Monday, February 19, 2018

Capt. Zora Gaskins

The following article appeared in The Tar Heel (Elizabeth City), Friday, February 18, 1910:

"NOTHING HEARD YET OF CAPTAIN GASKINS - Great uneasiness is experienced by the family of Captain Zora Gakins at his prolonged delay in reaching Wilmington, NC from Baltimore with the schooner George I. Phillips, laden with fertilizer.

"Captain Gaskins cleared 3 weeks ago, and since the date of his clearance nothing has been seen or heard of him or his vessel. It was reported several days ago that his vessel was sighted burning at seas, but this report was an error, since the burning vessel proved to be the J.S. Hopkins, whose crew was rescued by a Danish ship.

"Shipbrokers in Baltimore are of the opinion that Captain Gaskins has been blown offshore by the heavy winds and will eventually arrive in port safe and sound. They express no uneasiness at his long delay in arriving at his destination. Captain Gaskins' friends at Hatteras feel confident that he will eventually show up as his vessel is an able one and Captain Gaskins is an experienced seaman. A number of his friends in this city do not feel so hopeful of his safety and they greatly fear that the captain and his crew are lost."

When I first read this article I wondered if I would ever discover what happened to Capt. Gaskins, his crew, and their vessel. Look for a follow-up post tomorrow. 

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:    

Friday, February 16, 2018


Modern tourism on Ocracoke Island is a consequence of several factors:
  • Electrification of Ocracoke Village in 1938
  • Paving of the first roads in 1942, then again in the early 1950s
  • Establishment of ferry service in 1950
  • Various other developments including telephone service, a municipal water system, and internet access. 
However, people have been visiting Ocracoke for rest, health, and relaxation since soon after the establishment of a settlement on the island in the early-mid 1700s. Jonathan Price wrote this about Ocracoke 1795!: "[T]his healthy spot is in autumn the resort of many of the inhabitants of the main[land]."

In the nineteenth century well-to-do North Carolinians ventured to Ocracoke aboard steamships. They stayed at the large Victorian hotel in the village.

The Ponzer, or Ponder, Hotel ca. 1890

After the hotel burned down in 1900 hunters and anglers continued to visit Ocracoke Island, especially in the fall and winter months. Eventually many of them brought their families to the island in the summer. By the mid-twentieth century a tourist economy was well on its way to becoming the predominant economic force on Ocracoke.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Life Saving

For the last several days I have been writing about island occupations (inlet pilots, mariners, and fishermen). Another prominent occupation for Ocracoke men was surfman in the United States Life-Saving Service.

The Life-Saving Service was officially established in 1871. As a section of the Department of Treasury the USLSS exclusively targeted the systematic rescue of shipwreck victims. The first establishment of the Life-Saving Service occurred in North Carolina in 1874 when seven stations were built on the northern barrier islands.

The first station was built on Ocracoke Island, near Hatteras Inlet, in 1883. Capt. James Howard was the keeper.

Hatteras Inlet USLSS, Ocracoke

The original crew consisted of six surfmen who took turns scanning the ocean from the station's cupola during daylight hours, and patrolling the beach on foot during the night. Eventually, because of the great distance on Ocracoke, surfmen were permitted to patrol on horseback.

Earl O'Neal lists the following surfmen who were serving in 1900 (for more information see

  • George Lafayette Fulcher, Jr.- B. 04-19-1844 D. 09-30-1908 
  • George Lafayette Fulcher III - B. 1871 D. Unknown 
  • Robert W. Gaskill - B. 12-14-1846 D. 11-09-1918 
  • James Wheeler Howard Sr. - B. 12-04-1874 D. 11-02-1940 
  • Charlie S. McWilliams - B. 1871 D. Unknown (He became Portsmouth Island Station Keeper on October 8, 1903.) 
  • George W. Simpson Sr. - B. 12-08-1842 D. 07-25-1912 James Hatton Wahab - B. 01-31-1861 D. 08-08-1913 David Williams - B. 03-27-1858 D. 04-05-1938
In 1904 a second Life-Saving Station was built in Ocracoke village. Capt. David Williams was keeper. 

Over the years, the brave men of the Ocracoke Life-Saving Service saved the lives of many seafarers, sometimes in dramatic and life-threatening conditions. To read more click here:

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Visitors to the Outer Banks (and even residents) often refer to Ocracoke as a "traditional fishing village." Surprisingly, this was not generally true for the first 150 years of the island's settlement. Our posts for the last two days explored the island's primary early occupations, piloting and seafaring.

