Portsmouth, North Carolina, on the Ocracoke Inlet in the Outer Banks may have always been small in area, but what is now a desolate, wind-torn ghost town was once a bustling port.
In post-Revolutionary America, Portsmouth was kind of a big deal. Acting as a lightering port that allowed movement of cargo from ocean vessels to smaller vessels that could move easily through the sounds, 18th century Portsmouth was a vital point of entry on the Atlantic. The majority of inhabitants were African American both pre and post-Civil War, and despite being unable to attend the one schoolhouse due to segregation laws, were able to sustain a decent living on the inlet engaging in the various maritime trades available in abundance.
In 1846, two vicious hurricanes changed both the landscape and the future of the busy fishing village when they cut through two nearby inlets. Hatteras Inlet left the windy run-in considerably deeper, and the Oregon Inlet faired no better. Now more convenient than Ocracoke, the formerly crucial shipping lane lost its appeal. As the town rapidly declined, its death was hastened by the Civil War, the closing of the post office, and hurricane season after hurricane season until the final two holdout residents left in 1971.
Portsmouth Island as well as the abandoned village are currently under the care of the National Park Service as a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. There are about 12 structures still left in the area, and during the summer visitors may explore the town while there is no power, food, or potable water available, and can camp out overnight if they come prepared. Mosquito repellent and/or netting is highly recommended.
Know Before You Go
Portsmouth is reached by the Austin's boat tours from Silver Lake Harbor in Ocracoke village.