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Abandoned since 1971, North Carolina 'ghost island' preserved in time

By
Chaffin Mitchell, Accuweather.com
A swollen Potomac River covers the waterfront walkway and half of a gazebo in Alexandria, Va., after Hurricane Isabel slammed the East Coast on September 19, 2003. The storm caused major flooding along the Mid-Atlantic, including on the abandoned Portsmouth Island, N.C., which was abandoned in 1971. File Photo by Roger Wollenberg/UPI
A swollen Potomac River covers the waterfront walkway and half of a gazebo in Alexandria, Va., after Hurricane Isabel slammed the East Coast on September 19, 2003. The storm caused major flooding along the Mid-Atlantic, including on the abandoned Portsmouth Island, N.C., which was abandoned in 1971. File Photo by Roger Wollenberg/UPI
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May 3 -- Situated a few miles off the coast of Ocracoke Island, N.C., a small rustic village made up of a dozen homes, churches, a general store and a post office serves as evidence that this abandoned island was once a bustling, populated area before storms and other factors forced people to flee over time.

Now, there are no operational stores or businesses -- only a handful of empty cottages on the south end of the island shows signs of life from a bygone time. The only way to reach this uninhabited island is by boat or ferry.

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North Carolina native Robin Kent Pittman recently took a trip to the desolate 13-mile island Portsmouth by boat with his husband and a friend who is a photographer.

"We decided to explore Portsmouth over spring break because of the weather and because I wanted to see the island before another hurricane season geared up," Pittman told AccuWeather in a recent interview.

An abandoned home is seen on the island of Portsmouth in North Carolina. Photo courtesy Robin Kent Pittman

Pittman has visited Portsmouth in the past since the island holds a special place in his heart.

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"I have family connections to the island and wanted to see the village again after Hurricane Dorian left its mark in 2019. My ancestors came to this island from Europe."

The town was established in 1752, and by 1770, it was the largest European settlement on the Outer Banks, according to the visitors' website. George Joseph Tosto, an ancestor of Pittman's, was listed on its census around 1850 with his birthplace listed as Europe.

"Family members always said he got sick on a ship, and they left him on Portsmouth," Pittman said. "He married then moved to mainland Carteret County, which is where our family still resides today."

The shipping industry in and around Portsmouth Island was booming in the late 1700s and 1800s. Portsmouth was one of the first true bustling ports following European colonization. By 1852, nearly two-thirds of imported goods headed for North Carolina were shipped through Ocracoke Inlet, and Portsmouth Island was a pivotal stop as those goods were carried inland.

Portsmouth was well on its way to being one of the most populated areas of the Outer Banks -- but Mother Nature had different plans for the barrier island.

In 1846, two strong hurricanes impacted Oregon Inlet and caused Hatteras Inlet, to the northeast, to deepen. Meanwhile, the wide Ocracoke Inlet was beginning to close. This made the Ocracoke Inlet a less desirable shipping location to other areas. The waters around Portsmouth's harbor also began to become shallow, which, ultimately, led to the decline of the port.

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The shipping industry was the first to abandon Portsmouth Island for larger ports in surrounding areas.

The island, which was home to nearly 700 residents by 1860, suffered another blow during the Civil War when Union soldiers came to occupy the Outer Banks. As Union soldiers patrolled the North Carolina coast, attacking its most populous ports, they targeted Portsmouth Village. Many fled the island and didn't return after the war ended, furthering the decline of the island.

Occasional hurricanes sped up the decline of the population, including one hurricane season in particular.

The deadly 1933 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the final impacts to accelerate the island's population decline. The record-breaking season along with the ever-changing landscape of a barrier island took a toll on residents.

"I know many left the island because of storms," Pittman said, adding that technological advances were a contributing factor, too. "The railroad system took over as the primary means of trade, and shipping by boat was becoming a thing of the past."

The new national railroad also hurt Portsmouth Island's status as a center of trade. By 1956, only 17 residents inhabited the island. Due to limited supplies and jobs that number steadily declined. Without stores and businesses, the islanders relied on goods that were brought in by private boats.

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"The homes remaining, for the most part, are sturdy and ready to withstand high winds. Storm surge, on the other hand, could eventually take out those old homes," Pittman said.

A cottage sits uninhabited in Portsmouth, N.C. Photo courtesy Robin Kent Pittman

For Pittman, the desolate island didn't feel eerie to him, in fact quite the opposite.

"I will be honest, the island felt like home to me. Something was comforting about the tidal marshes, live oak trees, white-washed cottages and marsh grass," he said.

However, the travelers with Pittman, his husband and the photographer, felt otherwise, he said.

"At one point, they said this was the start of a box office-topping thriller-horror film," Pittman said.

The entire time they explored the island they only saw one other person in the village, also a photographer.

"My favorite part of the day was sitting on a porch of the first yellow house and just listening," he recalled, adding that there were "no noisy AC units, no cars." In fact, he recalled, there were hardly any sounds.

"Just the creaking of a screen door and the faint sound of the ocean in the distance," he said.

The scars of hurricane damage are still visible in areas.

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"The first house we explored was lovingly repaired on the outside. It had new siding, paint, and trim," he said.

But there were some remnants of damage in the interior, with a clear watermark around the house. It appeared that the water line came up about 18 inches high or so.

"Other than the watermark, the house was in great shape," Pittman explained.

A watermark from a hurricane can be seen on the wall in an abandoned home in Portsmouth Island, N.C. Photo courtesy Robin Kent Pittman

Beadboard paneling and solid wood floors held up well in the storm surge, and they were left clean without a speck of mold, but Pittman said other homes were completely boarded up and not safe to enter.

"The post office/general store had the most telling sign of storms with a wall labeled in sharpie marker of the high-tide lines of all recent storms," Pittman said.

Some of the infamous names written on the wall included Hurricane Isabel from 2003, Hurricane Ophelia from 2005 and Hurricane Sandy from 2012, among others.

High-tide lines of recent storms can be seen on a wall in Portsmouth Island, N.C. Photo courtesy Robin Kent Pittman


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"I've lived in Carteret County my whole life, and we always regarded Isabel as the highest. Dorian shattered those records but only on Ocracoke and Portsmouth ... It's never been that high before," Pittman said.

There were other signs of significant damage across the island. Major storms had washed away all water cisterns along with picket fences -- and access was limited by some of the most recent storm effects.

"You can no longer drive or take an ATV to the village because Dorian opened up inlets on the beachfront road," Pittman said.

The last two residents, two elderly women who had lived in the village for decades, finally reluctantly left the island in 1971, leaving the village deserted ever since.

"Portsmouth Island is one of the last reminders of the resiliency of people living on the coast. You have to be prepared and work hard to live here. I'm amazed at those homes still standing after weathering storm after storm," Pittman said.

After a couple years of salty winds battering the buildings and no upkeep, everything on the island started to deteriorate, but the Cape Lookout National Seashore was established in 1976, so old buildings that had been left to the elements were refurbished and renovated back to life.

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Today, the National Park Service continues to maintain the facilities, so visitors who tour the island can feel like they've gone back in time.

"Please go out and see it. I would recommend anyone visiting the area to plan a day trip and see it before it's too late," Pittman said. "As we enter another season of storms, it only takes one more bad one before we lose Portsmouth Island Village. I'm worried the new inlets on the Oceanside will only make it easier for storm waters to enter."

People can support organizations like the Friends of Portsmouth that help to keep the village maintained.

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