Island is a trip
back in time
one lives on Portsmouth Island anymore, but it’s still home in
the hearts of former residents and their descendants, and the island
has claimed the hearts of many visitors, who once they go there,
can’t help but go back again and again.
happened to me.
My first trip to Portsmouth nearly 30 years ago brings back memories of
a mysterious place that totally befuddled me. I knew very
about where we were going when we boarded the small boat at Silver Lake
for the trip across Ocracoke Inlet.
Once we were dropped off at Haulover Dock on Portsmouth, we were
totally on our own, with instructions to meet at the beach dock at 2
o’clock in the afternoon. That was easier said than
done. Portsmouth then was grown up with vegetation, and you
not see from house to house as you can now. It seemed huge to
as we wandered down overgrown paths, past falling-down houses, and
stumbled across scattered overgrown cemeteries. There was no
on the island that we could see, and we felt totally alone.
After a long hot day with a child in tow, we somehow got to the beach
dock and were never so glad to see a boat as we were that
thought we’d never go back, but by the time we reached Ocracoke I
was already formulating in my mind a plan to return.
realize it then, but Portsmouth had taken hold of me, and it has been a
big part of my life ever since.
Portsmouth was once the largest settlement on the Outer Banks and was
the major shipping center through Ocracoke Inlet,
trade route through the Outer Banks. Large ships found the
too shallow to sail through and were forced to transfer their cargo to
lighter, shallow draft boats. Portsmouth was established to
provide storage and support facilities for this business.
In 1842, more than 1,400 vessels and two thirds of North
Carolina’s exports passed through Ocracoke Inlet, and
Portsmouth’s population grew to 685 residents in 1860.
However, the coming of the Civil War and the shoaling up of Ocracoke
Inlet were the start of Portsmouth’s decline. Shipping
routes shifted north, and more and more goods were shipped via inland
railroads. Fishing and guiding replaced shipping as the
occupation at Portsmouth. The life-saving station closed. The
population dropped to 14 in the 1950s and to three people by
1971. After the death of Henry Pigott in 1971, the last two
residents reluctantly moved to the mainland, leaving behind the
remnants of a once vibrant coastal community.
has been a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore since 1976 and is
listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A mile of
sand flats separates the old life-saving station at the edge of the
village from the Atlantic Ocean. Two other
Middle Settlement and Sheep Island, were connected to the village via
the Straight Road that ran the entire length of the island.
There have been a lot of changes at Portsmouth since my first
trip. Some of those houses we first came across are gone now,
victims of time and the elements. Most of the trees in the
village have been lost or cut down because of hurricanes and storm
damage during the past few years. It would be pretty
get lost at Portsmouth now, even for the first-time visitor.
can stand in the middle of the village and see all the way to Haulover
Dock, up the School Road, and even down to the life-saving
Even though no one lives at Portsmouth anymore, there is a lot going on
there. Thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service, you can make
the most of your trip. Volunteers are available to
and assist you, and interpretive signs have been placed at the standing
houses and public buildings.
Just this year Cape Lookout National Seashore installed new exhibits
inside the visitor’s center, the school house, the church, the
life-saving station, and the post office. These exhibits
the people of Portsmouth and give visitors a very real glimpse into
what it was like to live there. Portsmouth residents were so
isolated from the rest of the world that they all had to work together
to survive. It was a true community in every sense of the
word. These exhibits help tell their stories.
The National Park Service has worked hard to restore and reconstruct
some of the houses in the village. The George Dixon House and
Washington Roberts House are both excellent examples of what has been
done to save these structures. The lifesaving station has had
extensive work done on it and was featured at the 2008
Homecoming. Even though some houses have disappeared through
ages, others have been shored up and received the necessary repairs to
save them from further damage.
A few houses in the village are part of the NPS leasing program and are
cared for by the lease owners who do their part to keep these houses in
good repair. They are considered private residences and are
open for visitors during Homecoming.
