horses within the 300-member herd, the Outer Bankers living on Ocracoke Island put them to work pulling carts that were loaded with heavy cargo and supplies that were otherwise difficult to transport from one location to another. The wild ponies of Ocracoke Island continued to be used for the residents’ benefits in the centuries that followed, with the men who served in the United States Life-Saving Service riding the horses during routine beach patrols and using them to pull heavy equipment to and from the site of shipwrecks in the late 1800s. This trend continued in the 20th century, when the United States Coast Guard rode domesticated members of the Ocracoke pony herd as they conducted beach patrols in search of the German U-boats that patrolled the waters just offshore from the Outer Banks during World War II.

Photo: Ocracoke Island Journal

In the 1950s, the wild ponies of Ocracoke were cared for by the Ocracoke Boy Scouts, who earned the distinction of being the only mounted troop in the United States. In 1957, N.C. Highway 12 was paved, resulting in a dramatic increase in the numbers of vehicles traveling along the island—and ultimately leading to ponies being accidentally injured or killed. When it became evident that the ponies’ presence was contributing to an increase in traffic accidents on the island and causing issues related to over-grazing, a law was passed in 1959 that required the ponies to be permanently penned for their own safety as well as that of the island’s residents and visitors. The nearly 200-acre soundside pen in which the herd of horses is free to roam was constructed that same year by the National Park Service, who has been in charge of caring for the ponies since the 1960s.

Photo: Crystal L. Canterbury

Today, visitors can stop by the pony pen to see the 16 horses that comprise Ocracoke’s herd of wild ponies up close and personal. Although the herd is free to roam the soundside beach and the salt marsh that sits within the confines of their protective pen, the ponies often spend time around the stable and paddock, making it easy for them to be spotted from the parking area along the fenced enclosure. An elevating viewing platform and pathway alongside the pasture offer additional opportunities to view the wild horses, and the National Park Service offers a variety of programs at the pony pen to teach visitors all about the herd of Spanish mustangs who have called Ocracoke Island home since their ancestors first swam ashore from shipwrecked vessels several centuries ago.  

History of the Ocracoke Light Station

Photo Courtesy of VisitNC.com

The most famous lighthouse along the Outer Banks of North Carolina may be the iconic black-and-white spiraled structure that stands on a spit of sand at Cape Hatteras, but when it comes to navigational aids guarding the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a lesser-known but equally important lighthouse should not be overlooked. Located on the southern edge of Ocracoke Island—a 16-mile-long stretch of sand accessible only by boat—the Ocracoke Light Station has a storied past that dates back to the days when Blackbeard the Pirate sailed the seas surrounding the barrier islands that comprise the Outer Banks.

An unincorporated community in Hyde County, Ocracoke is situated south of Hatteras Island and just a few nautical miles northeast of Portsmouth Island. Ocracoke Inlet—a narrow waterway that lies between Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island—became a popular channel during the late 1500s for ships needing to gain access to inland ports ranging from Elizabeth City to Edenton and New Bern. Because of the island’s convenient location between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound where ships often traveled along area trade routes, a small village soon developed in what is currently known as Ocracoke Village in the 1730s.

Photo: Bob Muller

Due to the constantly changing sandbars beneath the surface of the sea, navigating the coastline near Ocracoke Island became extremely difficult, and many mariners experienced issues with shoaling and found themselves shipwrecked on the sandbars. To assist with the navigational troubles these mariners dealt with during their journeys from the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean to points inland, numerous “pilots” who were familiar with the shoals were hired to help steer ships safely through what was quickly becoming one of the busiest inlets on the Eastern Seaboard. Because these pilots eventually settled on Ocracoke Island, the tiny village was originally referred to as “Pilot Town.”

Recognizing that a crew of pilots was not quite enough to assist mariners sailing the sound and sea near Ocracoke, the U.S. Lighthouse Service deemed the spot worthy of further aid to sailors, and in 1794 construction on a navigational structure began. The lighthouse—a wooden tower in the shape of a pyramid—was built on a 25-acre island between Ocracoke and neighboring Portsmouth Island to the south called Shell Castle Island. A small house was also constructed on Shell Castle Island to provide accommodations for the resident lightkeeper, as well as a handful of additional facilities such as gristmills and cargo wharves.

Although this first lighthouse was extremely successful in helping to warn mariners of the nearby sandbars and assisted them in navigating their way from the ocean to their inland destinations, after fewer than 20 years the structure was deemed obsolete. Shoaling had caused the channel itself to shift its location by nearly a mile, and, according to the National Park Service, the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters were both destroyed by lightning in 1818, leaving mariners in the dark once more.

A few years later, the U.S. government purchased a two-acre area on the southern end of Ocracoke Island and hired Noah Porter, a builder from Massachusetts, to construct a new navigational aid for Ocracoke Inlet near the channel’s new location. The property was purchased for a total of $50, and, despite budgeting $20,000 for the lighthouse and the one-story keeper’s quarters, both were completed for just $11,359 in 1823.

At a height of 75 feet, the Ocracoke Light Station is significantly shorter than many of its counterparts along the coast; however, its light—which can be seen as far as 14 miles at sea—provided the perfect solution for sailors searching for assistance in safely navigating the shifting shoals off the North Carolina coastline. A sturdy structure whose solid, white brick walls are five feet thick at the base and taper to two feet thick at the top of the tower, the Ocracoke Light Station has withstood hundreds of storms and dozens of hurricanes in the nearly two centuries it has stood watch over the southern portion of the Outer Banks.

