The Ocracoke – Washington Freighters: The Last of an Era of Maritime Commerce
(Reprinted from the Newsletter of the Historic Port of Washington Project, November 15, 2020, by Blount Rumley)

Since the first colonists came to occupy the Outer Banks of North Carolina there was the need to supply those islands with the items necessary to support a community; material that the community could not generate for itself. In return, the banks inhabitants sold wares of the sea, operated trading ports, and later furnished a place to relax from mainland life.

Nearby coastal mainland towns were the logical link to the Outer Banks, as they had the needed transportation and service connections to other parts of the country. Washington, North Carolina, was the primary connector to Ocracoke, and there was a strong commercial and social relationship between them.

Individuals and commercial entities from opposite ends of the trading route operated vessels to carry goods back and forth. Another class of vessels transported passengers, mail, and small items, but addressed here are the boats that moved heavier materials and larger shipments. There were many vessels over the years; for example, Annie Wahab, Nellie, Mary S, Preston, Relief, and the ones below, that made the run in the twentieth century, the last of an era.

Russel L

Owned by Capt. Ike O’Neal, she was a Bug-Eye, which carried Leg-O-Mutton sails. A gas engine was installed at a later date. On one trip she sailed from Ocracoke to Washington in a record 5 ½ hours, logging 12 knots. The motorized Bessie Virginia was never able to beat that time. She was the last sailing vessel on the run. She went aground near Ocracoke after a storm about 1922.

(The photo above is of a Bug-Eye similar to the Russel L.)

On one trip to Ocracoke a goat on board ate much of the jib, which was not being used at the time. The boat could not return to Washington on schedule until the jib had been repaired.


The vessel William G. Dryden, operated by Capt. Jesse Garrish, was similar to the Bessie Virginia but a little smaller, and was used on the Ocracoke-Washington run. She also ran from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter for a while. She was the first diesel-powered boat on the Washington route.

(The photo above is the William G. Dryden, mid-Pamlico Sound, 1922.)

Lindsay C. Warren

The Warren was an ex-military patrol boat converted as a freight-passenger boat. On January 26, 1950 the captain, Glenn Willis of Beaufort, was shot and killed in Washington by a crew member. That ended the approximately one-year life of that run.

Maw Paw

The Maw Paw, owned by Kim Saunders of Washington, was in service for a short while after World War II. She was an ex-military aircraft rescue boat. Kim replaced the faster-running (possibly Packard) gasoline engines with more fuel-efficient diesels.

Bessie Virginia

The m/v Bessie Virginia was built in Crisfield, MD about 1910 of California Red Heart Pine, with 3-inch thick planking. Her length was 64 feet, 11 inches, with a beam of 18 feet. Her draft was 5 feet, with a cruising speed of 10 knots. She had a Cummins diesel when purchased, and that was replaced by a Gray diesel in Swan Quarter. She was purchased in 1949 or 1950 by Capt. Van Henry O’Neal, and his father, Capt. Walter C. O’Neal of Ocracoke. The first mate from 1949 to 1961 was Powers Garrish. Her average trip time loaded was 7 hours, 15 minutes, but on one trip with a good tide she made it in 6 hours, 55 minutes (The above is a quote from Van Henry O’Neal).

(The photo above is the Bessie Virginia on the Pamlico Marine Company railway in 1950, Capt. Van Henry O’Neal beside her. (Pamlico Marine Company was on the later site of the North Carolina Estuarium).)

In addition to passengers, she carried practically anything that would physically make the trip. Henry Rumley helped back a house trailer broadside across the deck at Washington. In a very precise maneuver, Van Henry managed to guide it through the railroad bridge, and it seesawed its way to Ocracoke.

Note the Ocracoke photo showing the fuel drums that most always surrounded the pilothouse. Soft drinks always were loaded aboard, as were groceries from the local wholesale grocers. She carried medicines, clothing, building supplies, motor vehicles, passengers, livestock and anything else that would fit aboard. Van Henry could often be seen visiting Washington shops with a list of needed items from the Ocracokers.

On reverse trips to Washington she transported full loads of seafood destined for individuals and wholesalers.

When the state was paving the first roads on Ocracoke, the Bessie Virginia brought in from Norfolk all the concrete for the job; 17,600 one hundred pound bags. It took a few trips to Norfolk to do it. (Quote from Van Henry, 1992)

During World War II, the navy hauled in their own concrete to build the road from the navy base to the ammunition dump.

(The photo above is the Bessie Virginia at the Naval Base (later park service) dock at Ocracoke.)

By 1961 the state ferries, bridges, and Highway 12 had been dramatically improved, and with it came the inevitable decrease in the need for the coastal freight vessels. In February, 1961 the Bessie Virginia reduced its Washington run to every two weeks. On May 25, 1961 Van Henry sold the Bessie Virginia and discontinued the service to Washington. Van Henry delivered the vessel to its buyer in Norfolk, Virginia. His son, Ronnie Van went with him, and Ronnie Van joined the coast guard the next day.

That ended an era that began at least 180 years earlier.


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
  • 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)

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.