The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

February 27, 2013

The eerie quietness of a once thriving island

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 — Portsmouth where?

Maine? Virginia?

Like many North Carolinians, my friend had not heard of Portsmouth, N.C. He was resisting my push to visit Portsmouth in connection with a planned trip to Ocracoke Island to participate in a program for public school teachers organized by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, known as NCCAT.

Take out a state road map, I said, and look for an island just south of Ocracoke. You will see Portsmouth Island, and on it is marked the town of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth is just a small village with a few old buildings: houses, a store, post office, church, a former lifesaving station and a graveyard.

But no living people.

By the 1970s only three people remained on the island and they are long since gone.

The buildings, maintained by the National Park Service, stand as reminders of what Portsmouth once was: a thriving and important commercial center.

Portsmouth lies to the south of Ocracoke Island, separated by Ocracoke Inlet, which, according to the late Dirk Frankenberg’s recently reissued classic, “The Nature of North Carolina’s Southern Coast,” is “the only inlet on the Outer Banks that has been open continuously throughout recorded history. It was a major entry into North Carolina’s coastal sound and estuaries in colonial times – first for pirates and smugglers” including Blackbeard, who was killed at the inlet in 1718. After the Revolutionary War, “the inlet became important as a transshipment site for materials used for developing the land resources of North Carolina and southern Virginia.”

The village, established in the 1750s, Frankenberg wrote, “played a major role in the maritime commerce of North Carolina for the next century.”

Local pilots were necessary to guide ocean-going boats across the shallow inlet. Later, facilities grew up to accommodate the need to transfer goods between larger ocean-going ships and the smaller boats that delivered cargo to local ports near the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.

Over time a sand build-up made the Ocracoke Inlet more tortuous, and Frankenberg wrote that it was “quickly abandoned for the clearer channels of Hatteras and Oregon Inlets that were opened by the hurricane of 1846.”

My friend agreed to add Portsmouth to our trip. Our three-hour ferry ride from Swan Quarter got us to Ocracoke just in time to join NCCAT leader Alton Ballance and his group of teachers on a boat that gave us a long, cold ride across the inlet to Portsmouth with guide Rudy Austin.

Austin told us about each building and the people who worked and lived there. But other than his voice there was no sound. The eerie quietness surprised and then delighted us.

Ballance told us about once spending the night alone in the deserted village, feeling the spirits of the dead and departed villagers and trying to imagine what they were like and how they lived.

Later I remembered how Michael Parker’s book, “The Watery Part of the World,” set out a fictionalized version of the last three people who lived on the island. In Parker’s version, university researchers visited a couple of times each year and asked questions about history and life on the island. They recorded the answers and preserved the distinctive way the threesome spoke. Their answers were not always totally honest, and their brogues became more pronounced for the outsiders they called “the Tape Recorders.”

The history lessons and the spur to imagination that came from our visit to Portsmouth make such a trip easy to recommend, notwithstanding the difficulty in getting there.

But, says guide Rudy Austin, be careful about going in the summertime when mosquitoes and other bugs “will eat you alive.”

 

1
Text Only
Opinion & Letters to the Editor
  • Do White Castle prices tell us anything about the minimum wage?

    NEW YORK - Economists love hamburgers. Specifically fast-food burgers. This is partly because all right-thinking human beings love ground meat on a bun, but it's also because the sandwich makes a handy yardstick for international financial comparisons. The ingredients and labor involved in preparing a Big Mac are pretty much the same no matter where you are in the world, so by looking at how many hours of toiling it takes a worker to earn enough to purchase one, you can get a sense of how wages really stack up across countries. The Economist famously created the Big Mac index in 1986 to see which currencies were overvalued. It started as a joke. Now, as the magazine proudly notes, it's a subject of academic study.

    April 22, 2014

  • Can Hillary Clinton rock the cradle and the world?

    WASHINGTON - What's most interesting to contemplate is the effect becoming a grandmother will have on Hillary's ambition. It's one of life's unfairnesses that a woman's peak career years often coincide with her peak childbearing years.

    April 22, 2014

  • Doug Creamer All in the Family

    We had a family get-together at my brother’s house on Easter Sunday. It’s hard to get our family together because we are spread out, especially when you consider nieces and nephews. My parents and siblings all made the gathering this year. Some of my nieces and nephews are far away, but they all remember gathering at my brother’s house for the holidays. Easter is known for the Jell-O eggs and the famous Easter egg hunt.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 19, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    WASHINGTON - The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 19, 2014

  • taylor.armerding.jpg Obama's equal pay exaggeration leads us all into danger

    The president's claims of national shame over gender-based pay inequity spring from distorted calculations, as well as some convenient political math.

    April 12, 2014 1 Photo

  • Teens trading naked selfies for mugshots

    Will teenagers ever learn? You think yours will. Maybe so. But it's likely that was also the hope of the parents of children who were so shamed by nude photos of themselves that went south - how else can they go - that they killed themselves.

    April 12, 2014

  • Brent Laurenz If you want to vote in primary, you need to register to vote now

    RALEIGH – North Carolina voters will head to the polls on May 6 this year to cast ballots in important primary elections across the state.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Scott Mooneyham Heeding the voter fraud call in N.C.

    RALEIGH – Legislators found the findings outrageous.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Doug Creamer Roots

    I took a few minutes over the weekend to enjoy our yard and the arrival of spring. There seems to be so much work that needs to be done, it is hard to decide what to do first. I am excited that I got to run my tiller through the garden. I didn’t go very deep, but I did at least break up the soil. I have a couple of raised beds and the soil in them was in very good shape. I didn’t plant my peas and now after the big rain we got on Monday I realize that I missed a window of opportunity.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Seasonal Content