Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By



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Ocracoke Inlet

Of the eleven major inlets shown on Dunbar’s historic inlets map at the beginning of this chapter, Ocracoke is the only one within Cape Lookout National Seashore boundaries that has had major commercial importance.53 Significantly, it is also the only one of seven opened (presumably by a hurricane) in 1585 that is still open. Sir Walter Raleigh entered it in that year en route to Roanoke Island. On the Comberford map of 1657, it was highlighted as the major approach for ships headed toward inland rivers.54 It became increasingly important after Currituck, Roanoke, and Old Hatteras inlets closed in the early 1700s, when Ocracoke became the main route of entry from the sea for all of northeastern North Carolina. As early as 1755, one of the royal governors, Arthur Dobbs, recommended that work be undertaken on the inlet. For “moderate expence,” he opined, the passage might be made two or three feet deeper.55

Ehrenhard notes that the inlets most used commercially in the eighteenth century were Ocracoke, Currituck (Old and New), and occasionally Roanoke. Hatteras, he points out, “was never very useful for navigation, may have begun to close about 1738 and was probably completely closed about 1755.” As early as 1728, William Byrd had reported that the opening of New Currituck in 1713 had hastened the demise of Old Currituck Inlet, which closed in 1731. Roanoke Inlet, at the lower end of Albemarle Sound, was well located but too shallow for any but small ships. This left Ocracoke as the most useful during the period.56

Between 1730 and 1800 ships of thirteen or fourteen feet draft could pass through the inlet, but by 1833, ten feet was the maximum.57 One of Ocracoke Inlet’s two channels closed up after 1810.58 Army engineers did some work to improve passage in the 1830s, but abandoned the effort in 1837.59 Nevertheless, as plantations grew, planters depended upon the inlet for getting goods in and out, and early passenger-carrying steamships used it as well. During the year 1836-1837, as has often been noted, some 1400 vessels passed through.60

After a hurricane in 1846 opened new inlets (Oregon and new Hatteras), Ocracoke declined in importance.61 During the Civil War Union troops blocked it with stone-laden vessels, and it never regained its importance after the war ended. In their succinct article for the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, Stick and Angley note usefully that the Corps of Engineers made the first of many studies of possible “improvements” to the inlet in the 1870s. Twenty years later they recommended against working on the inlet, but nevertheless did so in the mid-1890s. The channel reshoaled quickly, however.62

Use of the inlet began to grow somewhat again in the 1930s, and land on both sides of it got some protection when it was acquired in 1953 as a part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Construction of the Bonner Bridge in 1964 introduced “wild changes” to the inlet, which narrowed it from more than 7,700 feet (nearly 1.5 miles) to less than 2,500 (under a half-mile) and made it more difficult to maintain.63


Chapter 4: An Eye for the Possible: Maritime (and Other) Economic Activities on the Southern Banks

Perhaps as early as the 1760s, a windmill for grinding corn may have stood at Portsmouth– maybe the earliest on the Outer Banks, and a small salt works was set up in Carteret County in 1776.1 In other areas of the country, such an image might have promised the coming of industrial development. But that kind of development never happened – either at Portsmouth or anywhere else on the Outer Banks north of Beaufort. Indeed, this lonely early windmill was not even grinding corn grown locally, but rather corn grown on inland farms and gotten in exchange for fish harvested off the coast and out of the sounds.

From the early years of settlement on the Banks, however, there clearly was some hope for commercial development, and a sense of the need for a reliable source of power to support it. Local wind patterns made windmills seem a likely option. Windmills had been known in Europe since at least the twelfth century. The earliest one in the American colonies was built on a Virginia plantation in 1621, but it was more than another century before one appeared in North Carolina. The General Assembly passed an act to give one-half acre of land to anyone who would build a windmill to grind wheat and corn. A 1748 deed locates one in Pasquotank County, and by 1786 the mill in Portsmouth was joined by another in Marshallberg. A decade later one was built in Beaufort, and there were eventually more than sixty-five in the county. [ILLUSTRATION: Nineteenth century windmills map Barfield Seasoned by Salt Map 4, p78. CAPTION: Fig. 4-1: Location of nineteenth century windmills on North Carolina coast. From Barfield, Seasoned By Salt: A Historical Album of the Outer Banks, Map 4, 78] They proliferated especially in the mid-nineteenth century, but declined in use toward the end of the century as central station power and steam-, kerosene-, gasoline- or diesel-driven engines or generators appeared.2 [ILLUSTRATION: Fig. 4-2: Windmill on Harkers Island ca 1904 NCC Series P1 ref image fp1-16.4. CAPTION: Windmill on Harkers Island, ca. 1904. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]

The rise and decline of windmills on the southern Outer Banks – picturesque and widespread as they came to be – betokened what turned out to be a disappointing fact: the area has never been a site of major, organized, large-scale economic activity that sustained itself over a long period of time. It did not offer the large and stable parcels of land, the labor supply or the developable natural resources (soils, mineable mineral deposits or damable rivers, for example) upon which such activity is characteristically built.

Consequently, the economic activity that has been in evidence has tended to be episodic and opportunistic – dependent upon the availability at some historical moment of an exploitable resource (whales, for example, or a certain species of fish) together with an attractive external market (for whale oil or waterfowl or bird feathers, say). On occasions when those two crucial conditions have come into alignment, an industry has arisen and flourished. But when one or the other of the conditions wanes or fails, it has declined or disappeared. Indeed, as early as 1771, a concern about sustainable supply was already being expressed in a bill submitted to the North Carolina General Assembly “to prevent the untimely destruction of fish in Core sound.”3

To understand the history of maritime and other economic activity on the southern Banks and their adjacent waters is thus a very different task from understanding the textile, furniture or tobacco industries of the North Carolina piedmont – all of which were both larger and more stable over a longer time, however vulnerable they ultimately proved to be. For the Outer Banks, therefore, one must instead map a historical sequence of activities that have appeared and disappeared, each of them marshalling an essentially time-limited resource, adaptively reorganizing and redeploying the skills and energies of a limited labor pool, and linked to an essentially fickle or fragile market.

This chapter offers a chronicle of these activities.4 Since they usually did not follow each other in a neat sequence, our accounts necessarily overlap chronologically, though we highlight connections where they existed.



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