Following are the number of fishermen listed in the census records on Ocracoke for the years 1850 - 1880:
  • 1850............5 fishermen living on Ocracoke
  • 1860............1 fisherman living on Ocracoke
  • 1870..........16 fishermen living on Ocracoke
  • 1880..........32 fishermen living on Ocracoke
The figures for 1850 and 1860 are explained by our previous two posts: piloting and seafaring were the primary island occupations during those periods. Without ice to preserve fish, or gas boats to carry fish to mainland markets, large scale commercial fishing was simply not practical. Of course, small scale fishing to supply local markets and family, friends, and neighbors was a long tradition on the island.

But what accounts for the increase in fishermen in 1870 and 1880? The short answer is oysters. In 1858 the North Carolina state assembly, responding to an increase in harvesting oysters on a commercial level, passed a law establishing a procedure to create private oyster beds in coastal Carolina waters. Oyster harvesting became such an important economic enterprise in Pamlico Sound that it led to what became known as the 1890 "Ocracoke Oyster War" (see our account here).

The number of watermen remained steady for several decades. Census records for 1890 have not survived, but 35 fishermen are listed in the 1900 census. Again, harvesting shellfish accounts for this number.  In 1897 James Harvey Doxsee moved his commercial clam canning operation from New York to Ocracoke Island.  Local watermen were now harvesting clams.

In 1938 Ocracoke village was electrified, and an ice plant was established. At about the same time islanders began converting their sail skiffs to gas boats. Commercial fishing blossomed. Today Ocracoke is home to two fish houses and several dozen full- or part-time commercial fishermen and fisherwomen.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries seafaring was an enticement for young island men. For many years square-rigged sailing vessels carried trade goods from England to the North Carolina mainland, and coastal schooners plied the waters between Nova Scotia and the West Indies, often stopping at Ocracoke. In 1840 more than 1400 sailing ships were recorded as having passed through Ocracoke Inlet. Several schooners were even built on Ocracoke. It is not surprising that a number of islanders shipped out to sail before the mast.

After Hatteras Inlet opened in 1846, almost all of Ocracoke's inlet pilots eventually moved there (see yesterday's post). The men who remained on Ocracoke generally followed the seafaring tradition. The following table, culled from census records, reveals the growing role seafaring played in island history:
  • 1850..........10 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
  • 1860..........18 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
  • 1870..........21 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
  • 1880..........66 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
The story of commercial fishing on Ocracoke is a bit more complicated. Tomorrow's post explores that tradition.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Monday, February 12, 2018


For most of Ocracoke's history, trade and commerce were the driving economic forces that shaped its inhabitants. In 1715 the North Carolina General Assembly passed an act to settle pilots on Ocracoke Island. Inlet pilots, individuals who knew the local waters, were necessary to help ship captains, who were carrying trade goods between mainland North Carolina and England and other colonies, navigate the often treacherous inlet between Ocracoke and Portsmouth.

In 1795 Jonathan Price produced a detailed map of Occacock (Ocracoke) Inlet, accompanied by a description of the area. Referring to the village and its surroundings, Price wrote, “ three miles [in length], and its breadth two and one half. Small live oak and cedar grow abundantly over it, and it contains several swamps and rich marshes, which might be cultivated to great advantage; but its inhabitants, depending on another element for their support, suffer the earth to remain in its natural state. They are all pilots; and their number of head of families is about thirty. [my emphasis]”

In 1846 a violent hurricane opened Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet. As it turned out, Hatteras Inlet was more navigable than Ocracoke Inlet, and ship traffic quickly moved there. The pilots soon followed. 

Census records do not list occupations until 1850, but a conservative estimate is that 35 - 50 pilots were living on Ocracoke before Hatteras Inlet opened. The following table shows clearly how times changed during the next decades: 
  • 1850 (4 years after Hatteras Inlet opened)........27 pilots are living on Ocracoke 
  • 1860.........................................................................13 pilots are living on Ocracoke
  • 1870...........................................................................4 pilots are living on Ocracoke
  • 1880...........................................................................1 pilot is living on Ocracoke
In tomorrow's post I will discuss seafaring, the occupation that mostly supplanted piloting in the late 19th century. Following that post I will write about fishing as an island enterprise.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Friday, February 09, 2018

Capt. Joseph Burrus

Yesterday I wrote about the big freeze of 1917-1918, and Capt. Joseph Burrus. Capt. Burrus, a prominent island resident, died in 1951. This obituary ran in the Coastland Times:

Capt. Joseph Burrus

Ocracoke – Capt. Joseph Merritt Burrus, veteran lighthouse keeper, age 76, died Tuesday [July 17, 1951] at his home here. Funeral service was held Friday morning with Rev. W. Y. Stewart officiating and with the local Coast Guard as pall bearers.

