A History of Portsmouth, North Carolina

Portsmouth Church - Restored

Portsmouth, on North Core Banks, was established by North Carolina's colonial Assembly in 1753 and settled shortly thereafter. At its peak in 1860, the village had 505 permanent residents, of which 117 were slaves, and was in what is present-day Carteret County.

Over the years, residents earned a living by fishing, transfering freight, lifesaving, and scavenging goods that washed ashore from shipwrecks.

The last permanent residents left the island in 1971, and it came under ownership of the National Park Service as part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1976.

Today, Portsmouth Village is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is scattered over 250 acres and contains about 20 structures. A mile of tidal flats, sometimes underwater, separates the village from the Atlantic Ocean.

No one lives in Portsmouth anymore: no one to tell the story of how this pretty soundside village on North Core Banks came to be, no one to tell of all it has gained and lost since it was founded in 1753.

But the wind, rising along the sandy lanes, whispers of busy wharves and eighteenth century sailing ships. The distant surf murmurs of old-time fishermen filling their nets. A footfall on the life saving station porch recalls brave men and daring rescues. The church bell's chime, sounded by a tug on a rope, speaks of weekly respites to give thanks and gather strength. A creaky hinge on the post office door recounts when it was a portal to the entire outside world.

No one lives in Portsmouth anymore: no one to tell how changing ways and the fickle sea took away Portsmouth's purpose and its people, one by one. Portsmouth, though, lives on as a Cape Lookout National Seashore testimonial to an island lifestyle, gone forever. And Portsmouth lives on in the hearts of its exiled natives, who still cherish the cluster of sunwashed buildings, empty now for twenty-eight years, as their hometown.

"When I say home, I mean Portsmouth," says Jessie Lee Babb Dominique. "I wish I could go back, every day. " Now of Beaufort, she was the last baby born in Portsmouth, 71 years ago, the last scholar at its one-room school. Her sister and her aunt were the last two residents of Portsmouth, before isolation forced them off the island in 1971.

Dominique is among a handful of former residents who can remember Portsmouth, across Ocracoke Inlet from the village of Ocracoke, as a vibrant, small community. In Dominique's childhood, families were close-knit and friends were always ready to help. The men served in the Coast Guard, as her father did, or fished for a living. Her hard-working elders relaxed on summer evenings with a croquet match. She worshipped at the picturesque Methodist church on Sundays. She saw her neighbors on weekday afternoons in an island ritual that underscored Portsmouth's remoteness.

"We'd go and wait for the mail to come in," she says. "It came from the mainland in the afternoon. The general store was where people gathered. "

The post office, established in 1840, occupied one corner of the general store and a prominent place in the far-flung village's daily life. Everything from letters to mail-order furniture to visitors arrived via the mail boat.

When Cape Lookout National Seashore was created in 1976 and took custody of Portsmouth, memories like these were deemed an important part of state and national heritage. The National Park Service keeps Portsmouth more or less as it was when occupied in the first half of the twentieth century.

"Nothing much has changed," says Cape Lookout education specialist Laurie Heupel. "That's the point of Portsmouth. "

On the National Register of Historic Places, Portsmouth today consists of about twenty structures and several cemeteries, scattered over about 250 acres at the northernmost tip of North Core Banks. The buildings and graveyards are located wherever high ground rises above the marsh. A mile of sand flats, sometimes underwater, separates the edge of the village and the Atlantic Ocean.

Though Portsmouth's history stretches back almost 250 years, most buildings date to the early 1900s. The houses last occupied are painted a light yellow. The Methodist church, considered the village symbol, was built around 1914; the schoolhouse in 1920. The turn-of-the-century Life Saving Service's barracks and watchtower, boathouse, summer kitchen, and stables are at the rim of town nearest the ocean.

The oldest structure is thought to be the Washington Roberts house, dating to the late 1700s. Its massive wood foundation blocks were likely cut from timbers washed ashore from a shipwreck. Losses at sea sometimes were Portsmouth's gain, as islanders salvaged such cargo as coffee, clothing, and building supplies. The village also sheltered passengers and crew rescued from doomed vessels. Two sea captains who died in the early 1800s are buried on the beach side of the village.

