April 21, 2008

A return to Portsmouth Island


Surviving former residents of Portsmouth Island and descendants of those who once inhabited the island returned to their homeland on Saturday, April 19, to remember and honor the island’s history and heritage. About 500 people made their way across the shallow waters of Ocracoke Inlet for this biennial celebration.
Portsmouth Island is located south of Ocracoke. Before Hatteras Inlet opened up in 1846, it was a powerhouse in the shipping industry. In fact, Portsmouth Island was the biggest port in North Carolina, housing around 1,600 ships in its heyday. Large oceangoing ships traveling from Europe and the West Indies couldn’t cross over the sandbar to get to the navigational waters of the Pamlico Sound. It was at Portsmouth that cargo was off-loaded to smaller boats and carried to the mainland of North Carolina.
Portsmouth Island was also home to the first building ever built as a hospital in North Carolina’s history. Smallpox and yellow fever were contagious diseases to sailors. The sick and dying were left quarantined on the island’s beaches. The hospital was built to meet their need.
After the Civil War, the island’s population dwindled. Storms opened the inlet between Hatteras and Ocracoke, making the deeper waters of the Pamlico more accessible to larger ships. Additionally, the railroad system had been established on the mainland. The island had lost its usefulness.
Portsmouth has been a ghost town for more than 35 years. The school closed in 1942, and Post Office followed about 10 years later. No bridge was ever built to connect Portsmouth with Ocracoke. The shifting sands of time consumed the deeper waters and the only way to get to Portsmouth was by flat-bottomed boat.
Friends of Portsmouth Island and the Cape Lookout National Seashore sponsored the 2008 Portsmouth Homecoming. This year’s event was dedicated to honoring the life-savers. Saturday’s festivities took place under a large white tent located near the base of the newly refurbished Portsmouth Life-Saving Station.
Boats carrying the homecoming’s participants starting arriving at 7:30 a.m. from Ocracoke. The Post Office opened a short time later for business and letters could actually be mailed on this one day. The Post Office used to double as the general store, and the shelves were lined with products that were sold back when the village was inhabited. There was storytelling on the porch of the Visitors’ Center and hymns were sung inside the quaint church. Most of the island’s buildings were opened to the public.
At 11 a.m. the official program began. Rev. Joyce Reynolds from the United Methodist Church on Ocracoke delivered the invocation, and Ed Burgess, President of the Friends of Portsmouth, welcomed the guests and recognized the special guests. There were six people in attendance that grew up on Portsmouth Island. The largest family in attendance was the Willis family with 43 members present. There was a Portsmouth descendant who traveled from his home in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to be a part of Saturday’s homecoming. The descendants wore name tags.
Miss Dot Willis briefly spoke to the gathering. She is the last living person born on Portsmouth. At 87, traveling home for the celebration was difficult due to an illness. Over the screeching voices of seagulls, she told the crowd how hard it was to leave her island home but she said she "couldn’t stay here alone."

Frances Eubanks, granddaughter of island residents, read the history of Portsmouth over 255 years. In 1753, the North Carolina Colonial Assembly passed an act to establish Portsmouth as protector of Ocracoke Inlet and to provide port of entry. It was a maritime town, "liable to the depredation of an enemy in time of war and insults from pirates and other rude people in time of peace."

Connie Mason sang a song she had composed for the occasion, and James Carter read scripture from resident Henry Pigott’s Bible. The superintendent of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, Russ Wilson, spoke on the island’s preservation. Lt.Cdr. David J. Obermeir of the U. S. Coast Guard offered remarks about the Life-Saving Service, now the modern day Coast Guard, and the island, which are forever linked in history.
A moment of silence was observed to honor the families of Portsmouth and the Life-Saving Service while the tolling of the church bell was heard in the distance.
After Amazing Grace was sung and a closing prayer was delivered by Rev. Reynolds, all in attendance held hands and sang the psalm, "God be with you ‘til we meet again." A feeling of oneness descended on the gathering.
A potluck-style dinner was offered to the attendees. All the food was made by the sponsors and brought over by boat in plastic containers and coolers. One of the volunteers noted how difficult it is when the island has no amenities such as water or electricity.
The afternoon belonged to the Coast Guard. The newly renovated Life-Saving Station was on display. The strong smell of oil was still present in the equipment room. People wandered through the old building, which became operational in 1894. This station was decommissioned in 1937 but was reactivated after Pearl Harbor in 1945 for war-time coastal observation. During World War II, the Portsmouth beaches were patrolled by Coast Guardsmen on horseback.
The Coast Guard permanently closed the station in 1945. For a while, it was used as a private clubhouse for a rod and gun club but was eventually incorporated into the Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1977. The maintenance division of the Park Service restored this historic Life-Saving Station.
To celebrate the return of the U. S. Coast Guard to Portsmouth Island, a historical re-enactment of a breeches buoy was performed by the USCG Motor Life Boat Station Hatteras Inlet and narrated by James Charlet, site manager of the Chicamacomico Historical Site in Rodanthe.

Dressed in period garb, Charlet set the scene for the onlookers.
"The average American has never heard of the Life-Saving Service," he began in a strong voice. "They were peaceful heroes who helped those in the hour of greatest need. The name has disappeared and so has its history."
Records show that during the reign of the Life-Saving Service, about 178,000 rescues were made of people whose lives were in peril from the sea. Amazingly, more than 177,000 lives were saved.
"Rescues always happened in climatic conditions -- storms, hurricane-force winds, blowing sand and usually at night," Charlet continued. "What these guys did routinely was unbelievable. They were the elite of the elite."
The crowd learned that it takes the team about 10-15 minutes to complete this drill. Once in record time, they did it eight minutes. In the old days, the lifesavers routinely did it five minutes.
Under the leadership of Chief Boatswain Mate Erik J. Watson, his nine-person team performed the drill that the Life-Saving Service used to practice twice weekly and at night once every three months. He shot a 20-pound projectile over a simulated ship’s mast using a black powder Lyle gun, the only gun ever designed to save lives.
Through an organized and methodical series of moving heavy ropes, the team demonstrated how people could be moved one at a time from a distressed ship to the shore. During a breeches buoy rescue, no crewman left the shore.
"After all, the last thing you want to do is put another boat into the water during a storm," said Charlet.
This was the first time the breeches buoy drill was performed on Portsmouth Island since 1937.

After the conclusion of the drill, a Coast Guard C-130 flew low over the crowd in demonstration of the technological advances that lifesaving has taken over time.
People quickly disbursed, since everyone needed to clear to island before sunset, and the small boats could only transport a handful of people on each boat ride. Travel time one-way averaged 20 minutes.

The day had been a glorious one. It was a warm, sunny day that sneaked into weeks of cool and rainy days. Even the mosquitoes, which are notorious on Portsmouth, took the day off.
The words of Miss Marian Gray Babb, one of the last inhabitants to leave the village more than 35 years ago, hung in the air.
"There’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t miss that place....It’s the peace and quiet that’s there, and it’s home."


(Editor's note:  The Portsmouth Island Homecoming happens every other year. The next homecoming will be on Saturday, April 30, 2016.  For more information, visit the Friends of Portsmouth Island website at www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org. If you want to visit Portsmouth Island, contact Rudy or Donald Austin on Ocracoke at 252-928-4361. The Austins operate boat tours to the island for a reasonable price.  Go to http://portsmouthnc.com/ for more information.)

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