From Philadelphia to Ocracoke, 1951
By Philip Howard
April 21, 2014
I first came to Ocracoke Island in 1945. I was almost one
My father was born on the island in 1911. When he was 16
years old he left home. Like most young men of his generation, he moved
to Philadelphia to work on dredges and tugboats on the Delaware River.
Although my father married a girl from Pennsylvania and lived
up north for the next thirty-five years, he brought his family back to the
island every summer.
In the 1940s the road trip from Philadelphia to Ocracoke consumed
After my father came home from work late Friday afternoon,
he and my mother loaded the car. My brother and I sat in the back seat as we
headed south. We drove into Virginia until my father got tired. Then we found a
place to spend the night.
The next day we headed toward Atlantic, North Carolina, on
the shores of Core Sound. In Atlantic we stayed with Julia, a family friend,
and parked our car in her yard. The next day, around noon, Julia drove us to
the docks where we boarded the mailboat Aleta
for the four hour trip into Pamlico Sound and northeast to Ocracoke.
This all changed in 1950. In that year Frazier Peele started
the first car ferry operation across Hatteras Inlet. In 1951 my father decided
we would drive our 1948 Plymouth to Ocracoke. This new route would only take us
two days, but required three ferry crossings.
We left home early Saturday morning and drove south through
the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, arriving at Cape Charles, Virginia by
mid-day for the 85 minute ferry ride across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
The 300 foot long Pocahontas was
capable of carrying between ninety and one hundred automobiles, or a
combination of cars, diesel powered semi-trucks, and other vehicles.
After landing in Virginia Beach we followed the Ocean
Highway around Norfolk, then turned east on less well-traveled roads, toward
the Outer Banks.
My father knew we wouldn’t
arrive at Oregon Inlet before the
departure of the last ferry of the day¸ so we were prepared to
sleep in our car
Saturday night. Mom packed sandwiches and soft drinks, and Dad
fashioned tight-fitting screens for the windows of our Plymouth. We
the screens just before stopping (it was dusk), and not a moment too
the air outside our windows was filled with clouds of voracious
insects hovering just a few inches from us but prevented from reaching
goal by the thin wire mesh.
We had barely finished our repast when headlights approached
from the rear. A vehicle pulled up behind us, and the engine died. We all
peered out the rear window. Three fishermen sat in a surplus WWII Army
Jeep…with no top.
In less than a minute the commotion began. First there were
howls...shrieks...and yelps. Then there was slapping and smacking…jumping and
hopping about…and cussing. In a moment of misplaced altruism my mother
suggested we invite them into our car. Even she immediately realized this was a
foolish idea. My parents, my 15 year old brother and I, along with several
pieces of luggage, left no room for three burly fishermen.
It was painful to listen to their cries of anguish, but
thankfully that did not last long. After a few minutes we heard the fishermen
hurrying away. Their voices faded, and we did not hear them again until the
As we were waiting to board the ferry my father walked back
to speak to the men behind us. “What did you do last night,” he asked. “It had
to have been a miserable time.”
The fishermen explained that they had never experienced
anything as unpleasant in their entire lives. The only recourse they had was to
wade out into Pamlico Sound. When they reached a depth of about three feet they
simply sat down. The water came up to their chins.
“We stayed out there in the sound all night,” one of the men
said. “It was the only way to survive.”
After landing on the south shore of Oregon Inlet we drove 55
miles to the landing for Frazier Peele’s new ferry. Travelers who have crossed
Hatteras Inlet on North Carolina’s state run ferries will have a mental image
of no-nonsense, 150’ long steel vessels capable of carrying 30 or more vehicles.
Frazier’s ferry was different…much different.
By the mid-1950s Frazier Peele had constructed a
wooden four-car ferry that included a pilot house, railings, and a vehicle ramp.
Frazier Peele's mid-1950s Ferry:
Frazier Peele's 1951 vessel was decidedly more primitive. Originally his ferry was simply a shad boat on
which he nailed wide planks to form a platform for one car.
Frazier Peele's First Ferry:
By the next year he
had fastened two boats side by side on which he constructed a wider platform that
could accommodate two cars, sometimes three.
The ferry had no ramp. Frazier simply laid two sturdy planks
from the deck to the ground. after
the first vehicle was safely aboard, Frazier moved the planks to the other side
for the next car. A third vehicle could sometimes be loaded at right angles to
the first two. After managing to get the front tires onto the platform, Frazier
and other men standing nearby lifted up on the rear bumper, swung the car
ninety degrees, and deposited the rear tires on the deck.
