April 15, 2010

Visiting Portsmouth Island is a trip back in time


No 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.

That’s what 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 little 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 could not see from house to house as you can now.  It seemed huge to me as we wandered down overgrown paths, past falling-down houses, and stumbled across scattered overgrown cemeteries.  There was no one 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 day.  I thought we’d never go back, but by the time we reached Ocracoke I was already formulating in my mind a plan to return. 

I didn’t 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, the main trade route through the Outer Banks.  Large ships found the inlet 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 primary 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.

Portsmouth 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 communities, the 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 difficult to get lost at Portsmouth now, even for the first-time visitor.  One 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 station.       

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 greet 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 showcase 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 the 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 the 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 often 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 reunion for Portsmouth natives and descendants has evolved into a celebration with as many as 500 people in attendance. 

Seven 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 singing in the church, and a special homecoming program round out the day before the folks will bid their goodbyes and leave this place once again.

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 Portsmouth. 

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 bi-annual newsletter.    

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. 

(Roseanne 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 Homecoming 2010

Portsmouth Island Homecoming 2010 will be on Saturday, April 24,  on Portsmouth Island in Cape Lookout National Seashore.  This event is sponsored by The Friends of Portsmouth Island and the National Park Service.
The day begins at 9 a.m.  There will be opportunities to see folks 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 southernvoyage[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.

Getting to Portsmouth

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 Austins at 928-4361.  You can also travel to the island with a four-wheel drive via a small ferry that carries vehicles. More information is available on  www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org.


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