Chapter 6: The Government Presence: Revenue Cutters, Lighthouses, Life-Savers, Coast Guardsmen, New Dealers and Others
Since the eighteenth century, the barrier island and border region characteristics of the Outer Banks have made the area a prime site of many varieties of government presence and activity. State and Federal actions, laws, and regulations have partitioned the land, specified its uses, erected buildings, built fences and docks, dredged channels, built harbors, established institutions, employed (and discharged) personnel, and purchased goods and services. In the process, government decisions, actions and agencies have functioned as major shapers of and change factors within the economic, political, and cultural life of the Outer Banks.
In some respects, these dynamics have not been different in kind from those that have occurred in many other places and times. Virtually every city and town has its local, state or Federal agencies, offices, buildings and officials – courts, public records offices, law enforcement agencies, public utilities, and the like. Especially in hard times, the agencies provide critically important employment.
With regard to the southern Banks, however, we suggest that the persistent and highly visible presence of government agencies has imparted to their buildings, activities and landscapes a particular spatially, socially, economically, and culturally organizing character.
To explore this thesis fully would require a comprehensive history of the southern Banks from the mid-eighteenth century onward – a task beyond the scope of this present study. Short of that, however, one can usefully highlight some of the more salient aspects of the particular dynamics that developed and persisted on the southern Banks.
Those dynamics appear to arise from some array of five characteristic factors: relatively low population density; limited local employment opportunities; long-term presence of an agency offering stable, relatively high-status jobs; large iconic buildings; and defined institutional landscapes.
The long-term importance of any particular agency or installation, has depended upon how fully or durably it satisfied these criteria. Some satisfied more than others, or satisfied them longer, or both. Some seemed that they might, but didn’t.
In any case, a long series of entities, events and processes have contributed in varying degrees to this process: the Custom House and the Marine Hospital at Portsmouth (1828), lighthouses and their keepers, the Life-Saving Service (1871), the Coast Guard (1915), several wars, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and the coming of two National Seashores administered by the National Park Service.1
The effects of these entities and events have been varied, broad and (sometimes) deep. Within the built environment, they have inscribed their presence upon the land – some permanently (like the lighthouses), some vestigial (like an abandoned cistern left from a long vanished building), and some now buried beneath the sands or washed out to sea (like Colonial-era forts or World War II gun emplacements). Technologies have been introduced and replaced or withdrawn – water vessel forms and designs, lighthouse lanterns, communications systems, gasoline engines, life-saving devices. Jobs have come and gone, raising and lowering the contribution of public funds to local economies. Social and professional networks have formed and dissolved, and communities have arisen and collapsed.
In this chapter we explore – suggestively rather than exhaustively – some of these entities and dynamics as they impinge upon the identification, maintenance, and interpretation of historic resources at Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Portsmouth Custom House, Marine Hospital and Weather Station
The town of Portsmouth, on the south side of Ocracoke Inlet, was established in 1753; sale of lots began three years later. Since it was to be more than ninety years before Hatteras Inlet opened, Ocracoke Inlet provided primary access to Pamlico Sound, and over the next several decades Portsmouth developed into an important port town.2
In her 1982 historic resource study of Portsmouth, Olson pointed out that “the need for a revenue officer at Ocracoke Inlet” was recognized nearly twenty-five years before Portsmouth itself was established, but no official action was taken until 1764, almost a decade after the town got its first residents. Further legislation passed in 1770 established the inspection point for Ocracoke Inlet at Portsmouth. The Ocracoke customs house was established in 1806, when Shell Castle was flourishing and Ocracoke became an official port of entry.
A Federal revenue cutter was assigned to the port in 1813. At times, the volume of traffic necessitated two cutters. Portsmouth resident John Mayo (formerly John Wallace’s right hand man at Shell Castle) captained one of them for twenty years, and five members of the Wallace family took their turns as well. Additionally, revenue cutter captains usually served as collectors or deputy collectors at the custom house. By 1836, more than 1,100 vessels were passing through the inlet annually, requiring the services of more than ninety local vessels for lightering; six years later, the number of vessels had grown to 1400.3
Thus it appears that the main economic impact of the customs installation derived from what we would now call economic multiplier effects: direct employment as customs officers, purchase of goods, contracting of pilots and lightering boats and crews, and development of port-associated businesses and services. And in a relatively small town (165 white persons and 98 slaves in 1800; 25 heads of families) in which eighty percent of the working population was involved in commercial activities related to the sea, such activities bulked large. Olson notes that over a sixty-year period, five men worked as collectors of customs, two men were working on customs vessels in 1850, and three in 1860.4
The only other significant institution established in Portsmouth before the closing years of the nineteenth century was the Marine Hospital, opened in 1828. It was one of a series of such hospitals authorized as early as 1798 to provide care for sick and injured merchant seamen.5 Dr. John W. Potts, the first physician employed to operate the hospital, rented a small (less than 400 square foot) windowless and unplastered house of perhaps five rooms. Potts left before his two-year contract was up, and was replaced by New Hampshire-born Dr. Samuel Dudley, who remained in Portsmouth for more than thirty years and became a wealthy man. The initial hospital staff included Dr. Dudley, his nurse, and three slaves. Although Dudley’s medical qualifications were suspect and his dilatory and erratic behavior called forth numerous public complaints, he continued to serve (off and on) as late as 1844.
The need for additional hospital space led to the temporary use of a former U.S. government boathouse, but repeated entreaties from local customs officials spoke of the urgent need for better facilities. In June 1842, the Commerce Committee of the U. S. House of Representatives reported that ships’ captains, fearful of having their vessels quarantined at other ports, were dumping seamen suffering from contagious diseases at Ocracoke Inlet, where they were crowded into small makeshift quarters without proper care.6
In 1842, Federal funds were appropriated for a new hospital building.
Land was bought three years later, and the 50 x 90 foot, two-story, twelve-room, cypress-shingled building (approximately ten times as large as the original one) opened in 1847.
Constructed of pitch pine and featuring specially designed glass windows, seven fireplaces and piazzas on two sides, the new hospital was the best-built and most imposing building that had ever been built in Portsmouth. Its twelve rooms – plastered, whitewashed, and fitted with green Venetian blinds – were divided into four wards, surgeon’s quarters, servants’ rooms, and cooking facilities. Furnishings and medical supplies were procured from New York merchants. The hospital also boasted what were perhaps the first cisterns ever to be built in Portsmouth (wooden ones located at each end of the building); a large brick cistern added in 1853 to replace the by then deteriorated wooden ones, brought water directly into the kitchen.7 [ILLUSTRATION: Marine hospital cistern DW photo 20080315.JPG. CAPTION: Fig. 6-1: Brick cistern, Marine Hospital, Portsmouth, 2008. Photo by David E. Whisnant.]
By 1857, the hospital had twelve employees. The number of patients fluctuated from none to as many as 288 (both local people and seamen) before the Civil War. During the war it served as a military hospital under the control of the Federal Medical Service.8
Portsmouth Weather Station
After the Civil War, the U.S. Army Signal Corps began to establish weather stations along the Atlantic coast. In 1876, one was installed in two rooms of the Marine Hospital at Portsmouth, but it was short-lived. It closed in 1883, reopened for a few months in early 1885, and then closed permanently as increasing vessel size rendered Ocracoke Inlet less and less navigable.9 For most of the time, it was manned by only one person who at times had a single assistant. Interactions with townspeople appear to have been strained and infrequent. An 1880 inspection report noted that the keeper of the station spent most of his time in study and considered local residents “an ignorant class of people . . . [who] take no interest in the service, further than to make what they can from it.”10