This page outlines a tour of the Core Sound region of North Carolina’s central coast, and of nearby destinations that exemplify the maritime heritage of Down East communities.
To some North Carolinians, the phrase “Down East” refers to all of eastern North Carolina, from the tobacco-and-barbecue zone along the Virginia border at the northeast, to the swamps and bays along the South Carolina border that mark the beginning of the Low Country. To residents of the central coast, however, Down East is the geographically remote but culturally fertile Core Sound region of Carteret County. Northeastern Carteret County encompasses vast plains of coastal marsh, punctuated by small fishing villages along the inland side of Core Sound; across the sound is the Cape Lookout National Seashore, now a federally maintained nature preserve and popular recreational area, but once the site of maritime towns that were for centuries vital pulse points in the history and economy of North Carolina.
Core Sound is a region rich in folklife. Its traditions of boat-building, decoy-carving, and working on the water make it one of the most distinctive cultural enclaves in North Carolina. In considering the history of Core Sound, there is a temptation to equate the region’s geographic isolation with cultural isolation – to conclude that these people’s traditions grew in a sequestered environment, with no influences other than the culture brought by the first settlers. But the people of Core Sound live by the water – both literally and figuratively – and their maritime heritage has linked them throughout their history to a much wider Atlantic culture. Carteret County’s marshes and back creeks make Core Sound remote from the rest of North Carolina, but even the earliest whalers on the Outer Banks were part of an international network of trade and communication and culture that would have been unfathomable to inland Carolinians.
This region’s traditions are highly distinctive, but are drawn from a wealth of cultures. 18th- and 19th-century waterfront homes in Beaufort show the graceful lineaments of Caribbean colonial architecture. In the pre-radio days, news was likely to arrive faster from New York or London than from Fayetteville or Raleigh. Though the extent of their legacy is debated, international pirates infested the North Carolina sounds in colonial times. From the 18th century to present day, coastal Carolinians have had an international and well deserved reputation as expert seafarers, and in their travels around the world – fishing, trading, and serving in the military – they gleaned a worldview that was well ahead of its time in its multinational breadth. Core Sound’s maritime folklife, particularly its boats and handcrafted tools of the fisherman’s trade, reflect that wealth of influences.
The tour begins in Beaufort, which is located approximately three hours’ drive east of Raleigh (two hours east of I-95), and can be reached directly by traveling on Highway 70 East. To visit all of the destinations along this itinerary, one needs at least a weekend, or, better yet, three days. While the distances between stops are not great, two involve ferry rides, requiring careful scheduling and plenty of time to cross the sounds.
The hours and availability of ferries vary by season and weather, so be sure to plan accordingly. Getting to Portsmouth, at the northern end of the tour, requires a long but scenic ferry ride across Pamlico Sound from Cedar Island to Ocracoke, and then a shorter passage from Ocracoke down to Portsmouth. The trip from the mainland to Shackleford Banks is considerably shorter than the Pamlico crossing. The Cedar Island-Ocracoke Ferry is operated by the state of North Carolina, and information about schedule and reservations can be found here, or by calling the Department of Transportation, 1-877-DOT4YOU. Ocracoke-Portsmouth and Beaufort/Harkers Island-Cape Lookout ferry trips are offered by commercial operators, a list of whom can be found here.
There are several hotels and bed and breakfast inns in Beaufort. Morehead City, just over the bridge from Beaufort, has several motels and bed and breakfasts, as do the beach communities along Bogue Banks, like Atlantic Beach, which are a very short drive from Morehead City. Likewise, there are many excellent restaurants in the Beaufort-Morehead area. There are a handful of restaurants on Harkers Island and in the small communities to the north. Harkers Island has a couple of lodging choices, and there is one motel and restaurant, The Driftwood, next to the ferry at the northernmost tip of Cedar Island. Shackleford Banks and Portsmouth are both located in the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Information about park amenities can be found here.
Photo credits: North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient Julian Hamilton shows miniature decoys that he carved in the 1950s; photo by Cedric N. Chatterley. Model boat made by North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient James Allen Rose, Harkers Island; photo by Roger Haile. Boat under construction, Harkers Island; photo by Roger Haile. Women mending nets, circa 1900; collection of Hampton Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
North Carolina Maritime Museum
North Carolina Maritime Museum 315 Front Street, Beaufort 252-728-7317
The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort is a great place to learn about coastal culture as you begin your tour of Down East.