Portsmouth once shared North Core Banks, also called Portsmouth Island, with two other nearby communities. Overgrown foundations and lost gravestones are all that remain of Middle Community and Sheep Island.

Accessible only by boat through treacherous waters, on an untamed, uninhabited barrier island, Portsmouth now is an easily overlooked nook of North Carolina. For the first century after its 1753 founding, however, Portsmouth was among the largest and most important Outer Banks settlements. Ocracoke Inlet was the only access through the island chain to the colonial ports of Bath, New Bern, and Washington.

The ships of the day - traveling inbound with sugar and spices and fabric, laden with lumber and pitch outbound - drew more water than Ocracoke Inlet and Pamlico Sound provided. Portsmouth and nearby Shell Castle Island evolved as a "lightering" station. Using slave labor, cargo was transferred to and from lighter, shallow draft boats for the journeys beyond.

Two-thirds of North Carolina's exports in the early 1800s passed through Ocracoke Inlet. Traffic was heavy enough to merit a mariners' hospital at Portsmouth to care for sick and injured seafarers. Its rainwater cistern - the sky is Portsmouth's only source of fresh water - still remains. In 1860, the population reached a high of nearly 700 people, including 117 slaves, and the town boasted more than 100 buildings - homes, warehouses, and stores.

The sea, though, already had begun to forsake Portsmouth. Ocracoke Inlet shifted and shoaled. Shell Castle Island, composed of oyster shells, eroded away. An 1846 storm sliced new inlets - and new trade routes - through Hatteras Island to the north.

Other events also conspired against Portsmouth. Railroads began to displace ships as a means of moving goods. The approach of northern troops during the American Civil War in 1861 drove most residents off the island, and many never returned. The population was 320 in 1870. A decade later, it had fallen to 220. With shipping commerce gone, fishing and shellfishing became economic mainstays for residents. Lodges to house those hunting the abundant waterfowl appeared in the early 1900s.

The establishment of a US Life Saving Service station in 1894 brought a new mission to the village. The rescue service, later incorporated into the present-day US Coast Guard, recruited local men for its ranks, and was an important presence, philosophically and economically, for 43 years. The "surf soldiers" drilled rigorously for dangerous sea rescues, and the station commander was a community leader.

When the station was decommissioned in 1937, Portsmouth's final spiral downward began. The station's reactivation during World War II only forestalled the village's demise. From the 1930 census of 104, the population fell to 17 in 1956. The post office locked its doors in 1959.

By 1970, just three residents - including Marian Gray Babb, Dominique's older sister, and Elma Dixon, Dominique's aunt - still called the island home, though they spent winters on the mainland. When the only man among the trio, Henry Pigott, died in January 1971, Dixon and Babb reluctantly moved to Beaufort. Dixon died in 1990, Babb in 1993.

During their years on the mainland, both longed to be back in Portsmouth. They kept their Portsmouth houses ready to occupy, but returned to their island homes only to visit.

And the village of their younger years was frozen in time. Recollections of Portsmouth's past have cast a spell reaching far beyond its former inhabitants. The last generation of residents has become nearly legendary through the oft-repeated accounts of their daily routines - Miss Annie Salter, the postmistress who wore her hair in a neat bun; Miss Mary Dixon, who taught for 37 years in the one-room school; Henry Pigott and his sister Lizzie, descendents of the slaves who toiled in the lightering business.

Henry Pigott, "A Friend To All," according to a tribute to him in the church, was the island's last mailman. Like others before him, he piloted a skiff out to meet the Ocracoke-bound mailboat to pick up Portsmouth's letters and parcels. Lizzie Pigott grew lovely flowers and cut islanders' hair until a stroke confined her to a wheelchair.

Like many others, the park service's Heupel finds these vignettes of Portsmouth life irresistible.

