Hatteras & Ocracoke Islands, NC  - Vacation Travel Guide

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Hatteras & Ocracoke Area Features

Historic Places of Interest

The islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke have rich histories that have been steadily collected over the centuries. From pirates to war, notable events have contributed to the area’s culture. Those who love hearing about the past and seeing memorabilia from long ago may enjoy discovering all the interesting and historic places the islands have to offer.

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

Visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station near Rodanthe for a look into the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. Built in 1874, Chicamacomico was the first of seven U.S. Life-Saving Stations to be completed and manned in North Carolina. Other buildings were added to the 7-acre, 8-building complex over the years, including the cookhouse, boathouse, stable and Midgett home. The site is believed to be one of the most complete remaining U.S. Life-Saving Stations in the country.

Tasked with keeping a vigilant watch for ships in distress and giving aid to those who needed it, the men of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station performed many heroic acts and saved countless lives. The most famous rescue involved the British tanker, the Mirlo. One hundred years ago, the ship was sailing to England with a cargo of airplane fuel when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. There were 51 men aboard and almost all managed to get to three lifeboats. However, their struggle was far from complete. One lifeboat capsized and another couldn’t steer properly—only one cleared the inferno that stemmed from their burning ship.

The surfmen stationed at Chicamacomico leapt into action and transported their vessel—Surfboat No. 1046—a quarter-mile to the ocean and over the breaking waves. They proceeded past the lifeboat that had cleared the Mirlo wreckage, after learning that others were in greater peril. The men rowed through flames and gasoline to reach the survivors of the capsized lifeboat and eventually the wayward lifeboat. The rescuers were burned and exhausted, but in the end, they managed to save 42 of the Mirlo’s 51 men.

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station remembers those deadly, yet triumphant events of Aug. 16, 1918, on the 100-year anniversary. A ceremony and entertainment will take place on August 16, 2018, but visitors can learn more about the Mirlo rescue throughout the year. Equipment used in that rescue including the actual surfboat, as well as many other artifacts, are on display in the museum. For more information, visit www.chicamacomico.org, or call 252-987-1552.

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

The Mirlo was certainly not the only ship to meet its demise in the treacherous waters of the North Carolina coast. Ever since humans have sailed here, shipwrecks have been prevalent in the Gulf Stream on the Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, giving the area the name, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Through stories of survival, artifacts washed ashore and items recovered by divers, the history surrounding these ill-fated ships can still be explored. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island provides fascinating insights into the moments these ships were seized by the sea. Here, visitors can learn about those who survived and how rescuers overcame obstacles to help those in distress. They can also see salvaged artifacts and tools used to recover lost treasures. Located in Hatteras Village, the museum is a North Carolina State History Museum that preserves the memory of the lost ships and teaches visitors about the rich maritime history that exists offshore.

The Historic Weather Station

On your way onto Hatteras Island, make sure to stop by the visitor center for some valuable area information and also a look into the past. In addition to finding out about the island, you’ll be able to step inside a historic building that contains many stories and artifacts. Built in 1901 by the federal government, the U.S. Weather Bureau Station on Hatteras Island recorded multiple weather conditions every hour and telegraphed their data to the District Forecast Center in Washington, DC.  This fully restored building was one of the first weather stations in the nation and operated as such until 1946. Throughout most of the 1950s, the station was used by the U.S. Coast Guard since its position on the seashore proved to be ideal. Afterwards, it was turned over to the National Park Service where universities such as Duke and North Carolina State used it for research. The Weather Station now welcomes visitors to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore throughout most of the year.

Portsmouth Island

To take a tour of a ghost town from the turn of the 20th century, visit Portsmouth Island south of Ocracoke. Accessible only by boat, visitors can walk around the town that has been abandoned for nearly 50 years. Back in the late 1800s, it was a thriving town of 700 people. They worked to help incoming ships pass through the shallow inlet by “lightering” the boats (taking cargo off to lighten the ship and reloading it when the ship cleared the inlet). In 1894, a U.S. Life-Saving Station was established but only lasted 43 years. While it was inhabited in its later years, the island never had paved roads, nor did it have electricity—unlike neighboring Ocracoke. Eventually, residents of Portsmouth Island left their homes due to threats of weather and poor access to the modern world. The last two residents left in 1971, leaving behind a trace of the town that was. Now, it is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the village is being preserved. Several buildings are open to the public and a Visitors Center was built for the comfort of the island’s visitors. If you visit, be sure to bring water, sunblock and bugspray.

Unique Cemeteries

Some places on or around the islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke that tell about the people who lived here. However, a couple of cemeteries present interesting stories about people who are buried here. One rather fascinating grave belongs to a man buried next to his horse. Samuel “Sam” Jones had an incredibly strong work ethic. Born in North Carolina in 1894, he took his first job at a foundry in Norfolk, VA, when he was 13 years old. Amazingly, and through hard work, he rose to become president of the foundry when he was only 19. A few years later, he became the owner of the business. His riches also stemmed from an invention—the Berkley Stoker—that revolutionized how locomotives were fueled. He had ample money and was always interested in investing in land. Upon visiting Ocracoke Island in 1939, he immediately started construction on a number of houses and buildings including a lodge for hunting and fishing called Berkley Castle.  Over time, he made innumerable contributions to the island, hired workers for construction, funded churches and bought emergency vehicles. When he died (after completing a long day at work), he was buried—not with his extensive family—but next to his beloved horse, Ikey D, at Springer’s Point. Ikey D was supposedly interred in a standing position so Sam Jones could “jump on and ride to glory.”

Elsewhere on the islands are small British cemeteries. During WWII, the British ship HMT Bedfordshire (staffed by a British and Canadian crew), was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of North Carolina on May 11, 1942. Sadly, all hands were lost as the ship was sunk. However, Ocracoke locals found the remains of four allied sailors that washed up on shore, and buried them near an existing cemetery in  Ocracoke Village under the ever-present British flag.

In nearby Buxton on Hatteras Island, another British cemetery is the final resting place of 2 men: one from the Bedfordshire; and the other is presumed to be from a British merchant vessel that was torpedoed the previous year, the tanker San Delfino. In the first half of the year 1942, over 400 ships were sunk in “Torpedo Junction” off the North Carolina coast. These cemeteries not only preserve the memory of the men who were found, but also of their comrades who were lost at sea. 

Every May 11, military honor guards conduct ceremonies at the sites attended by representatives from America and Britain, and sometimes Canada and Germany. The land occupied by the cemeteries is considered British soil in perpetuity. The cemetery near Buxton is maintained by the National Park Service and the Ocracoke Island site is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Teach’s Hole

Finally, one of the most storied figures to walk the beaches of Ocracoke was Edward Teach—otherwise known as the legendary pirate, Blackbeard. In the early 1700s, Teach harbored his ship, the Adventure, in Teach’s Hole on the southern end of Ocracoke Island where his exploits were pardoned by Charles Eden, the governor of North Carolina. (It’s believed that the governor profited from Teach’s pilfering.) Regardless, Governor Spotswood of Virginia tasked a crew led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard to capture or kill the pirate. On Nov. 22, 1718, Teach and Maynard’s crews engaged each other in battle. Maynard shot and stabbed Teach on multiple occasions before a shipmate succeeded in killing him. Now, 300 years later, the event that remembers Maynard as a hero is being commemorated throughout the Outer Banks and especially at Teach’s Hole by Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. Read more about events surrounding the historic anniversary.

Visit some of these places, and you’ll discover the past and uncover stories of long ago on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

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