Monday, February 19, 2018

Capt. Zora Gaskins

The following article appeared in The Tar Heel (Elizabeth City), Friday, February 18, 1910:

"NOTHING HEARD YET OF CAPTAIN GASKINS - Great uneasiness is experienced by the family of Captain Zora Gakins at his prolonged delay in reaching Wilmington, NC from Baltimore with the schooner George I. Phillips, laden with fertilizer.

"Captain Gaskins cleared 3 weeks ago, and since the date of his clearance nothing has been seen or heard of him or his vessel. It was reported several days ago that his vessel was sighted burning at seas, but this report was an error, since the burning vessel proved to be the J.S. Hopkins, whose crew was rescued by a Danish ship.

"Shipbrokers in Baltimore are of the opinion that Captain Gaskins has been blown offshore by the heavy winds and will eventually arrive in port safe and sound. They express no uneasiness at his long delay in arriving at his destination. Captain Gaskins' friends at Hatteras feel confident that he will eventually show up as his vessel is an able one and Captain Gaskins is an experienced seaman. A number of his friends in this city do not feel so hopeful of his safety and they greatly fear that the captain and his crew are lost."

When I first read this article I wondered if I would ever discover what happened to Capt. Gaskins, his crew, and their vessel. Look for a follow-up post tomorrow. 

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:    

Friday, February 16, 2018


Modern tourism on Ocracoke Island is a consequence of several factors:
  • Electrification of Ocracoke Village in 1938
  • Paving of the first roads in 1942, then again in the early 1950s
  • Establishment of ferry service in 1950
  • Various other developments including telephone service, a municipal water system, and internet access. 
However, people have been visiting Ocracoke for rest, health, and relaxation since soon after the establishment of a settlement on the island in the early-mid 1700s. Jonathan Price wrote this about Ocracoke 1795!: "[T]his healthy spot is in autumn the resort of many of the inhabitants of the main[land]."

In the nineteenth century well-to-do North Carolinians ventured to Ocracoke aboard steamships. They stayed at the large Victorian hotel in the village.

The Ponzer, or Ponder, Hotel ca. 1890

After the hotel burned down in 1900 hunters and anglers continued to visit Ocracoke Island, especially in the fall and winter months. Eventually many of them brought their families to the island in the summer. By the mid-twentieth century a tourist economy was well on its way to becoming the predominant economic force on Ocracoke.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Life Saving

For the last several days I have been writing about island occupations (inlet pilots, mariners, and fishermen). Another prominent occupation for Ocracoke men was surfman in the United States Life-Saving Service.

The Life-Saving Service was officially established in 1871. As a section of the Department of Treasury the USLSS exclusively targeted the systematic rescue of shipwreck victims. The first establishment of the Life-Saving Service occurred in North Carolina in 1874 when seven stations were built on the northern barrier islands.

The first station was built on Ocracoke Island, near Hatteras Inlet, in 1883. Capt. James Howard was the keeper.

Hatteras Inlet USLSS, Ocracoke

The original crew consisted of six surfmen who took turns scanning the ocean from the station's cupola during daylight hours, and patrolling the beach on foot during the night. Eventually, because of the great distance on Ocracoke, surfmen were permitted to patrol on horseback.

Earl O'Neal lists the following surfmen who were serving in 1900 (for more information see

  • George Lafayette Fulcher, Jr.- B. 04-19-1844 D. 09-30-1908 
  • George Lafayette Fulcher III - B. 1871 D. Unknown 
  • Robert W. Gaskill - B. 12-14-1846 D. 11-09-1918 
  • James Wheeler Howard Sr. - B. 12-04-1874 D. 11-02-1940 
  • Charlie S. McWilliams - B. 1871 D. Unknown (He became Portsmouth Island Station Keeper on October 8, 1903.) 
  • George W. Simpson Sr. - B. 12-08-1842 D. 07-25-1912 James Hatton Wahab - B. 01-31-1861 D. 08-08-1913 David Williams - B. 03-27-1858 D. 04-05-1938
In 1904 a second Life-Saving Station was built in Ocracoke village. Capt. David Williams was keeper. 

Over the years, the brave men of the Ocracoke Life-Saving Service saved the lives of many seafarers, sometimes in dramatic and life-threatening conditions. To read more click here:

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Visitors to the Outer Banks (and even residents) often refer to Ocracoke as a "traditional fishing village." Surprisingly, this was not generally true for the first 150 years of the island's settlement. Our posts for the last two days explored the island's primary early occupations, piloting and seafaring.

Following are the number of fishermen listed in the census records on Ocracoke for the years 1850 - 1880:
  • 1850............5 fishermen living on Ocracoke
  • 1860............1 fisherman living on Ocracoke
  • 1870..........16 fishermen living on Ocracoke
  • 1880..........32 fishermen living on Ocracoke
The figures for 1850 and 1860 are explained by our previous two posts: piloting and seafaring were the primary island occupations during those periods. Without ice to preserve fish, or gas boats to carry fish to mainland markets, large scale commercial fishing was simply not practical. Of course, small scale fishing to supply local markets and family, friends, and neighbors was a long tradition on the island.