Photo: Our State Magazine

Unlike many other lighthouses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Ocracoke Light Station is not open to the public for tours or climbing; however, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the United States still attracts thousands of visitors each year who stop by Ocracoke Village to see this unique piece of Outer Banks history in person.

Torpedo Junction & Ocracoke Island’s British Cemetery

If you’re a history buff visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, your itinerary likely includes popular attractions such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Corolla’s Whalehead Club, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the site from which an entire colony vanished on the northern tip of Roanoke Island. But to fully experience everything the Outer Banks has to offer those with an affinity for learning about the past of this stretch of seashore between sound and sea, a stop at the British Cemetery is a must.

Nestled well off the main road in a wooded lot on Ocracoke Island, the British Cemetery is a historic spot within the confines of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Maintained by the National Park Service, the 2,290-square-foot cemetery marks the final resting spot of heroic British sailors who fought alongside American troops defending the Eastern Seaboard from attacks during World War II.

national parks traveler
Photo Courtesy of the National Parks Traveler

Soon after American was thrust into war with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Germany launched a covert mission code-named Operation Paukenschlag. This initiative—whose English translation is Operation Drumroll—called for a series of assaults on unsuspecting ships sailing within the merchant-heavy sea lanes along the East Coast of the United States. Although today this stretch of the southern Outer Banks is prized for its pristine beaches, minimal development and wide array of wildlife, the area was once characterized by fiery explosions at sea and referred to as “Torpedo Junction” due to the massive amount of submarine assaults that occurred here in the early 1940s.    

offbeattravel
Photo Courtesy of OffBeatTravel.com

Orchestrated by Karl Donitz, a German admiral and U-boat commander, the operation began when five submarines were sent on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in late December 1941. Unaware of the submarines making stealth underwater advances upon the shoreline of the Outer Banks, U.S. merchant ships continued upon their trade routes, protected only by a handful of naval vessels assigned to patrol this portion of the Atlantic—the majority of which were slow and unsuited to take on submarine attacks. According to the National Park Service, only one vessel—a 165-foot-long Coast Guard cutter named the Dione—patrolled the waters off Cape Hatteras, rendering the region extremely vulnerable to well-timed submarine attacks.

In addition to its lack of preparedness in terms of the types and number of ships patrolling the seaboard, the U.S. also failed to take proper precautions onshore to reduce the risk of underwater assaults on naval vessels. Local lighthouses—including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse—remained lit at night, and blackout restrictions were not enforced. With lights along the shoreline ablaze throughout each evening, a brightly lit backdrop was created, allowing German U-boat commanders to easily spot the location of merchant ships passing along the coastline of the Outer Banks.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo Courtesy of he U.S. National Park Service

Having not prepared properly for a potential attack—and unknowingly creating the perfect conditions for submarine assaults—U.S. ships were an easy target for the German sailors, who had years of experience conducting submarine attacks on unsuspecting victims. The result was devastating: In the first six months of 1942 alone, 397 Allied merchant ships were struck and sunk in the poorly protected sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Hatteras—with the bright beacon of light emitted from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the massive currents that converged at Cape Point in Buxton—became a navigational focal point for U-boat commanders. More than 80 ships were sunk in this particular spot that earned the area its nickname of Torpedo Junction.

islandfreepress

Relatively unchecked by unprepared American Naval forces, the German U-boats continued their slaughter of merchant ships. When those in command came to the realization that the loss of so many ships ultimately threatened the entire war effort, the U.S. finally accepted assistance from the British Royal Navy in patrolling the coast of North Carolina and began to strike back against enemy German forces. Bolstered by the aid of 24 British ships—including a transformed trawler called the HMS Bedfordshire—the U.S. was eventually able to regain control of the waters surrounding Torpedo Junction on the Outer Banks.  

geocaching
The HMS Bedfordshire. Photo Credit: Geocaching.com

Although Admiral Donitz called off the attacks on Torpedo Junction in the summer of 1942 and sent his submarines to places that provided less resistance, the U.S. and its British allies suffered greatly from Operation Paukenschlag. On May 12, 1942, the HMS Bedfordshire was struck by a torpedo while patrolling the coastline of the Outer Banks. All 34 British crew members were killed when the ship sunk, and several of their bodies washing ashore on Ocracoke Island in the days following the attack.

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Outer Bankers residing on Ocracoke Island buried the bodies of these brave British sailors who fought alongside American naval forces next to the grave of another British soldier who was killed when the San Delfino was sunk by a torpedo just one year earlier. The plot of land that serves as the final resting place of America’s allies at Torpedo Junction is now known as the British Cemetery in historic Ocracoke village and attracts hundreds of visitors to pay their respects each year. In honor of their sacrifice while assisting U.S. trips in the fight against German forces, memorial services—including a 21-gun salute and the placement of wreaths on all the graves—are held at the British Cemetery each year on the anniversary of the Bedfordshire’s sinking and attended by locals and visitors to the Outer Banks alike.

ocracoke observer
Photo Courtesy of the Ocracoke Observer

 

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