Portsmouth Island Homecoming, 2008

Honoring the Life Savers

On Saturday, April 19, more than 400 people gathered on Portsmouth Island, just across the inlet from Ocracoke. The occasion was the biennial Homecoming event sponsored by Friends of Portsmouth Island and the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Portsmouth Village, as seen from the Tower of the Life Saving Station:

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

No one has lived permanently on Portsmouth Island since the very early 1970s.  Henry Pigott, the island’s last male resident, died in 1971. Shortly thereafter the island’s remaining two residents, Marian Babb and Elma Dixon, moved to the mainland. Without paved roads, electricity, municipal water, or ferry service, Portsmouth was abandoned.

Eighteen years later the organization Friends of Portsmouth Island was formed.  Since that time an impressive amount of restoration and other work has been done on extant public buildings and private homes that remain in this  “village forgotten by time.”  This year the focus of the day was on the historic Life Saving Station and the many heroic men who served there from 1895 until 1937, and for two additional years when the station was reactivated during World War II to protect our shores from attack.

Boats to Portsmouth left the National Park Service docks on Ocracoke starting at 7:30 a.m. and continued to run into the late morning.

Captain Eric Ferrying Folks to Portsmouth:

Captain Eric

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

Along the sandy path into the village volunteers had tables set up to register everyone who had ever lived on the island or whose family had, or whose ancestors had served in the Life Saving Station.

Typical Island Home:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Once on the island, visitors could stop by the old post office to mail letters with a special postmark honoring the day.

Portsmouth Post Office:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Ocracoke’s post office staff was there, behind the simple wooden counter, stamping letters and post cards, while folks perused the shelves stocked with merchandise typical of the years when the small building also served as a general store.

Inside the Portsmouth Post Office:

Mailing a Letter

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

From 9 o’clock until 10 o’clock visitors gathered in the lawn of the Dixon-Salter home (now the Visitors Center) to listen to stories told by descendants of island residents.

Dixon-Salter Home:

Storytelling at Portsmouth Island

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

At 9:30 some folks filed into the pews of the Methodist Church for an old time hymn sing.

Portsmouth Methodist Church:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Classic hymns such as What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I Need Thee Every Hour, and In the Garden echoed through the historic structure bringing life back into a church that has not had a full-time preacher for almost a century, nor a congregation since 1971.

Inside the Church:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Throughout the day there was opportunity to stroll through the village and admire the now empty homes and other structures that were alive with residents several generations ago.

Recently Restored Island Home:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Portsmouth Schoolhouse (note the round wooden cistern):

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Henry Pigott’s House:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Another View of Henry’s House:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

The central program of the day convened under an expansive canvas tent at 10:30.  After recognizing Portsmouth families and guests, Frances Eubanks, granddaughter of a prominent island couple, read a history of Portsmouth. Afterwards, Connie Mason sang one of her original tunes, “Marian’s Song,” to celebrate life as it once was on this remote outpost.  At the conclusion of the song James Carter, a cousin of Henry Pigott, read a passage of scripture from Henry’s Bible.

LCDR David Obermeir, representing the US Coast Guard, delivered brief remarks before Ed Burgess, President of Friends of Portsmouth, asked all present to join him in a moment of silence to honor the families of Portsmouth, members of the US Life Saving Service, and the US Coast Guard.

Portsmouth Life Saving Station:

Life Saving Station

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

Stairway in the Station:

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

Sleeping Quarters:

Sleeping Quarters

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

His Great-great Grandfather’s Bunk &Trunk?:

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

Special music and a closing prayer by Ocracoke’s Methodist minister, Joyce Reynolds, ended the program, or at least the formal presentations.  But a special treat awaited.  Everyone moved closer to the now unused grass landing strip for a demonstration of an historic rescue operation by Coast Guard personnel and the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station Historical Association from Hatteras Island.

Life Saving Drill Begins:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)

Readying the Beach Cart:

Readying the Beach Cart

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

The Lyle Gun:

The Lyle Gun

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

Firing the Shot Line:

Firing the Lyle Gun

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

The Breeches Buoy:

The Breaches Buoy

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

After the demonstration folks lined up under a tent for a delicious pot luck dinner on the grounds.  There were copious amounts of shrimp, chicken, ham, potato salad, deviled eggs, beans, and much more, as well as all manner of sweets and fancy desserts.

