Deserted Island Village to Come Alive Again

Attendees gather for lunch during a past Portsmouth Homecoming. Photo: Contributed

BETWEEN OCRACOKE AND CEDAR ISLAND – These days, the hush blanketing historic Portsmouth Village is only disturbed by the rustle of a critter in the marsh, the squawk of birds and the footsteps of an occasional summertime visitor.

The village hasn’t always been quiet.  Before the last residents left in the early 1970s, layered over the hypnotic, aggressive whine of mosquitoes — still a present force on the island — would have been the din of everyday life in an island village.

Established in 1753, the island quickly became one of the largest settlements on the Outer Banks, but the population rapidly declined, with the last two residents, Marion Babb and Elma Dixon, leaving the island in 1971.

A part of Cape Lookout National Seashore since 1976, the 250-acre historic district silently tells the story of a village that lost its families to the mainland because of shoaling, war, storms, economic hardship and isolation. The well-preserved buildings that used to be the general store, church and homes that dot island now stand as a snapshot of a once-thriving village.

One of the last residents, Babb, has been quoted as saying, “There’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t miss that place … It’s the peace and quiet that’s there, and it’s home.”

Though no one lives on the island anymore, a lot of folks still call it home and they meet every two years to celebrate their shared history, along with those who feel called to the island, during the biennial Portsmouth Homecoming.

During this one-day celebration, this year set for Saturday, April 21, the otherwise peaceful island will be alive with laughter, tears, memories, singing and celebration of Portsmouth.

Musicians in Portsmouth pause for a photo opportunity. Music plays a large part in the Portsmouth Homecoming celebration. Photo:  Contributed

Sponsored by the Friends of Portsmouth and hosted by Cape Lookout National Seashore, the theme for this year’s homecoming is “A Step Back in Time,” which focuses on the simple times and activities that were common to the people of Portsmouth, according to organizers.

The buildings will open at 9 a.m., when there’s a chance to buy T-shirts in the visitor center and a keepsake stamp cancelation in the post office. At 10 a.m. folks are invited to join Connie Mason to sing hymns in the church. The church bells will ring at 11:15 a.m. to begin the homecoming celebration.

The homecoming program will starts at 11:30 a.m. and will feature David Quinn of Newport, grandson of the late Dot Salter Willis. Quinn will offer the island’s history and other island family members will provide presentations.

“To me, Portsmouth and family are synonymous. The island is the seed of my family’s heritage here in the New World. From these roots that were planted on Portsmouth, my family has grown, multiplied, and prospered,” Quinn said. “Therefore, returning to Portsmouth is a way to cultivate and renew my connection to the Salter family tree.”

He added that the Portsmouth Homecoming is also a way for him to reconnect to someone that was and remains very dear to him: his grandmother Dot Salter Willis.

“Her love for her island home and the love for her family inspired me to become a historian and continues to inspire me to return biennially to recount the history of the Portsmouth settlement. When I am on the island she is there with me,” he added. “I bring my boys (ages 10 and 11) so that they may know Grandma and the place she cherished her entire life. My boys are the fruit of that tree planted so long ago and being there with them, my family, and my Grandma are moments that I revere.”

Dinner on the grounds starts at 12:30 p.m. Ice, paper products and tea will be provided. Everyone should bring a covered dish to share. Following lunch will be time to visit and tour the buildings throughout the village before the passenger ferries begin returning to Ocracoke. Ferries will run as long as needed.

The island is only accessible by boat. Reservations to Portsmouth can be made by calling Rudy Austin in Ocracoke at 252-928-4361. Cost is $20 per person, round trip.

Organizers suggest contacting the ferry service for the latest schedule and prices at 800-293-3779 or if coming for the day on the North Carolina ferry from Cedar Island or Hatteras. The boats to Portsmouth load at the park service docks on Ocracoke. Return reservations should be made on the last state ferry to Cedar Island or Swan Quarter unless spending the night on Ocracoke. If coming from Hatteras, make sure to schedule the very early ferry as the ride to Portsmouth is an hour long.

In the event of inclement weather, the homecoming will be held at the Assembly of God Church at Ocracoke on Lighthouse Road.

Mason, who has studied the history of Portsmouth and will be leading the music in the church, said, “In Dorothy Bedwell’s Portsmouth Prayer, she prayed for Portsmouth’s perpetuation as a village ‘… in harmony with wind and sea.’

“This year, we reach back to a sister island whose living community mirrors Portsmouth’s through their life by the wind and water,” she continued. “Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay is still a living island community whose women sing old hymns while picking their family’s catch of crabs for market. Some of these wonderful women will be singing on Portsmouth to celebrate our island kinship this homecoming. You do not want to miss this.”

Elma Dixon and Marian Babb were the last residents of Portsmouth Village, moving to the mainland in 1971. Photo: Contributed

Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Jeff West said in a statement that he is honored to host the 2018 homecoming at Portsmouth Island.

“Having seen firsthand the love, work and dedication the heritage and history of Portsmouth village inspires in people, I can say that it is a truly amazing place both physically and in the hearts and minds of people,” he said. “I hope everyone can make time to come and be a part of the celebration on April 21.”

Friends of Portsmouth President Roseanne Penley said that she hopes everyone will take this opportunity to tour the houses and visit with descendants. Though she’s not a descendent, she said she feels a deep connection to the island and a responsibility to preserve the history and stories.

“Each time we pull up to Haulover Dock or to the shore I get the same feelings of joy, anticipation and relief. I am finally here. I don’t care if the ground is wet and I don’t care if the bugs are bad,” she said. “Although I am not a descendant, I have made my own place here, and I feel the roots of others who are descendants. I have read their stories and researched their families, and I have stayed in their houses and worshiped in their church. I feel a tremendous responsibility to do what I can to keep this place for them, and yes, for me. I feel like family and this feels like home.”

Portsmouth Island also cast its spell over Friends of Portsmouth member Kathy McNeilly.

“I am not related to anyone who lived on Portsmouth but the first time I walked out on the dock behind Tom Bragg’s house, I had the overwhelming feeling that this is as close as you can get to God on Earth,” she said. “The history, people and the stories are fascinating.  Portsmouth Island is one of the few places that you get a true feeling of community. I have traveled to other places, but there is nothing like Portsmouth Island.  I believe we need to preserve the history, stories and the structures of Portsmouth Village along with the community feeling that is hard to find nowadays.”

If heading to Portsmouth, bring insect repellent, drinking water, food, sunscreen, adequate clothing, a hat and good walking shoes. Public facilities are limited but can be found in the Theodore and Annie Salter House. There are compost toilets on the road past the Life Saving Station.

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About the Author

Jennifer Allen

Born and raised in Swansboro, Jennifer Allen graduated from Appalachian State University in 2002 and picked up a second degree from UNC-Charlotte the following year. She joined the staff of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City in 2005 and completed her master's at UNC-Wilmington in 2008. Jenn spent nine years writing and editing at the News-Times before joining the staff at the Town of Beaufort in 2014, where she served as public information officer and town clerk. On June 1, 2017, Jenn came aboard as assistant editor for Coastal Review Online. She has also written for Our State Magazine and other regional and statewide publications. She lives in Morehead City with her fiancé and their pups, Z, Gus and Willa.