The museum occupies two buildings on the Beaufort waterfront. The main building, at 315 Front Street, displays extensive exhibits that tell the cultural and natural history of the coast and Outer Banks — with special emphasis on the region’s integral art of boatbuilding. The museum’s collection includes more than 50 traditional boats, from an 1850s dugout canoe to mid-20th-century craft.
In the main building, exhibits on North Carolina’s historical commercial fishing industry display many of the boats and tools of working the water. You’ll learn about oyster dredging, and the economically vital menhaden industry. (Today, some of the craft used for fishing menhaden are steel-hulled minesweepers and submarine chasers left over from World War II.)
Whaling is perhaps not an industry frequently associated with North Carolina, but many of the first settlers of the Outer Banks were drawn by the migration routes that brought whales close to the shore on their way north in the early spring. Shackleford Banks, just across Beaufort Sound on the ocean side of the banks, was North Carolina’s most successful whaling community. Whalers rendered blubber for lamp oil, and extracted baleen (dental plates), which were sold for corset stays. During the rest of the year, the whalers made their living catching mullet, porpoises, sea turtles, and other marine animals. Models of some of the craft used by these early watermen are on display at the museum, including a small craft of the sort used for pursuing and harpooning whales, and a larger New England whaling vessel, the Wanderer. Also displayed are harpoons and many other tools of the whaling trade.
Because of the amount of maritime activity off of North Carolina’s coast, there was a significant need for rescue operations. This need was filled throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries by companies of lifesavers. Renowned for their bravery, many of these men lost their lives in the line of duty. A museum exhibit chronicles the lives and heroism of North Carolina’s lifesaving brigades.
Across the street is the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center, a dockside workshop where traditional builders teach the craft of boatbuilding “by the rack of the eye” – that is, with experience and instinct, rather than high-tech tools. The classes, which are available to the general public, range from a week-long intensive workshop in which students build their own flat-bottom skiffs or round-bottom boats, to workshops on such specialized skills as spar and sail making, and the maintenance of diesel engines and 12-volt marine electrical systems. There are one-day boatbuilding classes for families with children. Check the Maritime Museum’s website for details on course availability and fees. The Watercraft Center is also the home of the museum’s restoration activities.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum’s hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; Saturday, 10:00a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; Sunday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. It is closed during the first two weeks of the year, and on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Phone (252) 728-7317.
Photo credits: Divine Guthrie beside a whaling boat; photo in the collection of the North Carolina Maritime Museum.Boat under construction, and model boat maker at work, at the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center; photos by Sarah Bryan.
Old Burying Ground
Within easy walking distance of the North Carolina Maritime Museum is Beaufort’s historic cemetery, the Old Burying Ground, at 130 Turner Street. Considered by many to be one of the state’s most beautiful historic sites – especially in the springtime when the azaleas and wisteria bloom, or after a rainstorm, when the resurrection ferns on the ancient tree trunks stretch out their fronds – the Old Burying Ground is a delight for the graveyard fancier, and a vivid if unconventional museum of Carteret County history.
The land for the cemetery was deeded to the city in 1731, and many of the graves are from the mid-18th century. More than 200 graves predate the Civil War. Prominent and colorful figures of Carteret County’s past are buried here, including Captain Otway Burns, a privateer and boatbuilder who rose to national prominence during the War of 1812. His tomb is marked with one of the cannons from his brigantine, the Snapdragon.
Another seafaring man’s grave is inscribed with the verse,
The form that fills this silent grave
Once tossed on ocean’s rolling wave
But in a port securely fast
He’s dropped his anchor here at last.
There are several legends from the Carolina coast about unfortunate travelers who died at sea and were preserved for transport home in kegs of rum or brandy. The subject of one such tale is buried here, in a grave very close to Captain Otway’s. The low wooden marker reads, “Little Girl Buried in Barrel of Rum.” Visitors to the cemetery bring toys and trinkets to leave on the little girl’s grave, and it is not unusual for a visitor to find her marker festooned with streamers and tinsel and flowers. Decorations such as shells, broken crockery, coins, and toys are a common sight in Southern cemeteries, particularly in early burying grounds and rural African American graveyards. Several of the graves in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground are marked with conch shells and coins.
The burials mentioned here are among the best-known in the Old Burying Ground. However, this churchyard is filled with interesting graves, many distinguished by expert vernacular stone carving, by weather-worn unmarked wooden planks, by intricate brickwork, and flowery epitaph verses. The Old Burying Ground is generally open to the public during daylight hours. Guided tours can be arranged in-season through the Beaufort Historic Site, 1-800-575-7483.
From Beaufort, you can cross the sound on a ferry to Shackleford Banks, or proceed north and east by car to Harkers Island.
Photo credits: Old Burying Ground, Beaufort; photo by Sarah Bryan. Harkers Island bridge; photo by Roger Haile.
Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout
When the state of North Carolina acquired Core and Shackleford Banks in the 1970s, and subsequently donated it to the National Park Service, Shackleford Banks had few residents other than the mainlanders who used it for seasonal fish camps. In earlier generations, however, Point Lookout, at the southernmost tip of Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks, extending at nearly a right angle to the west of Cape Lookout, were the sites of busy maritime villages.
Shackleford Banks was settled around 1714, in part by the families of New England seamen recruited to harvest the whales that migrated through local waters in the early spring. During the other seasons, these people and the subsequent generations along these banks made their living fishing for mullet and porpoises. The Point Lookout Lighthouse, painted in iconic black and white diamonds, was built in 1859 to replace an 1812 structure. The community around the lighthouse came to be known as Diamond City.
In the 1890s there came a series of storms that profoundly altered the course of Carteret County’s history. The final blow was the San Ciriaco storm of August, 1899, remembered up and down the Carolina coast as the Great Hurricane. The storm caused much death and damage, from the Caribbean up along the eastern seaboard of the United States. As it skirted southeastern North Carolina, it slowed down considerably and picked up strength before making a direct and disastrous landfall in Carteret County. The lives of people all along the Outer Banks were irreversibly altered. Men were lost at sea, communities destroyed, livestock drowned, and the landscape shredded.
Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout were left essentially uninhabitable. The ocean water that washed over the dunes flooded drinking wells and gardens with killing salt, uncovered coffins and bones in the churchyards, and destroyed the maritime forests and nearly all other vegetation along the dunes.
By the time the next big storm came ashore, less than three months later, most of the bankers had abandoned their devastated communities. Many floated their houses, or the remains of their houses, across Core Sound, and took up residence on the mainland. The Morehead City neighborhood known as Promise Land is said to have been named for these storm refugees, whose disastrous uprooting reminded them of stories from the Bible. The majority of the bankers settled on or near Harkers Island, increasing its population several-fold, and contributing a new dimension of hardiness and seafaring experience to the Down East culture. Later in this tour, when you reach Harkers Island, you’ll get a glimpse of their legacy.
Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout are now part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, maintained by the National Park Service. The lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s quarters are open to the public daily from 9-5 between April and November. For information about accessibility and planning your trip, click here.
To reach Harkers Island, take 70 north leaving Beaufort. In approximately twelve miles, 70 makes a 90˚ turn to the right, crossing the North River to the town of Bettie. Follow 708 over Ward Creek, and just east of Otway, turn south on Harkers Island Road, which will carry you past Straits and then over one more bridge, to Harkers Island.
Photo credits: Seining for mullet, circa 1880s; photo in the collection of the Hampton Mariners Museum, Newport News, Virginia. Spritsail skiff; photograph in the collection of the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild
For generations, one of the most important natural resources in eastern North Carolina was the abundance of migratory (as well as non-migratory) waterfowl that frequented the area. Flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds – ducks, geese, swans, and many, many other species – would shelter in the coastal marshes and pocosins, and along the sounds. While the population has decreased significantly over the last century, migratory birds still come to eastern North Carolina in great abundance, making the region one of great attraction to hunters and birdwatchers.
During the off-season, men who worked the water as their primary trade still had a great deal to do – repairing nets, making cork floats, working on their boats, and, of course, hunting. They hunted waterfowl not only for their meat, but, particularly in the late nineteenth century, to supply feathers to the voracious market for ladies’ hats. Down East men also provided their services as hunting guides, showing wealthy visitors where to find good bird hunting areas, and supplying them with duck blinds, birddogs, dinner pails, and other necessities.
The hunting tradition that has proved most enduring, perhaps, and most emblematic of the Down East way of life, is decoy carving. Nature author T. Edward Nickens writes,
“All skills necessary to wrest a living from the marshes, sound, and sea were brought to bear through decoy carving, waterfowl hunting, and guiding. The boatwright’s deft touch with a drawknife. The netter’s skill with line and knot. The sailor’s love of canvas. The fishermen’s intimate understanding of wind and tide. Who knows how many thousands of decoys were carved in a Core Sound work shed? To those old-timers, each wooden bird was little more than a tool. But today, we see these works of folk art as a prism, through which we can view a life lived close to the land and sea.”
The Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild was founded over a pot of stewed clams by a group of friends and carvers, here on Harkers Island in 1987. The founders envisioned an organization through which carvers could learn from each other and teach new carvers, while inspiring public interest in, and preserving for future generations, the art of decoy making. They also initiated a festival to honor carvers and give them an opportunity to sell their work. The Core Sound Decoy Festival, now in its twentieth year, draws hundreds of people annually to this community of fewer than two thousand full-time residents.The 2007 festival will be held on December 1st and 2nd.
The Carvers Guild offers demonstrations, classes for children, meetings, and competitions, and has a museum shop that is well worth a visit too. The Guild is open most days, but it is a good idea to call first. For information about the Guild and the Decoy Festival, visit the Guild’s website, or call (252) 838-8818.
Photo credits: North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipients Julian Hamilton and Homer Fulcher, carving decoys; photo by Cedric N. Chatterley. Babe Ruth (far left) hunting with men from Carteret County; photo from the collection of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum. Decoy by Julian Hamilton; photo by Cedric N. Chatterley. Hunting dog Down East. Julian Hamilton holding a swan decoy that he made; photo by Cedric N. Chatterley.
Harker’s Island boatbuilding
The art of building boats — both full-size and models – is one rooted in hundreds of years of Down East history. Harkers Island has been home to generations of master builders, including 1993 North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient Julian Guthrie, and 2000 Award recipient James Allen Rose.
Rose learned boatbuilding from his father, and from other relatives and neighbors, and he remembers that during his childhood there were more than 300 boat builders in the area. “There was a time when it was all that anyone out here did. There would be a boat in every other yard…” As a child, Rose was the envy of his friends for his skill in carving miniature boats. “Me and other boys spent a lot of time by the shore playing with model skiffs,” he remembers. “When they saw my little skiffs bobbing up and down, they thought they were outstanding. I traded them to friends for marbles, spin-tops, and other things.”
Rose worked for many years as a fisherman and in commercial boathouses, but most of the full-size watercraft that he constructed were built in his own yard. These hand-built boats, some of up to 40 feet, earned him a reputation as a master craftsmen. Over the course of his life, Rose has built more than 80 full-size boats by himself.
Upon retirement in 1984, Rose decided to return to making model boats. His highly accurate models depict many of the traditional forms found in full-size boats Down East – spritsail skiffs, round-stern fishing boats, mail boats, and many others. Not only are they a demonstration of James Allen Rose’s excellence as a boat builder, but they also tell a beautifully crafted history of the life and work of the people of Core Sound. Several years ago he estimated that he had made and sold nearly three thousand miniatures. “I love every one of them, wherever they are.”
To visit James Allen Rose’s shop or inquire about purchasing one of his model boats, call the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum at (252) 728-1742.
Photo credits: North Carolina Folk Heritage Award Recipient James Allen Rose in his workshop, Harkers Island. Rose’s workshop. Boat under construction at the Harkers Island docks. Model boat by James Allen Rose. All photos by Roger Haile.
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
Like many old communities on the Southern coast, Harkers Island is undergoing a great transformation. People from elsewhere in the state and country are arriving and buying land on the island, building summer houses or settling in as year-round residents. Fishing and hunting and boatbuilding no longer form the core of Harkers Island’s daily life, and the old ways of living are becoming increasingly rare.
The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, at the southeastern tip of the island where Shell Point juts into Core Sound, provides a snug haven for the centuries’ old traditions of these maritime communities. The museum serves as a center for the preservation and documentation of the region’s material culture, and a gathering place where Down Easterners celebrate and renew old ties.
Museum exhibits display beautiful historical and modern-day examples of the region’s finest decoy carving, as well as handmade nets, crab pots, and other tools of the region’s trades, all of which require a high level of skill and experience to make. Different communities along the Sound, like Stacy, Bettie, Davis, and Otway, tell their own stories in exhibits that lovingly showcase the daily lives of their hardy forebears, with handcrafts like quilts and tatting, implements of their various maritime occupations, family letters, sports regalia, and many other treasured items.
By no means a museum only of the past, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum is a lively venue for concerts, quilting bees, and other events that bring together the people of Carteret County. On the third Tuesday evening of every month, the members of one community in the Core Sound region gather at the museum for a covered-dish supper, where they discuss their own heritage and perhaps reunite with old neighbors who have come home for the occasion.
The gift shop is a good source for local crafts and music, as well as a wide selection of literature about the region. In particular, look for the annual Mailboat, a magazine about Core Sound’s heritage written by its homegrown authors. Also highly recommended is The Harkers Island Cookbook, a widely popular compilation of traditional local recipes collected by Harkers Island United Methodist Women.
