On a recent ferry ride back home to Ocracoke after a trip “up the beach” to Nags Head, my daughter Amy, our friend Jenifer Kidwell, Lachlan, and I were relaxing and catching up on some reading. Jen was reading Carl Goerch’s 1956 book, Ocracoke. In one chapter Goerch lists twenty-eight things “you won’t find on Ocracoke.” Here is the list:

  • Policeman
  • Traffic light
  • Elevator
  • Pool hall
  • Brick building
  • Chain store
  • Hospital
  • Parking meters
  • Golf course
  • Lawyer
  • Doctor
  • Furniture Store
  • Drug Store
  • Printer
  • Florist
  • Billboard
  • Sidewalk
  • Bakery
  • Bank
  • Beer parlor
  • Jail
  • Book store
  • Bowling alley
  • Dancing school
  • Dentist
  • Diaper Service
  • Funeral home
  • Hardware store

After reading the list out loud we decided to identify things from that list that we now have on Ocracoke. They are:

  • Policeman (deputy sheriffs)
  • Elevator (there is an elevator in the Anchorage Inn, and a few in private homes)
  • Brick building (the Bluff Shoal Motel and Captain’s Cargo [the former post office] were the first brick buildings on the island)
  • Lawyer (I believe there is only one practicing resident lawyer on the island)
  • Doctor (and a Health Clinic)
  • Sidewalk (that narrow concrete pavement along Irvin Garrish Highway around the harbor)
  • Bank
  • Beer parlor (several, to be sure!)
  • Jail (used mostly for folks who have spent too much time in the beer parlors!)
  • Book store (thanks to Leslie Lanier at Books to be Red)
  • Hardware Store (this business is a franchise of True Value located in the Variety Store; the gas station is a franchise of Exxon; and Kitty Hawk Kites is a local area franchise…so one might argue that we have one or more “chain stores,” but I don’t think this is what Goerch meant by “chain store.”

Then we did some brain-storming and came up with a list of things Ocacoke has had in the past (any time from the 1700s until recently) but that we no longer have. Here is that list (in no particular order):

  • Movie theaters (one, the “Ocean Wave” built in 1914 near the present-day Harborside Gift Shop; and another in the Wahab Village Hotel [now Blackbeard’s Lodge] in the 1940s through the early 1960s)
  • Roller Skating Rink (also located in the Wahab Village Hotel)
  • Appliance Store (near the Harborside Motel, run by Sid Tolson in the 1950s)
  • Ice Plant (located where Kitty Hawk Kites is today)
  • US Coast Guard Station (we still have a Coast Guard presence, but no active station)
  • Saturday night square dances (nowadays only held on special occasions)
  • Mounted Boy Scout troop
  • Furniture store (one of the original businesses located in the Variety Store building)
  • Barber Shops (although today we have a hair salon, formerly there were “barber shops” with real barber poles; one was located at the Community Store, another “down point” on Loop Road
  • Dive shop (located in Oyster Creek development)
  • Clam canning factory (Doxee’s, ca. 1897-ca. 1912, on the SW shore of Silver Lake harbor)
  • Victorian Hotel (the Ponder Hotel, 1885-1900, located where the NCCAT [former USCG Station] building is now)
  • Railway (a length of track from the Ponder (or Ponzer) hotel to the beach, laid to accommodate a horse-drawn tram)
  • Florist (at one time we had two!)
  • Bakery
  • Laundromat
  • Pony Penning (a July 4th tradition for many years)
  • Year-around passenger ferry (various mailboats, including the Aleta and the Dolphin), although a high-speed passenger ferry now operates from Hatteras during the summer season.
  • Artists Colony (see https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/ocracokes-artists-colony/)
  • Free-ranging cows, sheep, and goats
  • Residents who have never been off the island
  • Wind mills (in the mid- to late-1800s there were at least four windmills on the island)
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The United States Life Saving Service was established in 1871 to come to the aid of stricken and shipwrecked sailing vessels and mariners. The Service continued until 1915 when it was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the United States Coast Guard. During the USLSS’s 44-year history, a network of more than 270 stations were established on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf Coast, and the Great Lakes.

Seal of the USLSS
Seal of the USLSS

By the end of its tenure, the men of the United States Life Saving Service had come to the aid of more than 28,000 vessels in distress and saved the lives of more than 178,000 sailors and passengers.

In North Carolina the service began with the construction of seven stations in 1874: Jones Hill, Caffeys Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Chicamacomico, and Little Kinnakeet.. Eventually, twenty-nine stations dotted the coast of the Tar Heel State.

The first station on Ocracoke Island was the Cedar Hammock (or Hatteras Inlet) Station, commissioned in 1883. The Cape Lookout Station, where one of the most remarkable and heroic rescues in the annals of the USLSS occurred in 1905, was established in 1888.

Cape Lookout Lifesaving Service Station H H Brimley Collection
Cape Lookout Lifesaving Service Station H H Brimley Collection

In February of 1905 an influenza epidemic ravaged eastern North Carolina. Nearly all of the Cape Lookout station’s nine-man crew were either ill with the flu or recovering but still weak and incapacitated. In spite of the illness, Keeper William H. Gaskill insisted that normal watches be kept in the station’s cupola.

At noon on February 10, 1905, Keeper Gaskill mounted the ladder to the cupola to relieve the surfman who had been on duty for two hours. Keeper Gaskill’s initial view of the ocean was obscured by dense fog, but soon a rift in the fog allowed Gaskill a clear image of the topmost spars of a sailing vessel. His experienced eye convinced him that the vessel was aground on Cape Lookout shoals.

Keeper Gaskill immediately descended the ladder and alerted his ill and fatigued crew. He then ordered them to prepare to launch the rescue surfboat.

Once at the edge of the ocean, the surfmen pushed their heavy boat through the surf as waves broke over the bow. Eight lifesavers then clamored into the boat and began pulling at the oars, with Keeper Gaskill at the tiller.

Surfboat Launch
Surfboat Launch

They knew it would be nine arduous miles from the station to the Cape. Finally, late in the afternoon, they arrived to see the Sarah D. J. Rawson, a 386-ton, three-masted schooner which had been carrying a full load of lumber from Georgetown, SC to New York, awash on the shoals. The vessel had wrecked the day before, on Thursday, February 9 at 5:30 pm.

In the twenty-fours since she had wrecked, powerful waves swept over the vessel, carrying away her cargo of lumber, her deck house, and one unfortunate sailor who disappeared in the raging surf. In the ensuing hours the Rawson continued to break apart as her masts split and the deck was reduced to splinters. The six remaining mariners clung desperately to the remains of the stricken schooner as it deteriorated.

When the lifesavers arrived at the wreck late in the afternoon, they discovered the Rawson lying in “a seething mass of breakers” surrounded by floating lumber, broken masts, rigging, sails, sections of the deck and hull, and other debris. Keeper Gaskill reported that his surfboat was in danger of pitching end over end in the choppy water.

The lifesavers attempted to reach the exhausted mariners, but were continually repulsed by the floating wreckage which threatened to punch holes in the side of their small craft. Finally, as night began to fall, Keeper Gaskill realized there was nothing more they could do, and ordered his surfboat to back away from the wreck. The lifesavers spent the night nearby in their open boat with nothing more than water for nourishment, and only their oilskins for protection from the frigid night air.

At daybreak the lifesavers returned to the wreck, only to discover the situation virtually identical to the day before. However, Keeper Gaskill, an eastern North Carolina native familiar with the ocean currents, expected the approaching change of tide to help moderate conditions. By late morning the waters laid down sufficiently for the lifesavers to maneuver their surfboat close enough to the Rawson so they could throw a heaving stick (a wooden stick about 12″ long attached to a lightweight hemp line, and with a monkey’s fist knot on the other end).

