days, the hush blanketing historic Portsmouth Village is only disturbed
by the rustle of a critter in the marsh, the squawk of birds and the
footsteps of an occasional summertime visitor.
The village hasn’t always been quiet. Before the last residents
left in the early 1970s, layered over the hypnotic, aggressive whine of
mosquitoes — still a present force on the island — would have been the
din of everyday life in an island village.
Established in 1753, the island quickly became one of the largest
settlements on the Outer Banks, but the population rapidly declined,
with the last two residents, Marion Babb and Elma Dixon, leaving the
island in 1971.
A part of Cape Lookout National Seashore since 1976, the 250-acre
historic district silently tells the story of a village that lost its
families to the mainland because of shoaling, war, storms, economic
hardship and isolation. The well-preserved buildings that used to be
the general store, church and homes that dot island now stand as a
snapshot of a once-thriving village.
One of the last residents, Babb, has been quoted as saying, “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.”
Though no one lives on the island anymore, a lot of folks still call it
home and they meet every two years to celebrate their shared history,
along with those who feel called to the island, during the biennial
During this one-day celebration, this year set for Saturday, April 21,
the otherwise peaceful island will be alive with laughter, tears,
memories, singing and celebration of Portsmouth.
Sponsored by the Friends of Portsmouth and hosted by Cape Lookout
National Seashore, the theme for this year’s homecoming is “A Step Back
in Time,” which focuses on the simple times and activities that were
common to the people of Portsmouth, according to organizers.
The buildings will open at 9 a.m., when there’s a chance to buy
T-shirts in the visitor center and a keepsake stamp cancelation in the
post office. At 10 a.m. folks are invited to join Connie Mason to sing
hymns in the church. The church bells will ring at 11:15 a.m. to begin
the homecoming celebration.
The homecoming program will starts at 11:30 a.m. and will feature David
Quinn of Newport, grandson of the late Dot Salter Willis. Quinn will
offer the island’s history and other island family members will provide
“To me, Portsmouth and family are synonymous. The island is the seed of
my family’s heritage here in the New World. From these roots that were
planted on Portsmouth, my family has grown, multiplied, and prospered,”
Quinn said. “Therefore, returning to Portsmouth is a way to cultivate
and renew my connection to the Salter family tree.”
He added that the Portsmouth Homecoming is also a way for him to
reconnect to someone that was and remains very dear to him: his
grandmother Dot Salter Willis.
“Her love for her island home and the love for her family inspired me
to become a historian and continues to inspire me to return biennially
to recount the history of the Portsmouth settlement. When I am on the
island she is there with me,” he added. “I bring my boys (ages 10 and
11) so that they may know Grandma and the place she cherished her
entire life. My boys are the fruit of that tree planted so long ago and
being there with them, my family, and my Grandma are moments that I
Dinner on the grounds starts at 12:30 p.m. Ice, paper products and tea
will be provided. Everyone should bring a covered dish to share.
Following lunch will be time to visit and tour the buildings throughout
the village before the passenger ferries begin returning to Ocracoke.
Ferries will run as long as needed.
The island is only accessible by boat. Reservations to Portsmouth can
be made by calling Rudy Austin in Ocracoke at 252-928-4361. Cost is $20
per person, round trip.
Organizers suggest contacting the ferry service for the latest schedule
and prices at 800-293-3779 or www.ncferry.org if coming for the day on
the North Carolina ferry from Cedar Island or Hatteras. The boats to
Portsmouth load at the park service docks on Ocracoke. Return
reservations should be made on the last state ferry to Cedar Island or
Swan Quarter unless spending the night on Ocracoke. If coming from
Hatteras, make sure to schedule the very early ferry as the ride to
Portsmouth is an hour long.
In the event of inclement weather, the homecoming will be held at the Assembly of God Church at Ocracoke on Lighthouse Road.
who has studied the history of Portsmouth and will be leading the music
in the church, said, “In Dorothy Bedwell’s Portsmouth Prayer, she
prayed for Portsmouth’s perpetuation as a village ‘… in harmony with
wind and sea.’
“This year, we reach back to a sister island whose living community
mirrors Portsmouth’s through their life by the wind and water,” she
continued. “Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay is still a living island
community whose women sing old hymns while picking their family’s catch
of crabs for market. Some of these wonderful women will be singing on
Portsmouth to celebrate our island kinship this homecoming. You do not
want to miss this.”
Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Jeff West said in a
statement that he is honored to host the 2018 homecoming at Portsmouth
“Having seen firsthand the love, work and dedication the heritage and
history of Portsmouth village inspires in people, I can say that it is
a truly amazing place both physically and in the hearts and minds of
people,” he said. “I hope everyone can make time to come and be a part
of the celebration on April 21.”
Friends of Portsmouth President Roseanne Penley said that she hopes
everyone will take this opportunity to tour the houses and visit with
descendants. Though she’s not a descendent, she said she feels a deep
connection to the island and a responsibility to preserve the history
“Each time we pull up to Haulover Dock or to the shore I get the same
feelings of joy, anticipation and relief. I am finally here. I don’t
care if the ground is wet and I don’t care if the bugs are bad,” she
said. “Although I am not a descendant, I have made my own place here,
and I feel the roots of others who are descendants. I have read their
stories and researched their families, and I have stayed in their
houses and worshiped in their church. I feel a tremendous
responsibility to do what I can to keep this place for them, and yes,
for me. I feel like family and this feels like home.”
Portsmouth Island also cast its spell over Friends of Portsmouth member Kathy McNeilly.
“I am not related to anyone who lived on Portsmouth but the first time
I walked out on the dock behind Tom Bragg’s house, I had the
overwhelming feeling that this is as close as you can get to God on
Earth,” she said. “The history, people and the stories are
fascinating. Portsmouth Island is one of the few places that you
get a true feeling of community. I have traveled to other places, but
there is nothing like Portsmouth Island. I believe we need to
preserve the history, stories and the structures of Portsmouth Village
along with the community feeling that is hard to find nowadays.”
If heading to Portsmouth, bring insect repellent, drinking water, food,
sunscreen, adequate clothing, a hat and good walking shoes. Public
facilities are limited but can be found in the Theodore and Annie
Salter House. There are compost toilets on the road past the Life