Capt. Burrus was a native of Hatteras, son of a sea captain. He enlisted in the lighthouse service in his early twenties and served forty-five years in North Carolina or Virginia lighthouses, among them Tangier Island, Thimble Shoals, Cape Lookout, Croatan, Oliver’s Reef, Bluff Shoals, and Ocracoke He was well known to everyone during the last sixteen years of his service at the historic Ocracoke lighthouse, retiring from duty here in 1947.

He is survived by his wife, Elanor Oden Burrus, one son, Oscar Burrus of Norfolk, six daughters, Mrs. C. L. Thorpe of Hawthorne, California, Mrs. Victor Grigas of Worcester, Mass., Mrs. Raymond Beasley of Portsmouth, Va., Mrs. Monford Garrish, Mrs. Sybil Simpson, Mrs. Herman Spencer, all of Ocracoke, and fourteen grandchildren.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:  

Thursday, February 08, 2018

A Cold Winter

The bitter cold of this winter brings to mind stories of the severe winter of one hundred years ago. At that time much of Pamlico Sound was frozen solid. Following is a reprint of a blog post I wrote several  years ago.

In 1917-118 Capt. Joe Burrus (he built the building that is now "Oscar's House B & B" on NC 12) was stationed on the screw-pile lighthouse at Bluff Shoal, about seven and one half miles from Ocracoke.  According to old timers the cold lasted so long that for several weeks no supply boats could reach the light station on Bluff Shoal.

Eventually Captain Joe ventured out onto the ice and walked quite a distance.  Whether he was attempting to walk all the way to dry land, or just trying to relieve the boredom, is uncertain.  At any rate he turned back and remained at the lighthouse until the weather broke and food and supplies were finally delivered to him. 

Capt. Joe Burrus

 When the supply boat finally made contact with Captain Joe the seaman reported that the lighthouse keeper had run out of food.  Of much more concern to Captain Burrus, however, was the fact that he had used up his supply of chewing tobacco.  Maybe that's what he was after when he stepped out onto the ice that cold winter day. We’re told he had resorted to chewing boat caulking before the supply boat arrived.

For more stories of the Big Freeze of 1917-1918 follow this link to a superb story in Our State magazine by Bryan Mims:

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:  

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Original Lighthouses

Visitors to the Outer Banks may not realize that the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the picturesque Ocracoke Lighthouse are not the original beacons. 

On July 10, 1794, Congress appropriated $44,000 "for erecting a lighthouse on the head land of Cape Hatteras...." The original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was constructed in 1802. It was made of unpainted sandstone, and stood 112 feet above sea level.

Engraving in NC State Archives

In 1868 Congress appropriated $80,000 to build the current tower, which was lit in 1871. The new lighthouse, with its black and white candy-stripe pattern, stands 200 feet above the sea, and is the tallest brick lighthouse in the world. The original structure was demolished in 1872.

The 1794 legislation also called for "...a lighted beacon on Shell Castle Island, in the harbor of Ocracoke in the State of North Carolina."

Image from early 1800s Ceramic Pitcher

In 1798 a 55' tall wooden pyramid-shaped tower, covered with shingles, was built on "Shell Castle Rock," a 25 acre island of oyster shells just inside Ocracoke Inlet. At the time this was considered the "harbor of Ocracock" since "Cockle Creek" [later renamed "Silver Lake" after it was dredged] was merely a wide, shallow tidal creek. Ocracoke's current lighthouse was built in 1823, and is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Digby the Only Dog

[This is a reprint of a 2011 post.]

If you've been to Ocracoke you probably know that there are many cats on the island. We also have quite a few dogs, but half a century ago dogs were rare on Ocracoke.

I remember my Aunt Tressie expressing her fear and concern when we brought our dog, Ginger, to the island. Aunt Tressie, like most islanders had free-range chickens, and she was worried that Ginger would chase and kill them. Keep in mind that most people's food came from the sound, their gardens, and their chickens. They could not afford to lose their primary source of few people had dogs.

In 1955 Ruth & Latrobe Carroll, from Asheville, NC, wrote and illustrated a wonderful book about Ocracoke. Digby the Only Dog begins, "Once there was an island. And on that island there were ponies and cattle and ducks and chickens and geese and people and many many many cats. But there was only one dog. His name was Digby."

The illustrations show Howard Street, the docks, mailboat, Methodist church, schoolhouse, lighthouse, and various homes. Unfortunately, Digby is out of print. But here are photos of the front and back covers. Maybe you will find a copy one day at a yard sale. If so, buy it and treasure it. You won't be disappointed.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Monday, February 05, 2018


According to Wikipedia, "Quarantine law began in Colonial America in 1663, when in an attempt to curb an outbreak of smallpox, the city of New York established a quarantine.... The Philadelphia Lazaretto was the first quarantine hospital in the United States, built in 1799.... During the 1918 flu pandemic, people were also quarantined. Most commonly suspect cases of infectious diseases are requested to voluntarily quarantine themselves, and Federal and local quarantine statutes only have been uncommonly invoked since then, including for a suspected smallpox case in 1963...."