The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum is open from 10 AM to 5 PM every Monday through Saturday, and from 2 PM to 5 PM every Sunday, with the exceptions of Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. Admission is free. The museum is located next to the headquarters of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, at 1788 Island Road, set back among the trees on the left-hand side of the. 252-728-1500.
Leaving Harkers Island, backtrack on Harkers Island Road over the bridge to Straits. You can follow Harkers Island Road all the way back to Otway, where it rejoins 70, or when Harkers Island Road turns sharply to the north, east of Straits, you can continue going straight, on Straits Road. Make a left on Marshallberg Road at Tusk, and then join 70 again at Smyrna. Follow 70 around Jarrett Bay to Davis.
Photo credits: Harkers Island; photo by Roger Haile. Franklin Roosevelt (wearing black, in cart) hunting in Carteret County, and hunting party aboard a menhaden boat; photos in the collection of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum.
The Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, comprised of 11,000 acres of marshland and nearly 3,500 acres of forest, is a major nesting place for many bird species, and is one of the most northerly habitats of the American alligator. The unincorporated town of Cedar Island, at the tip of the peninsula, is an old fishing village. Some houses here date back to the late nineteenth century, though the area has been inhabited since at least the eighteenth century. You’ll pass docks on the right that are home to working shrimp and crab boats, and, depending on the time of your visit, you may see vast walls of stacked red and yellow and green crab pots.
At the northeastern end of the island you’ll find the Driftwood Motel and Restaurant, and the landing for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry. This ferry will take you part of the way to Portsmouth, the last stop on the tour of Core Sound.
The ferry ride to Ocracoke is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and runs eight times a day each way during the summer, and four times during winter. 1-800-293-3779 for reservations (recommended) and to verify schedules. From Ocracoke, you will have one more ferry ride – this one much shorter – across the channel to Portsmouth. Check the Cape Lookout National Seashore website for information on licensed ferry services.
Photo credits: Cedar Island docks; photo by Sarah Bryan.
At the apex of Portsmouth’s history, around 1860, this village was the second-largest town on the Outer Banks, a bustling deepwater port already a century old and home to nearly 700 residents. The population included over 100 slaves, many of whom worked on the docks. Portsmouth was an important lightering station, a place where cargo was transferred from deep-hulled, seagoing ships to vessels of shallower draft that could navigate the sounds and inland waterways. Portsmouth was a way-station for two-thirds of North Carolina’s exports and was, at various times in its nearly 250-year history, the home of a Coast Guard station, an academy, and a hospital. Its importance is underscored by the fact that it was captured by the British in 1813, and by the Federals in 1861.
Today, following a series of transformative events, Portsmouth is uninhabited (other than by Park staff and visitors). An 1846 storm created Hatteras Inlet, to the north, diverting much of the maritime traffic upon which Portsmouth depended.
By the time of the Civil War, the town was already in decline, and after residents evacuated in 1861, less than half of the population returned. With the town’s role in the shipping industry greatly diminished due to the shifting inlets and the abolition of slavery, upon which the lightering trade was dependent, the population turned to fishing as its mainstay and, after a lifesaving station was built in 1894, to maritime rescue. A handful of residents kept the village alive through the twentieth century, until the 1970s when the last two, Elma Dixon and Marion Babb, moved to the mainland.
Today the Methodist Church and a handful of other buildings remain, carefully maintained by Park Service volunteers. Once a year, however, the village bursts forth with activity, when hundreds of visitors – former residents, descendants of islanders, and tourists – arrive to celebrate the Portsmouth Homecoming. (To view a slideshow of Jan Eason’s photographs of Portsmouth Homeocming, visit the website of the North Carolina Folklore Journal, and scroll to the bottom of the front page.)
Homecoming begins at the 1914 church with a morning hymn-singing and the ceremonial tolling of the church bell. During a dinner on the grounds, the visitors reconnect with old friends and kinfolk, and then for the rest of the afternoon they roam the village, visiting their ancestors’ homeplaces, tending family graves, and strengthening the heartstrings that tie them to this remote island where few of them have ever lived.
The Portsmouth Homecoming exemplifies a core value of Down Easterners – their devotion to the memory, and the living traditions, of their ancestors, who for centuries worked the water and built communities that have withstood the eroding forces of time and weather.
Photo credits: Jesse Babb, Jessie Lee Babb, and Mildred Dixon. Portsmouth, 1942. Photo from Marion Gray Babb Collection, National Park Service. Modern North Carolina shrimper culling his catch.