Kenneth Burke in his book, The History of Portsmouth, North Carolina From Its Founding in 1753 to Its Evacuation in the Face of Federal Forces in 1861, writes "[i]f there is one word which can explain the development of Portsmouth, it is the word 'lightering.'"
Too far from any centers of population, Portsmouth was not destined to
become a major port. However, its location was perfect for the
establishment of a lightering enterprise at Ocracoke Inlet, a crucial
For approximately one hundred years, beginning in the mid 1700s, most ships bound for mainland ports in North Carolina had to pass through Ocracoke Inlet. Treacherous shoals and shallow water over the swash (a channel of water over a sandbank) prevented larger vessels from passing through the inlet unless portions of their cargo had been transferred to smaller, lighter, shallow draft vessels.
By 1860 the population of Portsmouth village had peaked at 685 inhabitants. After the Civil War steamships and railroads quickly replaced sailing vessels for transporting goods along the eastern seaboard, and Portsmouth's population steadily declined. Today Portsmouth has no permanent residents.
Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is an account of the recent skirmishes
islanders have had with North Carolina legislatures over the issue of
ferry tolls...and a 1955 newspaper editorial advocating free,
state-operated ferries across Hatteras Inlet. You can read it here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news082113.htm.