The first designated hospital in North Carolina was built in 1846-1847 on Portsmouth Island. Although not a designated quarantine facility, it often fulfilled that purpose.

Architect's Sketch of the Porstmouth Hospital

As Dr. Martin Rozear wrote in 1991, "The [19th century] lightering and coasting trade [in North Carolina] brought another element to this busy, lucrative scene; sick seamen. They came from abroad, as well as from interior towns, with scurvy, smallpox, dysentery, fractures, infected wounds, venereal disease, insanity, yellow fever, ague, and miasmas. (They rarely lived long enough to have strokes, heart attacks, and cancer.)

"Being unfit for duty (many posed potential quarantine problems for their ships at the next port of call), these sick sailors were 'dumped' on the island more or less to fend for themselves. Generally poor, filthy, and graceless, they made a sorry sight and were a major problem for the islanders. Care, such as it was for these wretches, was provided in homes, haphazardly. There was no physician within 40 miles of Portsmouth until 1828."

Thus it was that Portsmouth Island acquired a Marine Hospital in 1846-1847. The building burned to the ground in 1894.

Ocracoke Island experienced at least one episode of quarantine, as evidenced by this sentence in The Croatan Courier, February 10, 1939, about a Mr. Chambers who worked for the North Carolina Beach Erosion Control Project: "Well, it seems that the quarantine has been lifted somewhat at Ocracoke...[and] Chambers is making his trips as usual (of course his trips weren't interrupted by a little outreak of the measles and a few restrictions)."

This must have been a quarantine authorized by the national government since the quarantine system was fully nationalized by 1921 when administration of the last local quarantine station was transferred to the U.S. government (

I am not aware of any later quarantines on Ocracoke Island.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:  

Friday, February 02, 2018

Island Hospitality

Yesterday I mentioned the work of the North Carolina Erosion Control Project in the 1930s. In their internal publication, The Croatan Courier, of February 10, 1939, I found this bit of Ocracoke News:

"A. C. Stratton, Project Superintendent, and an official party including new Regional Director [Minor R.] Tillotson, arrived at Ocracoke by plane Saturday morning on an inspection tour of work being accomplished on this island by our Unit. After a brief inspection the party took off for Hatteras where they made an inspection of that area....

"Albert Styron, local merchant, Joe Gaskill and Ben Williams, all of Ocracoke, gave the boys of Camp an oyster roast last Sunday afternoon which was enjoyed by all. Captain Dick O'Neal assumed duties as 'official roaster' and was so successful he saw six bushels of oyster consumed."

Modern-day Oyster Roast, Photo: Ocracoke Observer

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:  

Thursday, February 01, 2018

CCC, WPA & Erosion Control

The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, established in 1933) and the WPA (Works Progress Administration, established in 1935) were efforts by the US Congress to employ as many people as possible during the Great Depression on projects that would provide long-term benefits to local communities. 

CCC camps were established at Rodanthe, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke after the great hurricane of August 22 & 23, 1933. The Ocracoke camp, constructed from lumber salvaged from the wreck of the three-masted schooner, Nomis, in 1935, was located near where the pony pasture is today. Programs on Ocracoke included digging mosquito control ditches, building bridges, planting trees, and constructing man-made dunes.

OPS Photo

According to Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Interpretive Themes of History and Heritage, "on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, WPA projects included public works (e.g. road maintenance, mosquito-ditch digging, tree and bush planting), as well as food distribution (tubs of butter, beans, and barrels of potatoes were provided to islanders) and a textile center.... [Ocracoke native] Nat Jackson recalled the WPA men digging ditches, and Fanny Pearl Fulcher remembered a textile center set up at the Ocracoke School for island women."

Also on the Outer Banks, the North Carolina Beach Erosion Control Project was established under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. A report in 1938 noted that "on Ocracoke we have encountered some of the most difficult problems of the entire project.... During very high Ocean tides the water flows over [low, sandy flats] in several places...." A proposal was made to dredge "a large dyke around the Sound side of these flats, connecting the dyke with a series of higher dunes....Approval was given but no funds were available."

Lack of funds may have been the result of local opposition to this project which was seen as creating an enclosed "basin" that could trap tide water, rather than allowing it to wash over the island.

Nevertheless, the project continued with "planting grass and some barrier dune building along the middle of the island." Eighteen miles of "sand fence" and more than 9,000,000 square feet of sea oats were requested for the project.

The erosion control project spurred interest in a national seashore. On Aug. 17, 1937, an act of Congress authorized the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Later changed to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area, the park was officially established as the first national seashore on January 12, 1953, and dedicated on April 24, 1958.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here: