The following account is taken from the book, Digging up Uncle Evans, by Philip Howard.

In October of 1837 the Steamboat Home wrecked on Ocracoke Island. It was the worst sea disaster ever to occur on Ocracoke. Ninety persons lost their lives that Monday night, October 9, as the 550-ton wooden, side-wheel steamer broke apart in the surf.

The Home was a 198 foot luxury vessel which, although it had made two previous voyages from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina, seems not to have been designed or constructed to endure the vicissitudes of the often unpredictable and violent weather in the North Atlantic, especially near the dreaded Cape Hatteras. This harsh lesson was learned only through unspeakable tragedy.

The Home, under the charge of Captain Carleton White, left New York harbor at four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, October 7, 1837, bound once again for Charleston. The Home was a grand and marvelous vessel. On her previous voyage she had exceeded all previously set speed records for travel between the two major ports. Excitement was palpable as the Home left the dock. One hundred and thirty persons, including forty crew members and ninety passengers, were aboard.

Virtually all of the passengers were well-to-do New Yorkers or Charlestonians. Their cabins were luxurious and their spirits high as they reveled in their finely appointed quarters and elegant surroundings, and looked forward to an enjoyable voyage.

Steamboat Home
From Steamboat Disasters & Railroad Accidents
in the United States by S.A. Howland

Shortly after their departure, the Home ran aground on a shoal near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and remained stranded for more than five hours. Finally, with the help of sails, steam power, and a rising tide, the Home was freed to continue her voyage. Now all hope of setting a new speed record was dashed.

The voyage continued for more than twenty-four hours without further delay, although the Home encountered increasingly stormy conditions late in the day of Sunday, October 8. By very early Monday morning gale force winds had intensified to hurricane velocity, and the Home was beginning to show alarming signs of distress. Captain White ordered the sails reefed. The storm grew wilder. The Home showed increasing indications of not being seaworthy.

By daybreak Monday morning crew members and passengers, including two veteran sea captains on board, had become so concerned that they called for the captain to beach the vessel as their only hope for survival. Captain White refused, explaining that the ship’s owner, Mr. Allaire, had not insured the Home, and furthermore that his vessel was less than six months old, well built, and sturdy enough to withstand whatever torment the Atlantic could throw their way.

Soon after first light a leak was discovered, and one of the ship’s boilers shut down. At that point Captain White turned the Home toward land, but headed back out to sea again when the boiler was returned to service.

The Home was now in the vicinity of Wimble Shoals, abreast of Cape Hatteras, and taking a harrowing drubbing from the worsening storm. Waves broke over the vessel, tearing off portions of the superstructure and smashing stateroom and dining room windows. The majestic wooden boat now creaked and groaned as it rode the heavy seas. Tiles began to fall from the dining room ceiling, and seawater was pouring in through seams in the ship’s planking.

By 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon it was apparent that the ship’s pumps were inadequate for dealing with the increasing volume of water the Home was taking on. Captain White pressed all aboard into service. Passengers and crew joined together on a brigade. Buckets, pails, pots, pans, derby hats, and other containers were put to use bailing the vessel, but by 8 p.m. the seawater had risen so deep that the Home’s boilers were finally extinguished.

Now with only a few tattered sails, the Home was at the mercy of the raging sea. Captain White ordered his vessel turned to the west, toward the distant beach. It was his only hope. The Home had passed south of Cape Hatteras by this time and, although it was hours after sunset, the moon was waxing and the vessel was within sight of Ocracoke Island, about five and a half miles north of the settlement and the lighthouse.

Quickly filling with water, the Home limped toward the beach. Crew and passengers stood on the deck with dreaded anticipation. Finally, with a sickening thud, the steamer struck the outer bar, spun around, then listed onto her starboard side. The Home was more than one hundred yards from the shore and completely exposed to the thundering surf. Huge waves broke over the deck, tearing away the helm, the forecastle, lifeboats, and much of the rest of the superstructure in short order. Dozens of people were swept into the raging sea.

With great difficulty one of the remaining lifeboats was lowered over the lee side, but the angry breakers engulfed the small boat and it immediately capsized, spilling its occupants into the sea. No sooner was the lifeboat lost, than the mainmast crashed onto the deck, followed by the smokestacks. The Home was disintegrating rapidly. The starboard cabins and dining room were quickly demolished and the deck caved in soon afterwards. Within less than thirty minutes the Home was completely destroyed.

In the ensuing chaos every effort was made to protect the women and children, but eventually everyone was cast into the tempestuous sea. The vessel itself carried but one life ring. One gentleman had purchased a life vest before embarking, and he quickly buckled it on. Although he was temporarily knocked unconscious when his head struck a shattered piece of timber, he recovered and was washed onto the beach, alive and grateful.

Only forty people survived the wreck of the steamboat Home, including one twelve year old boy. All of the other children perished. The survivors found themselves, near midnight, cold, exhausted, and disoriented, on a desolate and unfamiliar beach. Seeing the light from the lighthouse, several men proceeded to walk the five miles to the village to seek help.

Bodies of the ninety victims of the greatest sea disaster in Ocracoke’s history would later be found more than a mile from the wreck.

By daybreak the people of Ocracoke had heard of the terrible tragedy. They walked or rode their ponies to the site of the wreck to care for the survivors, and later to bury the dead and gather together any property that could be salvaged. Most of the dead were buried by the islanders in the nearby dunes in unmarked graves, many simply wrapped in sail canvas, blankets, or quilts.

After the disaster Captain John Salter, one of the passengers, who for a time seems to have acquired command of the Home, leveled charges against Captain White, accusing him of drunkenness and neglect, and claiming that the Home itself was not seaworthy. Ten other passengers joined him in his accusations. Whether the charges were true or false, Captain White was eventually exonerated.

As a consequence of the wreck of the Home, one year later Congress passed the first law requiring ocean going vessels to carry at least one life preserver for every person on board.

Stories of shipwrecks have been passed down on Ocracoke for generations. Island native Walter Howard penned the following tale more than fifty years ago. It was told to him by old Arcadia Williams, whose family was intimately involved with the aftermath of the steamboat Home tragedy. Walter’s story is a brilliant account of the wreck and a fascinating glimpse into island life of more than one hundred and twenty years ago.

The following version of Walter’s story, The Wreck of the Steamboat Home, is abridged but the entire tale may be found on the Internet.

THE WRECK OF THE STEAMBOAT HOME, by   Walter Howard:

When I was a small boy, I used to listen to the older people tell of the shipwrecks on Ocracoke Island where I was born. “God help the sailors on a night like this!” was, and is to this day, a household saying in our section of the country.

Old Arcadia Williams is responsible for the tale I’m about to tell. We will call her “Kade” as that was her nickname.

Kade lived in an old house framed from the beams of old shipwrecks. There were wooden windows and a wooden chimney which was always a source of wonder to me. Kade still did her cooking in the fireplace. The boys wanted to take up a collection to buy her a stove but she would have none of it. Her excuse was that old Ben Franklin was an infidel and that she would have none of his doings or inventions in her house.

Kade could “cuss like a sailor.” Aside from this human weakness she was a good soul and didn’t have an enemy in the world. As a story teller her equal has never been found.

She was a short, squat woman with a friendly, round face which boasted countless fine wrinkles. She parted her hair in the center and drew it into a tight knot terminating at the nape of her neck where she fastened it with two wire nails whose protruding heads gave the appearance that a carpenter had been trying to nail her head fast to her body without any marked success.

“It was in the fall of the year,” she began, drawing the big cuspidor a little closer so as to get a better range for her spitting.

“It was in October, a heavy Northeaster had been blowing for two days and getting worse by the hour. It never blew any harder nor rained any more since Noah’s Ark. Young’uns, I thought every gust of wind would be the last, as that old house of ours wasn’t any too strong. It kept up for eight solid hours. The wind and rain was roaring so loud we could hardly hear each other talk. Along about two o’clock that night Father Jack had a nightmare. Young’uns, he almost scared all hands of us to death. Finally we brought him out of his fit and he told us his dream. He had dreamed of going down to the sea and beholding a terrible disaster with hundreds of people washed upon the sand, and he had picked up an infant only to discover it was drowned. As he stood there on the beach holding the child in his arms, the sea turned itself into a horrible monster and was reaching out with clutching hands trying to grasp him and pull him in with the rest of the drowned.

“While we were listening to this story there came a knocking at the door, and when brother Wid opened the door there stood as fine a figure of a drowned man as ever I laid eyes on. Before anyone had a chance to speak to him, he turned loose the door knob and pitched head foremost on the floor. It was fully a half hour before he was able to speak. He told us that he had just washed ashore from a steamer that had struck the beach about five miles away. Her name was the Steamboat Home bound from New York to Charleston with 130 people aboard. Upon reaching the beach he had groped around in the dark until he spied the light in our window.

“We drew our chairs up close to him and he told us his story.”

“The weather was pleasant when we left New York on Saturday.

“The next morning a moderate breeze prevailed from the northeast. The sails were spread before the wind, and the speed of the boat was much accelerated. About noon the wind increased and the sea became rough. At sunset the wind blew heavily and continued to increase during the night. At daylight on Monday, it had become a gale.

“The sea raged frightfully from the violence of the gale, causing a general anxiety among the passengers. Early on Monday land was discovered, nearly ahead, which was believed to be the northern tip of Hatteras.

“The condition of the boat now was truly alarming—it bent and twisted when struck by the waves as if the next one would rend it asunder. The panels of the ceiling were falling from their places and the hull, as if united by hinges, was bending against the feet of the braces. Throughout the day the rolling and pitching were so great that no cooking could be done on board.

“Late in the afternoon the course was changed from southeasterly to northwesterly, when the awful truth burst upon us: the boat must be filling, for we could imagine no other cause for this sudden change. This was but a momentary suspense, for within a few minutes all the passengers were called on to bail in order to prevent the boat from sinking.

“Immediately all were employed, but with little effect, for notwithstanding the greatest exertions on the part of the passengers the water was rapidly increasing, and gave the most conclusive evidence that unless we reached the shore within a few hours, the boat must sink at sea.

“Soon after the boat was headed towards the land, the water had increased so much so as to reach the fire under the boilers and it was quickly extinguished. Gloomy indeed was the prospect before us, with 130 persons in a sinking boat far out at sea on a dark and tempestuous night, with no other dependence for reaching the shore than a few small and tattered sails; our condition might be considered tragic. But with all these disheartening circumstances, hope, delusive hope, still supported us.

“Although it was evident that we must soon sink, and our progress toward the land was slow, still we cherished the expectation that the boat would finally be run ashore and thus most of us be delivered from a watery grave.

“Early in the afternoon the ladies had been provided with strips of blanket that they might be lashed to such parts of the boat as could afford the greatest probability of safety.

“In this condition and with these expectations, we gradually, but with a motion nearly imperceptible, approached what to many of us was an unknown shore.

“At about eleven o’clock those that had been employed in bailing were compelled to leave the cabin as the boat had sunk until the deck was nearly level with the waters and it appeared too probable that all would soon be swallowed up by the foaming waves.

“Soon land was announced by those on the lookout. This, for a moment, aroused the sinking energies of all when a general bustle ensued, in the hasty, but trifling preparations that could be made for safety as soon as the boat should strike. But what were the feelings of an anxious multitude, when instead of land, a range of angry breakers was visible just ahead, and land was but half perceptible in the distance far beyond.

“Immediately before we struck, one or two passengers, aided by some of the seamen, attempted to seek safety in one of the boats at the quarter deck when a breaker struck it, swept it from the davits and carried with it a seaman who was instantly lost.

“A similar attempt was made to launch the long-boat from the upper deck by the chief mate. It was filled with several passengers and some of the crew but as we were already within the verge of the breakers, this boat shared the fate of the other, and all on board, about ten in number, perished.

“Now commenced the most heart-rending scene of all. Wives clinging to husbands, and children to parents, all awaiting the results of the next moment, which might bring with it either life or death. Though an intense feeling of anxiety must have filled every breast, not a shriek was heard.

“A slight agitation was, however, apparent in the general circle. Some few hurried from one part of the boat to another seeking a place of greater safety. Yet most remained quiet and calm observers of the scene before them. The boat, at length strikes—it stops—and is as motionless as a bar of lead. A momentary pause follows as if the angel of death shrunk from so dreadful a work of slaughter. But soon the work of destruction commenced. A breaker with a deafening crash swept over the boat carrying its unfortunate victims into the deep. At the same time a simultaneous rush was made towards the bow of the boat. The forward deck was covered. Another breaker came with irresistible force and all within its sweep disappeared. Our number was now frightfully reduced. The roaring of the waters, together with the dreadful crash of breaking timbers, surpassed the power of description.