"I've read so much about the village and the people, I think the people should be there when I go," Heupel says. "I'm looking for the lifesavers to be drilling. I'm looking for Henry to be getting the mail. I'm looking for the croquet matches to be going on in front of the post office."

Portsmouth attracts about 700 visitors a month in warm weather, a figure that has steadily risen over the past few years. Some of the increase is likely due to the growing popularity of Ocracoke as a vacation spot. A ferry service from Ocracoke is the only practical means of transportation to Portsmouth for the majority of visitors.

Heupel thinks some visitors are seeking something besides an afternoon's distraction.

"Lately people are looking for a connection to the simpler times," she says. "This is one of the places to find it."

Portsmouth in pleasant weather does inspire wistful images of an uncomplicated existence. The quaint yellow houses look so cozy, the wide front porches are so inviting, the birdsong on a sweet, salt-scented breeze is so soothing. The church sanctuary is serene and still, a hymn book open on the organ's music stand. Though Portsmouth life had its simple appeals, it also had hardships. Most means of livelihood - fishing, clamming, the rescue service - could be difficult and hazardous work.

As for housekeeping, the kerosene cooking stoves burned hot enough to dictate summer kitchens that were separated from the main houses. Screened dairy houses were the only form of refrigeration. Electricity via generators came late to Portsmouth and only to a few homes. There were gardens and livestock to tend, clothes and fishing nets to make and mend, and weather to contend with. Winter winds can be bitter and relentless. Hurricanes and nor'easters periodically flood the village. The ferocious storms are blamed for some of the exodus from Portsmouth. A 1913 hurricane destroyed the island's two churches. The Methodist church, rebuilt the following year, was left leaning after a 1944 storm that also sent water swirling nearly a foot deep into Portsmouth living rooms. The church leans less since the park service recently straightened and stabilized the foundation.

Though less dramatic than hurricanes, the daily assault of salt air, sun, and wind takes a heavy toll on the aging buildings. Portsmouth's main ally in the battle against decay is Dave Frum, who spends three days a week in Portsmouth as maintenance man for Cape Lookout National Seashore.

"I'll never work myself out of a job," he says cheerfully. He is perhaps the epitome of job satisfaction. He fell instantly in love with Portsmouth on his first visit long before he went to work there eight years ago. Every day he spends intensifies his affection.

"This is the prettiest place in the world," he says. "Every day is an adventure." He patrols the lanes in an all-terrain vehicle, tools at hand. He stops to hammer a board on the side of the church, where nails have crumbled to rust. "This is historic preservation," he says.

On another front, he combats fast-growing vegetation, kept at bay by roaming livestock in Portsmouth's earlier days. Frum recently has cleared much underbrush, restoring the view that islanders once enjoyed. The clearing also reduces the scourge of mosquitoes long synonymous with Portsmouth. Every island stoop used to bristle in summer with leafy switches to brush away the bugs.

Frum commutes a half-hour by boat from Ocracoke every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Winter on the water is sometimes so harsh it mandates survival gear. He doesn't mind.

"When I leave on Wednesday," he says, "I can't wait until I come back on Monday."

He ponders for a moment why Portsmouth has such a pull on him, and on others. "I have the feeling there's the spirit of 200 years here," he finally says. "It feels so calm in a busy world."

Cape Lookout National Seashore enlists help from other quarters in keeping the structures intact. Several homes are leased to individuals to use as vacation retreats. Besides a few thousand dollars per year in rent, the long-term agreements require leaseholders to maintain and improve the buildings. The Friends of Portsmouth Island also works with the park service to preserve village buildings. The group plans to restore the church windows. The park service recently rehabilitated the exterior of the post office; the friends group will refurbish the interior.

The Friends of Portsmouth Island coalesced about a decade ago, says current president Chester Lynn of Ocracoke. Membership is estimated at 300. Several of Portsmouth's former residents belong. Other members, like Lynn, are kin to Portsmouth families. The remainder have no connection except a fondness for the place and a fascination with the way life was.

