The following article (author unknown, but with the explanation,“information and photos supplied by George Tichenor”) is copied from Junior Natural History magazine, February, 1956.


Off the coast of North Carolina is Ocracoke Island; a spot rich in history, heroism and legend. It is a sixteen-mile strip of the Carolina Outer Banks. Pamlico Sound separates it from the mainland. The Inland Waterway between New York and Florida down which so many small craft sail makes it an anchorage. A quarter-mile oval of blue water gives it a beautiful harbor.

At the southern end of the island is the village of Ocracoke. Here live some five hundred and fifty healthy ruggedly individualistic people – mostly related, descendants of the original seven families who settled the island. Although closely related through marriage, they produce strong stock and live to ripe old age. Nearly every family has a relative in the home of at least seventy-five! All appear healthy. No doctor lives on the island, only a nurse. The sea provides the main diet – fish.

Ocracoke is not a town of comforts and convenient luxuries as most of us know them. There are no sidewalks. No street lights shine on the sandy lanes. There is only one paved road. It was built by the Navy when they occupied the island [during WW II]. It is a mile long and nine feet wide; just wide enough for one car at a time to travel its length.

The island has its cars. Many people own one; but few bother to register it unless it is taken on the mainland. This isn’t due to lack of money, for no one seems poor.

Life in the village of Ocracoke is quiet and free. It is not controlled by a mayor (there is a civic cub instead). It has no jail, no sheriff, no crime —and no problem children. Even the speech of its people is different – so different a native southerner finds it hard to follow! As Mr. Tichenor described it: “the speaker starts with a drawl seems to think better of it and attempts to swallow his words too late!”

Children on Ocracoke live a wonderful life. Although they share from childhood in the work of the adults, they enjoy everything and have a sense of belonging in the scheme of things. Boys of all sizes ride their domesticated horses bareback. Their steeds come from the band of beautiful wild thoroughbred Arabian horses that roam the sand dunes of the island. Occasionally a sale of captured horses is held. Buyers come over from the mainland for the event. Teenage boys often get up at six in the morning and ride herd until perhaps two-thirty in the afternoon to make the sale worth-while.

Ocracoke, 1956
Ocracoke, 1956

Boys and men seem to be the riders; but everyone dances. They do it often and take it seriously. Several nights a week men, women and children gather in the local school house and solemnly feed quarters to a brilliant, garishly-colored juke box.  Then, without a reel caller, they dance their square dances. No one seems to run the affair; no one collects the money; all enjoy themselves in a solemnly-gay sort of way.

The biggest occasion for all on the island is a three-day Fourth-of-July celebration. There are speeches by the local minister, prizes for the winning bathing beauty, rescue drills by the coast guard, penning and roping of “wild bulls.” There are floats and masquerading and drills by the “only mounted boy scout troop in America!” There is even an “imported’ policeman from the mainland to direct traffic – which goes as it wishes anyway!

A great event of each day is the arrival of two boats from the mainland. The one reaching the northern tip of the island [Frazier Peele’s four-car private ferry] brings passengers, trucks and private cars. Often passengers disembark in six inches or so of sea water and wade to drier sands. They then have sixteen miles of shore line to travel to reach the village. Driving or walking the tide or wet sand can bog them down. Those coming on the mail-and-passenger ferry [the mailboat Aleta] at the southern tip of the island fare better. But they too may be delayed by the tide and condition of the beach. In fact, all events on the island are regulated by the tide. It even put a wedding reception before a wedding!

Ocracoke, 1956, Waiting for the Mailboat
Ocracoke, 1956, Waiting for the Mailboat

Many young [men] go to college on the mainland; many others serve in the armed forces. But practically all of them return to the island to live. They become fishermen or join the coast guard. The sea and its traditions have left its mark everywhere.

The long strip of the Outer Banks upon which the historic village of Ocracoke is located is rich in legend history, and bravery. Its wild, lonely, flat beaches hold hundreds of partially buried hulks and bits of wreckage from ships; victims of storms, accidents or human violence. The famous “ghost” ship, the Carroll A. Deering left its bow on Ocracoke Island. The ship was found stranded on Diamond shoals just off the Cape Hatteras coast guard station in 1921. Food was still in the galley pots; but no living soul was on board, only the ship’s cat. What a tale it could have told! Later on the bow drifted to Ocracoke’s beach.

The ill-fated English settlers of Raleigh’s expedition landed on Ocracoke Island before going to settle on Roanoke Island in 1585. Later, settlers stayed and played an important part in the Revolution, bringing in valuable material to Washington through the blockade. Many ancestors of these brave people became coast guardsmen.