But what accounts for the increase in fishermen in 1870 and 1880? The short answer is oysters. In 1858 the North Carolina state assembly, responding to an increase in harvesting oysters on a commercial level, passed a law establishing a procedure to create private oyster beds in coastal Carolina waters. Oyster harvesting became such an important economic enterprise in Pamlico Sound that it led to what became known as the 1890 "Ocracoke Oyster War" (see our account here).

The number of watermen remained steady for several decades. Census records for 1890 have not survived, but 35 fishermen are listed in the 1900 census. Again, harvesting shellfish accounts for this number.  In 1897 James Harvey Doxsee moved his commercial clam canning operation from New York to Ocracoke Island.  Local watermen were now harvesting clams.

In 1938 Ocracoke village was electrified, and an ice plant was established. At about the same time islanders began converting their sail skiffs to gas boats. Commercial fishing blossomed. Today Ocracoke is home to two fish houses and several dozen full- or part-time commercial fishermen and fisherwomen.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries seafaring was an enticement for young island men. For many years square-rigged sailing vessels carried trade goods from England to the North Carolina mainland, and coastal schooners plied the waters between Nova Scotia and the West Indies, often stopping at Ocracoke. In 1840 more than 1400 sailing ships were recorded as having passed through Ocracoke Inlet. Several schooners were even built on Ocracoke. It is not surprising that a number of islanders shipped out to sail before the mast.

After Hatteras Inlet opened in 1846, almost all of Ocracoke's inlet pilots eventually moved there (see yesterday's post). The men who remained on Ocracoke generally followed the seafaring tradition. The following table, culled from census records, reveals the growing role seafaring played in island history:
  • 1850..........10 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
  • 1860..........18 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
  • 1870..........21 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
  • 1880..........66 mariners listed as living on Ocracoke
The story of commercial fishing on Ocracoke is a bit more complicated. Tomorrow's post explores that tradition.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Monday, February 12, 2018


For most of Ocracoke's history, trade and commerce were the driving economic forces that shaped its inhabitants. In 1715 the North Carolina General Assembly passed an act to settle pilots on Ocracoke Island. Inlet pilots, individuals who knew the local waters, were necessary to help ship captains, who were carrying trade goods between mainland North Carolina and England and other colonies, navigate the often treacherous inlet between Ocracoke and Portsmouth.

In 1795 Jonathan Price produced a detailed map of Occacock (Ocracoke) Inlet, accompanied by a description of the area. Referring to the village and its surroundings, Price wrote, “ three miles [in length], and its breadth two and one half. Small live oak and cedar grow abundantly over it, and it contains several swamps and rich marshes, which might be cultivated to great advantage; but its inhabitants, depending on another element for their support, suffer the earth to remain in its natural state. They are all pilots; and their number of head of families is about thirty. [my emphasis]”

In 1846 a violent hurricane opened Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet. As it turned out, Hatteras Inlet was more navigable than Ocracoke Inlet, and ship traffic quickly moved there. The pilots soon followed. 

Census records do not list occupations until 1850, but a conservative estimate is that 35 - 50 pilots were living on Ocracoke before Hatteras Inlet opened. The following table shows clearly how times changed during the next decades: 
  • 1850 (4 years after Hatteras Inlet opened)........27 pilots are living on Ocracoke 
  • 1860.........................................................................13 pilots are living on Ocracoke
  • 1870...........................................................................4 pilots are living on Ocracoke
  • 1880...........................................................................1 pilot is living on Ocracoke
In tomorrow's post I will discuss seafaring, the occupation that mostly supplanted piloting in the late 19th century. Following that post I will write about fishing as an island enterprise.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   

Friday, February 09, 2018

Capt. Joseph Burrus

Yesterday I wrote about the big freeze of 1917-1918, and Capt. Joseph Burrus. Capt. Burrus, a prominent island resident, died in 1951. This obituary ran in the Coastland Times:

Capt. Joseph Burrus

Ocracoke – Capt. Joseph Merritt Burrus, veteran lighthouse keeper, age 76, died Tuesday [July 17, 1951] at his home here. Funeral service was held Friday morning with Rev. W. Y. Stewart officiating and with the local Coast Guard as pall bearers.

Capt. Burrus was a native of Hatteras, son of a sea captain. He enlisted in the lighthouse service in his early twenties and served forty-five years in North Carolina or Virginia lighthouses, among them Tangier Island, Thimble Shoals, Cape Lookout, Croatan, Oliver’s Reef, Bluff Shoals, and Ocracoke He was well known to everyone during the last sixteen years of his service at the historic Ocracoke lighthouse, retiring from duty here in 1947.

He is survived by his wife, Elanor Oden Burrus, one son, Oscar Burrus of Norfolk, six daughters, Mrs. C. L. Thorpe of Hawthorne, California, Mrs. Victor Grigas of Worcester, Mass., Mrs. Raymond Beasley of Portsmouth, Va., Mrs. Monford Garrish, Mrs. Sybil Simpson, Mrs. Herman Spencer, all of Ocracoke, and fourteen grandchildren.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here: