Across the Ocracoke Inlet from Ocracoke Island lies the ghost town of Portsmouth Village. The remaining structures there tell a story of a port town, fishing village, historic buildings, and the people that used to live there.
In 1753, the North Carolina Assembly established Portsmouth and it quickly became the largest settlement on the Outer Banks. The Ocracoke Inlet was one of the only major trading routes and Portsmouth and Ocracoke were both active port towns.
Portsmouth thrived and by 1860 had nearly 700 permanent residents, 117 of whom were slaves. It served as a “lightering” village for ships passing through the inlet. With the inlet so shallow in some places, many larger ships could not pass through. Portsmouth villagers, with the help of slave labor, would transfer cargo to flatboats and then reload the boats on the other side. The village was a place of storage and shipping facilities for this method. This industry helped Portsmouth prosper until the Civil War when many of the islanders left. With the inlet that formed on the Hatteras side in 1846 and the shipping industry halted, Portsmouth’s fate was destined to diminish.
In 1894, a U.S. Lifesaving Service was established and lasted 43 years, employing local men and keeping life in the little village. When it was decommissioned in 1937, the population began to further dwindle.
In the early 1900s, Portsmouth was home to about 100 people. The island men worked for the Coast Guard or fished the local waters. Residents lived a simple life and were always prepared. The weather was always a threat that loomed in the distance whether it be hurricanes, nor’easters, flooding, or high winds. Residents waited for the mail boat each day for news, mail-order items, and their mail.
Ocracoke began to thrive as a vacation spot in the 1950s. Portsmouth had no electricity, no paved roads, no ferry service, no telephones, and no steady ties to the outside world. The last two residents of Portsmouth left their home behind in 1971.
In 1975, Portsmouth was incorporated into Cape Lookout National Seashore in an effort to preserve the village and keep the spirits alive. About 20 structures are still standing and are registered with the National Register of Historic Places. The Cape Lookout National Seashore leases several buildings to individuals for a couple of thousand dollars a year and the promise that they will maintain and improve the buildings.
Friends of Portsmouth Island was formed in 1989 and consists of about 300 members. The group has a homecoming on Portsmouth in April of even years and has ongoing projects to improve and preserve what is left, collect artifacts, and promote knowledge of the island.
Today, Portsmouth Island gets several hundred visitors a month in the summer season. There is a visitor center on the island with solar toilets. If you visit, it is suggested to bring your own water, food, adequate clothing, insect repellent, and sunscreen. The village is accessible by private boat if you can navigate the shallow waters, or by a charter service from Ocracoke. The Methodist Church, the old general store with post office, and the Life-Saving Station are open to the public. Camping is not allowed in the historic district. Pets are allowed on a six-foot leash. Step back in time and visit Portsmouth Village.