“Some of the remaining passengers sought shelter from the encroaching dangers by retreating to the passage on the lee side of the boat as if to be as far as possible from the grasp of death.

“Already both decks were swept of everything that was on them. The dining cabin was entirely gone and everything belonging to the quarter deck was completely stripped away. All this was the work of about five minutes.

“The starboard wheelhouse, and everything about it, were soon entirely demolished. So much of the ceiling had fallen during the day that the waves soon found their way through all that remained to oppose them and were a few minutes time forcing deluges into the last retreat of those who had taken shelter in the passage already mentioned. Every wave made a frightful encroachment on our narrow limits and seemed to threaten us with immediate death. One lady begged earnestly for someone to save her.

“Another scene witnessed at this trying hour was still more painful. A little boy was pleading with his father to save him but the unhappy father was too deeply absorbed in the other charges that rested upon him even to notice the imploring child. For at that time his wife hung upon one arm and his daughter of seventeen upon the other. He had one daughter besides but whether she had been washed overboard at that time I am not certain.

“After remaining here some minutes the deck overhead was split open by the violence of the waves which allowed me an opportunity of climbing out. This I instantly did and assisted my wife through the same opening. As I had now left those below, I am unable to say how they were lost as that part of the boat was very soon completely destroyed, their further sufferings could not have been much more prolonged.

“We could see the encroachment of the devouring waves, every one of which reduced our thinned numbers and swept with it parts of our crumbling boat. For several hours previous, the gale had been sensibly abating. For a moment the pale moon broke through the dispersing clouds as if to witness this scene of terror and destruction and to show the horror-stricken victims the fate that awaited them.

“While the moon yet shone, three men were seen to rush from the middle to the stern of the boat. A wave came rushing on. It passed over the deck and only one of the three was left. He had barely time to reach a large timber to which he clung when this wave struck him—and he too was missing. As the wave passed away these men were seen above the water but they appeared to make no effort to swim. The probability is that the violence with which they were hurled into the sea disabled them. They sank to rise no more.

“During this time, Mr. Lovegreen of Charleston continued to ring the ship’s bell which added to the gloom. It sounded like a funeral knell over the departed dead. Never before perhaps was a bell tolled at such a funeral as this.

“While in this situation our attention was arrested by the appearance of a lady climbing up on the outside of the boat. Her head was barely above the deck on which we stood and she was holding to it in a most perilous manner. She implored help. I ran to her aid but was unable to raise her to the deck. Mr. Woodburn of New York now came and with his assistance the lady was rescued. She was then lashed to a large piece of timber by the side of another lady.

“The former lady was washed ashore on this piece of wreckage beside me. I was compelled to get on a larger piece of the boat that lay near. This was almost immediately driven from its place into the breakers which instantly swept me from it and plunged me deep into the water. With some difficulty I gained the raft and continued to cling to this fragment as well as I could but was repeatedly washed from it, sometimes plunging deep into the water and coming up under it. After encountering all the difficulties that seemed possible to be borne, I was, at length, thrown on shore in an exhausted condition.

“At the time I was driven from the boat there were but few left. Of these, four washed ashore with me. On reaching the beach there was no appearance of inhabitants but after wandering some distance I saw your light and followed it.”

“While this man was telling his story”, Kade continued, “someone in my family sneaked out of the house and gave the alarm that a steamer was ashore.

“It wasn’t very long before everybody knew about it and the whole population of the Island (about 300 people) turned out. Men began to run by with lanterns and torches, screaming ‘Wreck on the Beach’ and ‘Vessel Ashore.’

“All the men folk went down to the wreck that night. As soon as the men arrived at the scene, they started to pull the drowned from the water. My father said that the last thing he found was a drowned child, the same as he had seen in his dream that very night. The following day was a sad day for this island as well as for the survivors. The menfolk had worked from four o’clock that morning until sundown. Every piece of canvas was used to sew up the dead in for burial, as well as all the bed quilts that were donated by the people here on the Island. Most of the dead could not be identified and were buried just as they had been washed ashore with their clothing and jewelry on.