Every two years the Portsmouth Homecoming is co-sponsored by the Cape
Lookout National Seashore and the Friends of Portsmouth
Island. What began as a homecoming
Portsmouth natives and descendants has evolved into a celebration with
as many as 500 people in attendance.
people born on Portsmouth were present for the first homecoming event
in 1992. Mrs. Dot Willis, the last living person born on
Portsmouth, continues to attend Homecoming and is an honored guest at
this event. This year’s Homecoming on April 24, centers on
the people of the village and the way they lived and will feature
demonstrations of quilting, boat building, storytelling, decoy carving
and net mending. A wonderful dinner on the grounds, hymn
in the church, and a special homecoming program round out the day
before the folks will bid their goodbyes and leave this place once
Through the efforts of the National Park Service and the Friends of
Portsmouth Island, much has been discovered about Portsmouth and is
being preserved. Archeologists have been busy at
Photos taken in 2009 in the Middle Settlement showed a grave, rusted
containers, an unknown metal structure, a chimney and gate posts near
the Salter House site, a safe behind the old school site, Myron
Willis’ child’s tombstone from 1907, and Vera Willis’
gravestone and footstone. Photos of Sheep Island showed pipe
stems, an old chimney built on ballast stones, brick remains on the
shoreline, and a support piling with a tree blown over it.
Aerial photos from 1997 show the location of structures in the Middle
Settlement back in 1941, the proximity of the beach to the village in
1943, a boardwalk or dock in the Middle Settlement, the Battle Brothers
House, the Middle Settlement with trees that had been blow down from
Hurricane Hazel, evidences of several structures along the Straight
Road (walkways, pilings, remains of generators, and fence lines), and
the Vera Willis cemetery, not seen since 1984.
The National Park Service plans to continue archaeological studies of
Portsmouth Island and perform rehab work on the cemeteries as time and
funds allow. The Friends of Portsmouth Island continues to
promote the preservation of Portsmouth Island and its people through
its Web site and publication of The Doctor’s Creek Journal, the
Anyone who has been to Portsmouth remembers their first trip, and those
with ties to Portsmouth remember it through family stories, childhood
visits, and scrapbooks. It takes a lot of effort to get to
Portsmouth, but that just makes it more special.
Penley lives in Morganton, N.C., and is one of those people who
can’t stop going back to Portsmouth Island. She is the
editor of the Friends of Portsmouth Island’s newsletter,
Doctor’s Creek Journal.)
Portsmouth Island Homecoming 2010 will be on Saturday, April
on Portsmouth Island in Cape Lookout National Seashore. This
event is sponsored by The Friends of Portsmouth Island and the National
The day begins at 9 a.m. There will be opportunities to see
at work quilting, making and mending nets, building boats, and carving
decoys. A grand opening of new exhibits installed by the National Park
Service will be held, and the Portsmouth Island Post Office will be
open for business.
Several events will be going on during the day, such as hymn singing in
the church, a covered dish lunch on the grounds, and music provided by
Molasses Creek from Ocracoke.
Everyone is welcome to come and enjoy the day on Portsmouth Island, so
bring your favorite covered dish and see what life was like on the
Outer Banks of North Carolina.
For transportation by ferry to the island contact Rudy Austin at
252-928-4361. Please visit our website at
www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org for the day’s schedule, or
contact Rene Burgess at 336-222-9512 or [email protected].
More on Portsmouth history
The Friends of Portsmouth Island has a really nice Web site at
www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org. It has a lot more on the
history of the island, more photos, and tips for visiting.
The easiest way to get to Portsmouth Island is by boat from
Ocracoke. Rudy Austin runs a “passenger ferry” from
his dock on Silver Lake to the island regularly when weather conditions
permit. The cost is $20 a person. You can reach the
at 928-4361. You can also travel to the island with a
drive via a small ferry that carries vehicles. More information is
available on www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW SLIDE SHOW