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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.

 

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.

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