“These earrings,” Kade said, pointing to her ears, “were taken from the body of one of the ladies who had washed up on the beach. My mother had a complete outfit salvaged from an old trunk on the boat. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. The owner must have been a very wealthy lady. My mother never would wear it. She hung it upstairs where she could look at it now and then until it rotted away.”

Having now finished her story, Kade fired one parting shot at the spittoon, toddled over to the window, looked out into the darkness and said in a voice almost inaudible, “God help the sailors on a night like this.”

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By Philip Howard
September, 2018

Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 storm packing 140 mph winds, was churning away in the Atlantic. The forecast indicated she would make landfall on the coast of North Carolina in a few days. Strong winds and coastal flooding were predicted. Ocracoke, where I live, is a narrow sandy island 20 miles from the mainland. Average elevation is about four feet. Evacuations had been ordered, first for visitors, then for residents.

I stayed.

Various family and friends wondered why I would stay. To some it seemed more than foolish. After all, evacuation orders are designed to save lives, and when ignored can have serious consequences. I knew that.

News programs tracking the hurricane described Florence as a “monster storm” that could cause “serious,” “catastrophic,” and “life-threatening” conditions. Reports said a 12-foot storm surge could cause widespread coastal flooding; strong winds could rip roofs from houses.

I have lived on Ocracoke for nearly 50 years, and have weathered many hurricanes and storms. Not a single Ocracoke resident has ever died in a hurricane. But what were the risks involved in this particular storm, I wondered.

I wanted facts and details, not just scary-sounding adjectives and over-hyped weather reports. Would Florence remain a Category 4 storm, or weaken as it approached land? Would the storm be catastrophic for everyone on the coast, or just for those living in sub-standard housing or mobile homes? Would a 12-foot storm surge inundate houses on the barrier islands, or those along rivers on the mainland?

So, I turned to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for some answers. First, I looked at their “Potential Storm Surge Flooding Map (Inundation)” for Hurricane Florence. Although some sections of Ocracoke Island (right along the shoreline) had a forecast of more than three feet of storm surge, only a few areas of the village were identified for even “more than one foot” of flood waters. As vulnerable as the Outer Banks can be, we know that storm waters come ashore, roll over the islands, and flow into the sound. The process is reversed when flood waters return from the mainland.

On the mainland, however, a storm surge will pile up with no other place to go, inundating communities along rivers, streams, and estuaries. The forecast called for more than twelve feet of water there.

Next, I assessed my house. It is more than 150 years old, and had weathered at least three major hurricanes, in 1899, 1933, and 1944, as well as many others, including Matthew in 2016. In 2005 I did a major rehabilitation of the house. We raised the house, screwed six-foot earth augers into the ground, and anchored the floor joists to the augers with heavy chains. All of the exterior siding was removed, additional studs added, hurricane tie-downs nailed to the rafters and top plates, and an underlayment of plywood applied before the siding was re-nailed. The roof was removed, new and larger rafters nailed to the existing rafters, sturdy plywood laid down, and 40-year asphalt shingles installed. The house was never better prepared for a storm.

Still, I was not naïve. A Category 4 storm could be truly catastrophic. What to do? Outdoor furniture, lawn mowers, and other objects had been brought inside or secured. My carpets were rolled up and placed on chairs. The bottom drawers of my filing cabinets were removed and placed on tables. Family and neighbors were beginning to evacuate. My car’s gas tank was filled with fuel. I had a suitcase and daypack ready to throw into my car if I decided to evacuate.

And so I waited a little longer, and monitored Florence’s track.

The last ferries would leave Wednesday morning. On Tuesday the forecasts converged on a near certainty that Florence would turn south before making landfall near Wilmington, NC. Although Ocracoke would probably be hit by the northeast quadrant of the storm (usually with the strongest winds), it looked as if we would just get the outer bands. What to do?

I knew that hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists would be fleeing from the storm. I was sure that fuel would be scarce, lodging along the way hard to find, and traffic often snarled. I didn’t want to be stranded in a low-lying flood plain. Fatal accidents were a definite possibility. I remembered leaving for Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Although Ocracoke fared well then (as it usually has), it was a nightmare trying to return home. Storm surge and rainfall had flooded nearly all of eastern North Carolina mainland.

