Monday, October 29, 2018

Portsmouth Village & Lightering

Until Hatteras Inlet opened (in 1846) Ocracoke Inlet was a busy passage for ships sailing to and from mainland North Carolina ports. However, many ships were too large and drew too much water to safely navigate shallow portions of Pamlico Sound. In 1753 Portsmouth, on the south side of the inlet, was established as a "lightering" village. Cargo was transferred from larger ships to smaller, lighter boats for transport to the mainland.

Lightering, NPS Illustration

 By the 1770s Portsmouth was one of the busiest and largest communities on the North Carolina coast. In 1840 more than 1,400 sailing vessels passed through Ocracoke Inlet. But the opening of the more navigable Hatteras Inlet in 1846 was the beginning of steady decline for Portsmouth. Subsequent storms as well as the disruption from the Civil War and the growing importance of railroads (which led to the decline of coastal shipping) eventually led to the total abandonment of Portsmouth village. The last residents left the island in 1971.

You can read more about Portsmouth here:

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is Lachlan Howard's essay about the Fresnel Lens and its use in theater, solar ovens, cameras, and industry, as well as lighthouse illumination. You can read it here:


  1. I've visited Portsmouth several times and know the general history. Prior to the last residents leaving in 1971 were there automoibles there?

    Do Park Rangers ever stay there during a hurricane or do they evacuate to Ocracoke or the mainland?

  2. Jason, for decades fishermen brought old jalopies to Portsmouth Island. Many of them barely ran...and if they gave out they were simply abandoned where they quit. By the mid 1970s there were about 1,500 abandoned automobiles on Core Banks. The NPS eventually got rid of the rusting hulks. It was not an easy task. You can read more here:

    No Park Rangers live on Portsmouth. In the summer months there are volunteers who live in the village. I'm sure they leave at the first sign of an impending hurricane.

  3. Thanks for the link! I remember the first time I visited Portsmouth in the summer. We met a park ranger that was wearing long pants, and a coat in the middle of July. The mosquitos there are awful. Even with bug spray they are relentless.

  4. Anonymous4:26 PM

    By any chance do you know when the last business left?

    1. I believe the Post Office/General Store was built about 1900. By 1956 the only item that could be purchased was a postage stamp. The PO closed in 1959.