There was also ample time to enjoy the simple pleasures of Portsmouth Island, such as a walk through one of the sandy paths that meander through cedar, pine, and live oak.

A Quiet Stroll:

Strolling Down a Quiet Lane

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

As the festivities wound down, hugs, handshakes, tears, and heartfelt goodbyes prevailed as old friends, distant family members, and new acquaintances bid each other adieu.  All agreed that the weather was superb (bright sunshine, gentle breezes, and warm sunshine prevailed)…and that the mosquitoes were exceptionally considerate (most declined to join in the festivities!).  By late in the afternoon everyone (with the exception of a handful of hearty folks) had been transported back to Ocracoke or to the mainland.

Ready to Leave:

Waiting for a Boat

(Photo by Amy Howard.)

Special thanks to the Friends of Portsmouth Island for the following histories:

Portsmouth 255 Years

To protect Ocracoke Inlet and at the same time provide suitable facilities for the hundreds of vessels using it as a port of entry, the North Carolina Colonial Assembly in 1753 passed an act “laying out a Town on Core Banks, near Ocracoke Inlet, in Carteret County, and for appointing Commissioners for completing the fort at or near the same place.”

Under the terms of this act Joseph Bell of Carteret County, John Williams and Joseph Leech of New Bern, Michael Coutanch of Bath Town, and John Campbell of Edenton were named commissioners “with full power and authority to lay out fifty acres of land on core Banks, most convenient to the said harbour, adjoining the said Banks for a town, by the name of Portsmouth, with lots of half an acre each, with convenient streets, as they may think requisite.”

Because “the said Town will be a Maratime Town far distant from the bulk of Inhabitants of this Province, and liable to the Depredations of an Enemy in Time of War, and Insults from Pirates and other rude People in Time of Peace,” the 2,000 pounds previously authorized for a fort to guard Ocracoke Inlet was to be turned over to the new commissioners for the construction of a fortification to be known as Fort Granville.

Thus Portsmouth was founded over 255 years ago.  Though it has endured wars, hard economic times, and storms, Portsmouth continues to live as a village and as a memory in hearts and minds — a memory of hand working people and of a less complicated time when one could care for families and neighbors.  These Homecomings allow the renewal of friendships and reestablishment of roots in this wonderful village of memories.

Portsmouth Life-Saving Station

Congress authorized a Life-Saving Station at Portsmouth, North Carolina in 1888; but for unknown reasons, development of the station did not begin for five more years.  The site of the station was chosen by the District superintendent of construction Captain C.A. Abbey, civil engineer Paul Bausch, and a committee that included the Keeper of the Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station William H. Gaskill, all of whom visited the site sometime between June 8 and June 11, 1893.

In a letter to the General superintendent dated July 3, 1894, Abbey reported that the Portsmouth station had been completed on June 28, 1894.  The first Keeper, F.F. Terrell, was on duty at the end of September 1894; but without a crew.  The first full entries in the Station’s log book do not appear until November 3, 1894, when Keeper Terrell listed what was apparently a temporary crew of six.  The first permanent crew signed articles of agreement for service on March 11, 1895.

The station was decommissioned on June 1, 1937.  After Pearl Harbor, Portsmouth was reactivated to meet the war-time need for coastal observation.  In 1942 or 1943 the station was remodeled and for two years during the war, the beaches of Portsmouth were patrolled by coast Guardsmen on horseback.

In 1945, the Coast Guard permanently closed the station.  In the early 1950s, the Brant Rock Rod and Gun Club acquired the old station for a private club house.  They created a landing strip for planes and occupied the building on a seasonal basis until it was incorporated into Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1977.

The design and plan for the Portsmouth Life-Saving Station followed with some variation, those developed by Life-Saving Service architect George R. Tolman in 1891 for a station at Quonochontaug near Charleston, Rhode Island.  This design was used for construction of some twenty Life-Saving stations in the 1890s.  Over half of these have been destroyed and all others with the exception of the Portsmouth station have had major modification.s  The Portsmouth Life-Saving Station is a true historical and architectural jewel that is treasured by the citizens of North Carolina and the United States.

Click here to read more about Portsmouth Island & to see more photos.

Click here to join Friends of Portsmouth Island!

Portsmouth Church & Marsh:

(Photo by Jim Fineman.)