We humans are notoriously bad at rational risk assessment. Although many people are afraid of lightning, sharks, or flying, driving on the Interstate at 70 mph, something we do routinely, is one of the most dangerous things we do. I decided to try to think clearly about this situation. Which was less risky…staying on Ocracoke during the storm or driving on the highway for 400 or more miles?

I decided to stay.

The extra time had a number of benefits. It gave me an opportunity to make additional last-minute preparations, including boarding up some windows. I wouldn’t have to drive for hours in an exhausted state. And I could at least make repairs after the storm passed.

I was fully aware that emergency services would be non-existent, and I would have to deal with any injuries or misfortunes myself. I was not expecting others to put their lives in danger for me.

As it turned out, Hurricane Florence had only minimal impact on Ocracoke. Winds did not exceed Tropical Storm velocity, no tidal storm surge inundated the village, and only a few tree limbs were downed. We continued to have municipal water, and power was out for only a few short periods. I know it could have been worse, and some people will continue to think I made a poor decision. That may be, but I will live with it. I respect everyone’s decision in these situations. No one has a crystal ball, and it is never easy or clear what to do. Some leave, some stay. My daughter and grandson, among many others, decided to leave. It was the right decision for them.

I might make a different decision next time, but I am content with the decision I made this time.

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This story is an edited version that was originally published in the book, Digging up Uncle Evans, by Philip Howard, © 2008.

I didn’t recognize the woman right away, although she had been on my Ghost and History Tour the summer before. She and almost two dozen other people were with me on that July evening. We stopped at the Island Inn, as we always do. This is the building that had originally been built as Ocracoke’s Odd Fellows Lodge and Schoolhouse.

The Island Inn, now more than one hundred years old, is host to one of the island’s most active ghosts, and I was sharing details. Standing in the parking lot just after dusk I recounted the basic history of the structure and then told the gruesome tale of Mrs. Godfrey’s murder.

Most people recoil at the telling.

The Island Inn ca. 2017
The Island Inn ca. 2017

The story is not complete without sharing the sightings and strange happenings experienced by employees and guests alike.

I had not quite finished my tale when the woman felt compelled to tell her story. Some years before, she had rented a room at the Inn. After a day of exploring the island she returned to the hotel lobby and climbed the antique stairway to her second floor accommodations.

At the entrance to her room she retrieved the key from her purse and slowly opened the door. It was quiet inside. A delicate breeze wafted through the open window and gently rustled the lace curtains. She was exhausted. The old iron bed, piled high with soft pillows and a cozy quilt beckoned to her. But she could not sleep yet. Her mind raced with images of sailors, pirates, and simple island folks who had called Ocracoke home for generations. What was it like, she wondered, to live here, so far from conventional civilization? Who had built this fine hotel, and what stories did it hold?

Finally, too tired to think any more, she prepared for bed, and turned in about an hour before midnight. Several hours later, aroused from a deep sleep, she had the distinct sensation that someone was holding on to her big toe. She forced herself awake, afraid at first to open her eyes, fearful of what she might see.

With trepidation she lifted her head slowly and opened her eyes. Instantly the sensation vanished. No one was standing at the foot of her bed, and no hand grasped her toe. The curtains were still.

Convinced it had merely been a disquieting dream, she drifted back to sleep, only to be awakened a second time with the identical sensation. Again, no person, no figure, presented itself. And the pressure on her toe disappeared the moment she opened her eyes.

After the third encounter with whatever was holding on to her toe the woman propped herself on her pillows and determined to stay awake until daybreak. In the morning she requested to be moved to one of the newer rooms in the building on the other side of the street. After hearing the stories of Mrs. Godfrey, she said, she now knew who had been tormenting her that night.

The center section of what is now the Island Inn was built by Mr. Charlie Scarborough in 1900/1901 as a meeting house for Ocracoke Lodge #194, Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

The ground floor of the Lodge housed the island’s first community school.

Odd Fellows Lodge, ca. 1901
Odd Fellows Lodge, ca. 1901

Following the death of Michael Lawrence Piland, a Gates County native who many believe introduced the Odd Fellows to Ocracoke, the fraternal organization was disbanded. The Lodge was sold and converted to a private residence.