Our National Park Service is helping to preserve for future generations the history and color of the place At Cape Hatteras, within the national seashore recreational area, is a Maritime Museum.

Ocracoke Island and the rest of the strip of the Outer Banks didn’t exist some 20,000 years ago. During the last glacial period the sea level was about fifty feet lower than it is today; the shore line was about twenty-five lower than at present. Pamlico and the other sounds were sand flats. Winds gradually shifted the sand and built up dunes and ridges which started the formation of the Outer Banks. When the huge continental ice sheet melted, the sea came in and flooded the sand levels and made the Sounds. Winds still continue their building-up and tearing-down work with the sand dunes.

At Cape Hatteras the sands underwater are gigantic dunes two hundred feet high. They are so high they almost rise above the waters for twelve miles from Cape Hatteras Point straight out to sea. If you stood on the Point on a stormy day you could see these turbulent waters “come together in an awesome display of savage fury.” Flowing from the Gulf Stream of the Caribbean they cascade into huge foamy sprays. This action continually builds up the underwater dunes of Diamond shoals, the barrier that means death to any ship caught within it.

To the north of Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, supervised by our Fish and Wildlife Service. Here, migrating waterfowl find refuge. Several thousand winter on the island; goose, brant and all species of ducks of the North Carolina coast. Many whistling swans stay for the winter. Loons, grebes, herons, egrets, gulls, terns, vultures, bald eagles, morning doves and others can be seen.

As so often happens, the isolated uniquely independent little village of Ocracoke is about to feel the effects of “civilization.” A road [NC12] connecting it with the mainland, is to be built. With it will come many changes that no amount of historic background and stamina can withstand. What will it do to the free-living, closely knit, picturesque sea dwellers of the island? What will be the fate of the beautiful wild horses that claim this stretch of sand and sea as their own? Only Time will tell.


One of the oldest houses on Ocracoke Island is tucked away at the end of an unpaved lane. You would have to be intentionally looking for the house in order to locate it…or be extremely lucky to stumble across it.

Today it is called the Rondthaler House (or by members of the family, simply the “Homeplace”).

Theodore (1899-1966) and Alice (1899-1977) Rondthaler were so taken with Ocracoke on their first visit to the island in the summer of 1935 that they purchased the house on a whim. Remarkably, it was not until two years later that the Rondthalers saw the inside of their new house. For the next decade they spent as much of their summers as possible on Ocracoke. In 1948 the Rondthalers left their jobs at Black Mountain College and moved to Ocracoke permanently. Theodore was hired as principal of the local school, and Alice as one of his four teachers.

The immediate previous owners of the house were the McIlhenys, a mainland North Carolina family that enjoyed spending summers on the island. The McIlhenys were part of an extended family of Kuglers, Bells, Nunnellees, and Mallisons who had discovered Ocracoke in the mid-1800s. The McIlhenys had purchased the house from native islanders, Daniel Sylvester Tolson (1867-1944) and Sabra Howard Tolson (1870-1944), who had moved to Delanco, New Jersey, where their son, William Ira Tolson, was living.

The house, which is referred to as the Tolson-Rondthaler House in the 1990 National Register of Historic Places, is a typical “story and a jump” style which was common on Ocracoke from the antebellum period through the turn of the 20th century.

The Register notes that this house is “[b]elieved to be one of the oldest surviving Ocracoke houses.” Although the house is listed as being built about 1860 for Daniel Tolson, further research suggests an earlier date. Even the National Register remarks that this house “has the only instance of nine-over-six sash windows found in the village.” The report goes on to state that “[s]ince this is an early sash type, this supports an antebellum date for this house.” Typically, island story and a jump houses from later periods have two-over-two sashes.

Although the exterior chimney, shed-roofed front porch, rear shed kitchen wing, and several of the windows are additions or replacements, the parlor mantel, front door, floors, much of the interior siding, and various interior details are believed to be original. Construction details include the use of repurposed ship’s knees, naturally curved pieces of wood used as bracing in sailing ships.

Daniel Sylvester Tolson was the son of William Sylvester Tolson (b. 1827), a local ship’s pilot. William’s first wife was Eliza B. Williams (1827-1866). Interview notes compiled by the author in the late 1990s include a comment made by Blanche Howard Jolliff (1919-2018), an Ocracoke native well known to possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of island history: “Rondthaler house owned by Eliza Williams’ people.”

Eliza B. Williams Tolson was the daughter of George Williams (1794-1836), and the granddaughter of Joseph Williams (1766-1824). This strongly suggests that the house was built prior to George Williams’ death in 1836, or perhaps even before Joseph Williams’ death in 1824.

The following photographs, taken during rehabilitation after Hurricane Dorian (September 6, 2020), document some of the outstanding features of this house.






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.