On catching the heaving stick, one of the Rawson’s mariners tied the line around his waist and jumped into the water; the surfmen pulled him to the safety of their boat. Five more times this procedure was repeated. Eventually all six soaked sailors were brought aboard the surfboat. Without regard to their own discomfort, the lifesavers removed their oilskins and wrapped them around the sailors’ shivering bodies. Now with about one thousand extra pounds of weight, the lifesavers began the long journey back to their station.

Finally, in late afternoon, Keeper Gaskill and his crew brought the Rawson’s six sailors safely to shore. The lifesavers, exhausted and still feeling the effects of the flu, had rowed eighteen miles and had spent twenty-eight hours, in February, in an open boat to save the lives of six people they had never met.

As recognition of their bravery and dedication to duty, Keeper William Gaskill and his surfmen, Kilby Guthrie, Walter M. Yeomans, Tyre Moore, John A. Guthrie, James W. Fulcher, John E. Kirkman, Calupt T. Jarvis, and Joseph L. Lewis, were awarded the Gold Life-Saving medals “for heroic daring” in the rescue of the crew of the Sarah D.J. Rawson.

Gold Life Saving Medal
Gold Life Saving Medal

This story is remarkable, but only one of more than 28,000 rescues performed by the men of the United States Life Saving Service.

 

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Ocracoke did not get official street names until 1999. Street signs appeared in 2005. For most of Ocracoke’s history islanders simply used landmarks or residents’ names to designate particular streets, or to give directions.

In the early 1980s a generous island widow, Myrtle Doolittle, donated a parcel of land to her beloved Methodist minister and his wife who were being transferred to a congregation on the mainland. I was asked to design a small compact house they could use as a vacation get-away. A local carpenter and various friends volunteered to build the cottage.

One afternoon, as I was digging a hole for one of the house’s pilings, I cut through an underground telephone cable.

For years local resident Randall Mathews was the island’s one and only telephone repairman. It was common practice to simply call Randall about any telephone problems or issues, and he would promptly make the repair. However, shortly before this incident the telephone company had established a company-wide 800 number to call for all customer repair issues.

I called the number and quickly realized the service representative was not from eastern North Carolina, and had never heard of Ocracoke. I discovered she was located in Kansas. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello, I am calling to report a severed telephone cable.

Her: Yes sir, can you tell me where you are located?

Me: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

Her: And where exactly is the severed cable?

Me: Well, it is about halfway between Myrtle Doolittle’s house and the new cottage we are building for the Methodist minister.

Her: Sir, can you please give me the street address?

Me: I am sorry, but we don’t have street addresses.

Her: You don’t have street addresses? How will I know where to send the repairman?

Me: Randall will know where this is.

Her: Who is Randall?

Me: Randall is our telephone repairman.

Her: But I still need to know what to tell him

Me: Please tell Randall to go behind Myrtle’s house, and walk toward the road where Mrs. Padgett lives. He will see the lot where we are building a small cottage for the Methodist minister. Actually, I found a concrete turtle on Myrtle’s porch steps. I carried it over to the construction site and set it down so it is pointing directly at the hole I was digging when I cut the telephone cable. He will have no problem finding the severed cable if he just looks for the concrete turtle.

Her: (There was a lengthy silece before she replied.) Uhh,…OK….I’ll pass this message on to the repairman. Thank you very much.

Several days later I saw Randall at the Post Office. “Did you get the telephone cable repaired,” I asked him.

“Oh my gosh,” he said, “that woman in Kansas was so befuddled. All she could say was that some man called to say that ‘Myrtle Somebody’ had a turtle that was stuck in concrete and that somehow the turtle had cut a telephone cable. I think she thought you might have been calling from an insane asylum.”

We had a good laugh, and Randall told me he had found the severed cable and made the repair.

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