PORTSMOUTH, N.C. -- This clapboard ghost town in the sand never mastered the tides that lapped at its prosperity for centuries. So when an 1847 hurricane set in motion the silting of its inlet from the sea, the port of 1,000 people was doomed, even if the last resident didn't pack up and leave until 1971.
But perhaps the storm was a blessing in disguise.
Spared from the latter day onslaughts of tourism and development, empty little Portsmouth now stands to outlive the other scattered towns of the Outer Banks, at least in terms of peace, charm and natural beauty. Left alone with a few park rangers and the occasional boatload of visitors, it has become the coastline's anti-resort, tucked at the southern tip of a strand otherwise burgeoning with highway traffic and hamlets of new beach houses.
The only things rising from Portsmouth's landscape are stands of live oak and yaupon holly, or the waving grasses of the salt marsh, where brown tidal creeks eddy with crabs and schooling fish, and where, alas, when the wind is right and the air warm, the skies are commanded by squadrons of mosquitoes and biting green horseflies.
A look into the past
Then there is the village itself -- a church, a post office, a one-room schoolhouse and a dozen or so homes -- still standing as if everyone had walked down to the beach for a swim and never came back.
Next door to the church, step onto the front porch of the home of Alma Dixon and Marion Babb -- they were the last two residents to depart, in '71 -- and peek through the wavy glass of the living room window. The place looks as if they might walk in the door at any moment. A marine radio, the closest thing to a telephone this town ever had, hangs from a wall behind an easy chair. The couch looks comfy, cushions plumped, ready for an afternoon nap. There are throw rugs and knitted afghans, side tables and wall-mounted gas lamps. (Portsmouth never had electricity. The refrigerators and ovens ran on gas as well.)
There's a similar scene a few hundred yards away, along Doctor's Creek, where the home of Henry Pigott, the town's last male resident, sits by a small dock, gleaming with a fresh coat of yellow paint.
These seeming time capsules are being refurbished by outsiders under "historic leaseback" arrangements with the National Parks Service, which presides over the island as part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The winning bidders in the program agree to furnish the homes and fix them up under strict guidelines for historic preservation. In exchange, they get to stay in the homes on weekends or for a few weeks at a time. No one is allowed to become a permanent resident.
The Dixon-Salter House, which for the moment serves as the town's visitors center, will soon be turned over to a private renter. When that happens, the visitors center will move to the old post office and the island's one-time rescue station.
For now the house is crammed with period furniture and chandeliers, and the walls are covered with old photos providing a rough outline of the town's recent history.
Names such as Pigott, Gilgo and Salter predominate in photos of grinning country folk seated on wide front porches -- banjos and guitars in hand, the women in simple print dresses, the men in suspenders. There is a photo from 1915 in which a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, is touring the island from the back of an ox cart. In the '20s, the place attracted the likes of Babe Ruth, who, far from the madding crowd at last, roamed the island with the Salter Gun Club.
The town got its start as a Colonial port, and for a time it was the most important stop on the Outer Banks. As ships got larger and heavier, it became a maritime way station for loads too heavy to cross the bar into the ports of New Bern, Beaufort and Morehead City. Cargo would be reloaded onto lighter ships then sent on its way, and in the early 1840s the place reached its peak population of about 1,000, according to Laurie Heupel, chief naturalist for the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
But the 1847 hurricane, well before such storms got names, opened up a new channel, now known as Oregon Inlet, currently spanned by the long, curling Bonner Bridge a few miles south of Nags Head.
That altered the coastal flow of sand, and the approach to Portsmouth through Ocracoke Inlet began to silt up. (The inlet has its own rich history as the place where the pirate Blackbeard died in battle on the deck of his flagship, although by the 1980s the place was so obscure that author Tom Clancy chose it as the fictional hidey-hole for his runaway Soviet sub, the Red October.)
Descendants of Portsmouth's families still hold a reunion every other year, and for one April weekend of each even-numbered year the town lives again with some 100 celebrants, although the number of actual former residents is down to a handful.
But most of the time the place is the province of shorebirds, crabs and bugs, and about the noisiest it ever gets is when an orange-billed Oystercatcher is roused shrilly from its dimpled sandy nest.
A real getaway
You can reach Portsmouth from two directions. One way is by taking a private ferry (some of which can take four-wheel-drive vehicles) across Core Sound to the south end of the island from the port town of Atlantic. To reach the town, you then have to drive or walk 22 miles up the beach.
The easiest way is to come directly from Ocracoke Island, just to the north. Rudy Austin, one of two Park Service concessionaires, skippers his 30-foot workboat, the Westwind, through a 25-minute ride across the shallows of Ocracoke Inlet, dropping off passengers at a dock built by the Park Service just outside the town. He picks you up at an appointed time later in the day. A second concessionaire from Ocracoke also ferries vehicles, but four-wheel drive is a necessity.
Some travel to the island to camp a few nights, to fish in the surf or to collect shells, taking their pick from the lightning whelks and other magnificent specimens lining the beaches after high tide.
Arrivals are forewarned to bring their own food, water and bug repellent, unless they wish to live like a marooned mariner, stung and starving.
"It can be horrible," Heupel says of the mosquitoes. "I've seen some people run through that village at incredible rates of speed."
But if you're lucky, a northeast wind will be blowing without bringing rain, clearing out the bugs even as it also tends to back up the tides to leave ankle-deep water in some of the yards and sandy lanes.
From the town, it's about 1.2 miles to the nearest beach, and on the way the blue water tower of Ocracoke village comes into view.
Quiet, but popular
Ocracoke has itself been touted for years as a quiet getaway, but mostly by travel writers whose points of reference are either the overrun Nags Head or boutique islands such as Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. But for all its deserted beaches and leather-faced fishermen, Ocracoke's village fairly boils over with people on warm weekends and throughout the summer, and one can be suddenly overwhelmed by the claustrophobic sensation that this place, too, has been spoiled for the ages.
To dispel the feeling, one need only board a boat for Portsmouth. A mere 25 minutes away, tranquillity is still in command.
Pub Date: 7/15/97