Frazier was a large man. In the warmer months he wore just a
t-shirt, bathing trunks, and a large, untrimmed straw hat. He stood, or sat on a
fishbox, with one hand on the tiller. In the other hand he held an unfiltered
cigarette as gasoline fumes wafted from the old Ford engine.
On this particular trip, once out in Pamlico Sound the drivers and passengers migrated to our
side of the vessel to chat with my father. The ferry heeled over, and I glanced
out the side window of our car. There was nothing to see but water. From the
other window I could only see the top of the car beside us…and blue sky. What excitement!
For a child who had just finished first grade, this was a fabulous adventure.
My mama was not as enthusiastic.
We crossed the inlet at low tide. There was no dock
on the north end of Ocracoke. In fact, there was no road on Ocracoke…just miles of sandy beach. At
low tide a standard automobile could usually manage to drive from the inlet to
the village on the hard-packed sand below the high water mark. But, because it
was low tide, the ferry was unable to maneuver very close to the soundside beach.
After anchoring his vessel 100 or so feet offshore, Frazier
positioned the loading planks and directed the disembarkation. My father backed
into the Sound, then drove through six inches of salt water, onto the beach.
Disembarking in the mid-1950s:
It was 14 miles to the village. The three drivers had
conferred on the ferry. If one of the cars managed to get stuck in the sand,
the others would not stop. No reason to have three vehicles mired down in soft
sand, they decided. The goal was to get at least one car into the village. If
the others failed to arrive promptly the Coast Guard would be notified. Then
the “coasties” would drive their all-terrain vehicle down the beach, hoping to
arrive at the scene of the bogged down car before the tide came in.
Driving the Beach:
(The caption reads: "EVERY MAN is a
roadbuilder on the Banks. Here the first car off...the ferry in the
morning blazes a trail across the beach. Others follow in the tracks he
makes. (Photos by Hemmer.)")
Once within sight of the village, another obstacle loomed before us. In the 1950s there was virtually no vegetation between the
eastern edge of Ocracoke village and where the National Park Service campground
is today. This stretch of wide tidal flats was dubbed the Plains. Three miles long,
and a mile wide, the Plains was inundated by seawater during storms and
hurricanes. Other than soft sand, broken seashells, tern nests, and tidal pools,
there were only a few low dunes crowned by hardy and tenacious sea oats.
My father had driven fourteen miles on the hard beach, but because he had learned to drive in
Philadelphia, he was uncomfortable driving in very soft sand. He was wary of
trying to cross the Plains, so he made
arrangements with his boyhood friend, Ansley O’Neal, to meet us at the edge of
My father slid over to the passenger’s side of the front
seat, and Ansley took his position behind the steering wheel. He depressed the
clutch, put the car in gear, and we were off for another adventure. Soon after
Ansley shifted into third gear we were racing along the beach. My six year old
mind was sure we were traveling at least 100 miles per hour. Then we turned, bumped
over the berm of the beach, and went flying across the Plains.
Small tidal pools, nascent dunes, shells, and ocean debris
that has washed ashore created an obstacle course for Ansley. He was having
difficulty negotiating a clear path. Suddenly he opened the door, and stood up,
keeping his right foot mashed down on the accelerator. His left arm rested on
the opened door; his right hand gripped the steering wheel. Peering over the
hood, Ansley piloted our Plymouth on a zigzag trajectory across the Plains,
kicking up sand and shells in our wake.
For a few moments I was part of a thrilling scene. I
imagined we were fugitives, bank robbers or gangsters, fleeing federal agents
as the car fishtailed back and forth, and bullets from automatic weapons
The adventure came to an end as the car plowed through the soft
sand, and gradually lost momentum. In short order, however, we arrived at a
hard-packed sandy lane at the edge of the village. Ansley stopped the car,
stepped out, chatted with my father for a few minutes, and walked home. We
proceeded to the School Road, and turned down a narrow lane next to Aunt
Tressie’s house, scattering clucking and squawking chickens along the way.
Grandmama Aliph was expecting us. She had already killed,
plucked, and cleaned a chicken. As we unpacked and carried our luggage into
the cottage¸ she put the chicken in a pan and placed it on the wood stove. In
short order we were sitting at the rustic wooden table enjoying fried chicken,
sweet potatoes and collards.
Thus began one of many magical summer vacations on Ocracoke Island for a young
boy in the middle of the twentieth century.