"A lot of people love the area, love the history," he says. Lynn recalls many childhood trips to Portsmouth. His grandfather was part owner of a mail boat that served Ocracoke and Portsmouth. His great-grandmother, Helen Dixon, was born on Portsmouth. Her December 23, 1889, marriage to James Fulcher of Ocracoke is recorded in the family Bible. "Eight boats returned to Ocracoke, tied together in a wedding chain," Lynn reads from the entry.

Lynn spends his spare time searching for cemeteries and individual gravestones he suspects are still hidden in the thick underbrush.

"The history on those tombstones is priceless," he says.

Besides helping with preservation of the physical Portsmouth, the group aims to sustain the essence of the village by recording the stories of former residents. It hosts a meeting every spring and fall on Ocracoke, and a homecoming on Portsmouth every other year.

Though it has no permanent residents, Portsmouth is occupied by at least one person during the warmer seasons, also intent on preservation. In exchange for a firm commitment of three months of repair and maintenance work, unpaid caretakers get shelter in the lifesaving station's former summer kitchen and an incomparable experience, at least for those who savor solitude and seclusion. Such solitude, tinged with a certain loneliness, is the shadow of Portsmouth's past personality, an atmosphere that still cloaks the island.

Richard Meissner, a retired English teacher from Asheboro, spent a spring of constant captivation at Portsmouth. He recalls a day when he was to meet Frum at the park service dock.

"I went out to the pier to wait for him. I took a book because I didn't know just when he'd be there. I got fascinated with some oyster catchers there by the dock. I don't know how long I waited for him. Thirty minutes? Two hours? I don't have a clue," Meissner says. "I never read a word of my book. That's how it is. There's always something to do. There are birds. There are sunsets. There are stars to look at. "

The present-day Portsmouth is both sweet and sad to people like Jessie Lee Babb Dominique, who remember when friends and family made the silent buildings a community. Though it brings tears to her eyes, she comes to visit as often as she can manage the trip. Much of the journey, as in the past, is by boat. At other times, at her house in Beaufort, she is surrounded by reminders of Portsmouth people held dear - her great aunt's mail-order rocking chair, her mother's sewing machine, a vase that belonged to her friend Miss Hub - and memories of Portsmouth.

"There's never a day that I don't think of home," she says. "It was home, and it is home and it will always be home."

Portsmouth Village is accessible only by boat. Contact Cape Lookout National Seashore, headquartered in Harkers Island, for information on park service concessions that provide ferry services from Ocracoke, or kayak and all-terrain vehicle expeditions. The transportation services charge a fee, but there is no charge to visit Portsmouth.

The Methodist church, a visitors' center in the Dixon-Salter house and the Life Saving Station are the only buildings presently open to the public. The only facilities in Portsmouth are solar toilets. Visitors should dress for the elements, wear sturdy walking shoes, and bring drinking water and other provisions. Sunscreen and insect repellent are also recommended in warm weather.

Reprinted from Coastwatch, a bimonthly magazine of North Carolina Sea Grant. For more information, write Coastwatch, NCSU Box 8605, Raleigh, NC 27695-8605, or check the Sea Grant website: http://ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/

According to the Depression Era WPA book entitled, "North Carolina - A Guide to the Old North State" within the Federal Writers Project named the American Guide Series, first published in 1939 by the University of North Carolina Press - the town of Portsmouth (pop. 104), "is a quiet fishing village that once had visions of becoming a great port. It was settled in the early 1700s and until 1765, when a hurricane destroyed the great wharve that lined the nearby Beacon Island, it was an important discharging and loading point for boats from many countries. Before the War between the States it became the resort of rich planters. Fort Granville, built in 1753, was fired by the Confederates upon the fall of Ocracoke. The Federals maintained a prison and hospital here until after the war, but there are no traces of fort, prison, or hospital. Even the Coast Guard Station, built in the early 1890s had its garrison removed in 1938."
Portsmouth was granted a US Post Office on September 3, 1840, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Rumley. It was in continuous operation until April 11, 1959, when it was closed permanently.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved