PO Box 248
May 25, 2007
Getting to Ocracoke in the 1940s and early 1950s was an exciting
adventure. This was before the road to Hatteras was built, and before the
state of North Carolina established their free state-run ferry system. At
that time Ocracoke's main link to the mainland was the privately owned and
operated mail boat, Aleta, which made one daily round-trip between the
island and Atlantic, North Carolina. The Aleta left Ocracoke at 6:30 every
morning and arrived back at its home port about 4:30 in the evening.
Below is an article written in 1951. It provides a rare glimpse into a
typical trip across Pamlico Sound on the Aleta. Enjoy.
The Aleta Carries Anything
by Woodrow Price, The News & Observer, August 12, 1951
Ocracoke -- The gods could have found no better an introduction to this
island, where Time sits beneath a live oak fanning himself lazily and frowning
darkly upon any speed exceeding 20 miles an hour, than the mail boat Aleta.
For the Aleta, rolling easily over the wavelets of Core and Pamlico sounds at
a jaunty eight to 10 miles an hour, provides the perfect transition from the
automobiles, the trains and the airplanes of the rushing, workaday world, to the
peace and the quiet of Ocracoke.
Daily Round Trip
Like the island from which she sets out determinedly each morning and to
which she returns gaily each afternoon, the Aleta offers a blithe stumbling
block to the mile-a-minute living of the 20th Century. Speed has no place
in the scheme of things on the island, nor in the placid existence of the Aleta.
Fast living is left behind when you park your car in Atlantic and prepare to
climb aboard the little Aleta, a stubby 42-footer whose 40-horse diesel carries
her over the 30-mile route in three and a half hours.
Once the Aleta made it in three hours and five minutes, but speak of this in
whispers only. A brisk tail wind over which the Aleta had no control
pushed the little craft rudely along and therefore must bear the blame for that
But if speed and some other appurtenances of present day civilization are
parked with the car in Atlantic they will scarcely be missed. By the time
the hurrying businessman has geared his tempo to that of the Aleta, he has
fallen into the proper stride of living on the Outer Banks. And it is an
abundant life, rich in the friendliness of the coastland.
To tell the truth, the Aleta is bigger than she looks, or than the records
show. She must be, for mountains of baggage, mail and freight disappear
into her hold every day to emerge later when she pulls into port here.
When the Bessie Virginia, a freight boat which normally plies between here and
Washington, N.C., once a week, is out of commission, the mountains are even
taller than usual, for then the Aleta becomes the principal supply line for most
of the stores here. Bread and ice cream are a regular part of the cargo,
Mailboat Aleta leaving port loaded with passengers
(Photo courtesy Earl O'Neal, Jr.)
On weekends, when the passenger list is long, the baggage piles up, too. Besides the normal complement of baggage, every vacationist on board
brings a good supply of fishing tackle, for Ocracoke has a well-earned
reputation as a fine sports fishing center.
There are rumors that way back before its present owners took over the Aleta,
she once carried 90 passengers. But the maximum now is 60, and when the
load limit is approached, the Aleta literally overflows with people. Early
arrivals find comfortable cushions in the cabin or on the upper deck underneath
the green canvas awning made into a cover resembling an abbreviated hood for a
prairie schooner. Latecomers find seats on fish boxes thoughtfully placed
on the top deck, or they sit up forward on the roof over the engine and freight
A favorite spot on the calmer days is the curved wooden seat on the
stern. But this is only a few inches above the water when the Aleta is
carrying a full load, and in choppy weather passengers studiously avoid the
stern seat. Sometimes, they have found, a thoughtless wave climbs too high
and slaps down wetly on a pants leg.
The Aleta was designed for a mail boat run. She was built in Atlantic
28 years ago by Ambrose Fulcher for Howard Nelson, who named the craft for his
sister, now Mrs. Brooks Ball of Cherry Point. Nelson ran the Aleta between
Atlantic and Morehead City until the highway was extended into Atlantic and mail
and freight began moving by truck and bus.
For the past 13 years, the Aleta has been on the Atlantic-Ocracoke run, first
under the command of Wilbur Nelson for six years. Seven year ago, the
Aleta changed hands, however, and Elmo Fulcher and George O'Neal, both of
Ocracoke, have owned and operated the mail boat since. They alternate in
making the mail run, Fulcher, taking over one week, and O'Neal the next.
On off weeks, Fulcher goes shrimping and O'Neal works around his home or goes
flounder gigging. Roy Parsons is the Aleta's first and only mate.
Misses Few Trips
Crew and passengers share a common love for the Outer Banks way of life, so
the crossing from Atlantic to Ocracoke always is a pleasant journey, even though
the sound may become a trifle roiled or ;an occasional rain squall may be
encountered. It seldom is too rough to hold the Aleta back. Bad
weather causes her to miss two, maybe three, trips in a year's ;time, but her
schedule is the most certain thing in the island's existence. She leaves
at 6:15 a.m., arrives in Atlantic between 9 and 9:30; departs from there at 1
p.m., and sometime around 4:30 can be seen coming through the "ditch"
into Silver Lake and her resting spot at the end of the pier in front of the
On the way, her passengers sleep, read, gossip or just sit and enjoy the
scenery. maybe some over-eager fisherman will go to the stern and let out
a handline in hope of catching a bluefish. Some folks break out a lunch
and eat it. And there is singing, if a leader can be found.
For years, the Aleta and her predecessors -- the Bessie M, the Ocracoke and
the "M" City -- dropped off mail at Cedar Island for Lola and Roe, two
small villages on the Carteret shore -- but last year, when the highway was
extended from Atlantic, trucks took over that duty. Now the Aleta's only
stop on her 30-mile journey is just off Portsmouth, a few miles south of
here. Since there is no channel into Portsmouth deep enough for the Aleta,
a skiff comes out to meet her, exchange sacks of mail and take off passengers.
From Portsmouth it is only a few minutes' run into Ocracoke, and the Aleta
breezes along as though she scents the nearness of home. When she arrives,
virtually the entire village -- plus summer visitors -- is on hand to welcome
her. For the Aleta is the island's most solid link with the outside world,
and therefore something deserving of special treatment.
Mailboat Aleta docking, greeted by local residents:
(Click on photo to view larger image. Photo courtesy Earl O'Neal, Jr.)