Home of Ben O'Neal, ca. 1925
Home of Ben O’Neal, ca. 1925

In 1940 the building was sold again, this time to Robert Stanley Wahab, native islander and early entrepreneur. Immediately the first floor was converted into a coffee shop with soda fountain and ice cream bar. Rooms upstairs became a boarding house. Later, during the war, the second floor was converted again, this time to an exclusive club for Navy Officers. It was dubbed the “Crow’s Nest.”

Wahab Coffee Shop
Wahab Coffee Shop

After the war a number of improvements and additions were made to the building. Several former Navy barracks were moved and attached to the southwest side of the building. A sizeable northeast wing was added in the 1950s that included a dining hall and more guest quarters. Newly christened the Silver Lake Inn, the former Lodge was now a modern hotel. In addition to guest rooms and a dining facility, the Inn also included a dance hall. Local musicians gathered there on Saturday nights to play for the traditional Ocracoke square dances. The Silver Lake Inn had become a prominent landmark and social center for residents and visitors alike.

The Inn was sold in the 1960s and the name changed to the Island Inn. There is no longer a dance hall associated with the Inn, but the present owners continue to serve the traveling public with comfortable rooms, private baths, and even a swimming pool.

As an added benefit, present day guests at the Island Inn, especially those who occupy rooms on the upper floors of the older section of the building, are sometimes confronted by the ghost of Mrs. Godfrey, a former resident.

During the war Stanley Wahab hired a couple from the mainland to act as managers for his growing hotel. They took an apartment in the hotel. Although capable employees, they soon became well known on the island for their domestic squabbles. Islanders remember them “fighting like cats and dogs.” It became an embarrassment to many Ocracokers, who seldom allowed their private lives to be displayed so publicly.

In those days all of the roads on Ocracoke were primitive sandy lanes. Ocracoke’s primary link to the mainland was by mail boat. The forty-two foot Aleta could carry several dozen passengers — a few in her cabin, others on benches under a protective canvas awning, and more on wooden fish boxes or suitcases arranged on the open deck. She made one round-trip daily between Ocracoke Island and the mainland port of Atlantic, North Carolina.

The mail boat left the island soon after daybreak and arrived at the dock in Atlantic about 10:30 a.m. The Aleta laid over long enough to load mail, passengers, and supplies. Shortly after noon she made her way back east across Pamlico Sound.

At that time the main social event of the day on Ocracoke was greeting the mail boat when it glided up to the dock about 4:30 p.m. It seemed as if the entire village was there waiting for the mail, wondering who was coming home for a visit, and curious to see if any strangers were aboard. Old ladies in slat bonnets, carrying baskets filled with groceries from the general store or vegetables from their gardens, waited alongside old men in slouch hats smoking cigars or chewing tobacco.

The atmosphere was congenial and jovial as adults shared the day’s news and gossip. Teenage boys in bare feet, white t-shirts, and dungarees rolled up to their calves greeted the mail boat and eagerly hefted large canvas bags of mail over their shoulders and carried them down the dock to the waiting postmaster. Younger children squealed and ran about or entertained themselves chucking oyster shells into the harbor. Eventually the mail would be “called over” and everyone would return to their homes for supper.

Mailboat Aleta
Mailboat Aleta

One morning the manager’s wife boarded the Aleta for a trip across the sound to visit family and friends. Several days later, at the time of her scheduled return, she was conspicuously absent among the passengers disembarking from the mail boat when it arrived back home at Ocracoke. The manager seemed perplexed, but not overly concerned. No doubt his wife had decided to spend several more days with family and friends on the mainland, he thought. She would be home soon enough. In the meanwhile his life was calmer and more peaceful.

A week later, to everyone’s horror, the woman’s mutilated body was discovered on the mainland, the victim of a horrible murder. Lying face up in a pool of blood in an abandoned house, her throat had been cut. Although suspicion immediately centered on an unidentified serviceman who had been seen getting into a car with her, her murderer was never determined. Not surprisingly, many islanders wondered whether her husband had had something to do with the murder.

Already a heavy drinker, the manager relied increasingly on alcohol to dull his senses after his wife’s funeral. He was never accused of the murder, and he returned to work at the Silver Lake Inn. Evenings and nights in his quarters became increasingly troubled. Almost immediately he began seeing his wife’s ghost wandering the halls of the Inn.

