Thursday, September 12, 2013


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 transportation juncture.

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:


  1. Anonymous9:53 AM

    Are you saying Porstmouth was a storage unit center? What an undertaking -- I am trying to picture a draft vessel with its temporary holdings-- for how long? is the draft vessel holding more them one ship's off loaded cargo?, does it anchor off shore until the larger ship returns to the area,--- there is either a great deal of trust or are the draft vessels rented out and the larger vessels crew boards the draft vessel to maintain security once the cargo has been loaded? Were the services provided by independent contractors or was this enterprise a shipping company's draft vessel fleet? what a set up was shipping cargo a seasonal enterprise ? The prevailing winds are predictable are they not? thanks for considering some of these questions

    1. I do not know the answers to all of your questions...and I do not understand some of them. Let's try one question at a time, and I'll see if I can provide answers.

      Here is an attempt at one of the questions: The lightering vessel would take cargo from one larger draft ship to carry it across the bar, through the channel, and/or across the sound to mainland ports. I hope this helps.

    2. Anonymous9:37 AM

      "...shoals...prevented larger vessels from passing through --Unless--- portions of their cargo( of the larger ship) had been transferred to smaller lighter vessels..." so I thought the larger ships off loaded cargo that was not going inland and smaller vessels "stored" it once the big ship sailed through the inlet then returned to Portsmouth through the inlet to get to the waiting draft vessel -- thus to reload the what was off loaded cargo --the cargo in the "storage unit draft vessel to reload!! LOL So the cargo was prevented --- to allow the cargo to go through, the necessary cargo was off loaded to a draft vessel then the draft vessel would sail through with the necessary cargo to be shipped inland. Sorry, I read too much into "unless" the cargo--- sandbar er sidebar, I had just seen my neighbor move, the boxes sat in the driveway and no activity --I asked my friend why aren't they loading your boxes--- those aren't mine. they had to unload a S.C. shipment before they could load his household items which were destined to New York. Good grief, what an undertaking in the August heat of Fla.

    3. I think you've got it!

  2. Anonymous10:58 AM


    I am glad to see you are gleaning information from your investment in the Burke book. Hope you find it to be worthwhile. I only skimmed the opening pages of the copy I discovered in the home we rented on the island, but it seemed to be quite interesting.

    Happy reading--as always.

  3. Anonymous1:08 PM

    On the subject of cargo transfer -- Today's headlins--- A molasses spill in Hawaiian waters stay out of the water a killing field of dead fish Shark alert DD