All too often he would awake in the middle of the night to see her standing over his bed, fixing him with an accusing stare. She opened doors, and then abruptly slammed them closed. The stairs creaked and groaned as she made her way from floor to floor. He would enter his room to find his wife’s cosmetics, left untouched on the dresser since her demise, now rearranged while he was out.

Eventually the distressed manager could endure no more. He quit his job at the Inn and moved back to the mainland. He never returned to Ocracoke.
Over the years reports have continued to surface of Mrs. Godfrey’s ghost regularly patrolling rooms and hallways of the Island Inn. Most sightings have occurred on the second and third floors of the main section. It is not uncommon for guests who have never heard the story to approach the front desk in the morning with strange tales of doors opening and closing, of unfamiliar footsteps padding nearby in the middle of the night, or of bathroom spigots opening by themselves.

Women frequently report going out for dinner or a walk on the beach and returning to find their cosmetics scattered about on the dresser. One woman awoke with a start and was terrified to see a ghostly figure examining her toiletries. The next morning her makeup was gone. She never located it.
A young couple was staying at the Inn a number of years ago before the installation of air conditioning. The August evening was particularly hot and muggy. Not a breath of wind disturbed the heavy night air. Hoping for some relief, the couple stepped onto the balcony and settled into rockers. After a while the husband turned to his wife with a curious look on his face. “Did you just feel something odd?” he asked her. “I did,” she replied. “All of a sudden I felt a cold ripple of air passing, not over me, but through me, as if something living, but not really living, had touched my soul.” He had felt the same uneasy sensation.

The woman on my ghost tour repeats her story of feeling someone holding on to her big toe. She vows never to stay in the older section of the Inn again. Her voice betrays a lingering dread of unseen forces hovering over her bed. She is content, however, to rent a room in the newer wing, as she does often.

Only a few years ago I asked the current owners of the Island Inn if folks still report strange happenings in the upper floors of the main building.
“Oh, every summer we have at least half a dozen guests come downstairs in the morning and tell us about things they’ve heard or seen during the night. When we explain to them about the manager’s wife they nod and admit they’re not surprised.”

“But there’s more,” she continues, clearly animated by her own experiences.

“We have a regular guest here who always brings her guitar. She comes several times a year and just loves staying with us. She claims she gets the best night’s sleep in her room on the second floor. After one visit I found a small peg on the floor. It had a round, flattened end, but I didn’t recognize what it was, so I threw it away. The next day it was lying on the floor in the hallway. I discarded it again. The third time I found it in the middle of the mirror-stand at the top of the stairs. By then it was beginning to feel creepy. I picked up the peg, carried it downstairs and tossed it into the waste basket.

“The guest called several days later. She had lost one of her guitar pegs, and wondered if we had found it. I explained what had happened and apologized. The peg was gone for good now, I explained.

“Weeks later the guitarist was back, anticipating another relaxing island weekend. Imagine my surprise when she came down to the main desk to thank me for the guitar pin. It was lying on the table in her room!”

“Let me tell you another story,” the owner continues.

“One of our guests dropped her glasses just as she stepped out of her room, and onto the outside stairway. She searched ten minutes or more, but could not find her glasses. When she told us what had happened we went to help. The glasses had simply disappeared. Finally we gave up, and she checked out without her glasses.

“Two weeks went by, then one day another guest walked up to the counter with a pair of glasses. She found them lying on the steps, just outside her room. Sure enough, they were the missing glasses.”

The ghost in the Island Inn often seems to be kind and nurturing. At least that’s what people say. Some even claim that she tucks people in at night, and that is why they sleep so soundly.

She does like to play tricks, though, and has a fascination with jewelry. One woman, staying on the island while going through a difficult divorce, took off her wedding ring before going to court on the mainland. When she returned to the island her ring was gone. She never located it.

Not everyone who stays at the Island Inn encounters the ghost. Some are disappointed when she doesn’t make herself known. Even when she does, she seems harmless enough to those who have felt her presence. If you’re curious, you are invited to reserve a room at the Inn. We recommend you ask for room number 23 or 24.

Update: In 2018 the Inn was sold to the Ocracoke Preservation Society. The two wings have been demolished, and plans are underway to restore the historic center section which housed the Odd Fellows Lodge and School. Eventually the building will serve as a community visitors center and house public restrooms. I am sure Mrs. Godfrey’s ghost will remain at the Lodge as long as it stands!

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