Just across the Ocracoke Inlet, not many people would know that there's an abandoned village that dates back to Revolutionary War times. Portsmouth Village is a small fraction of what life was once like on the eastern coast of North Carolina, but it was one that once bustled with importance during the 18th and 19th centuries.
After multiple hurricanes - as North Carolina is known for - nearly decimated the village, it was eventually abandoned and its residents never returned. Today, it is part of the Cape Island National Seashore, although Portsmouth Island still stands out as one of the most remote places within reach of Hatteras. The trek there is well worth the end result since exploring this now-abandoned, historical town is indeed like stepping back several centuries.
How To Reach Portsmouth Island
Since it is a rarity that 4WD vehicles are able to make it onto Portsmouth Island, the easiest way to reach it is by boat. It's located just northwest of Ocracoke across the Ocracoke Inlet, and just northeast of Cedar Island. Visitors can use boating services from Portsmouth Island Adventures, which can be contacted via phone to arrange boating transportation.
Recommended: Call at least several days in advance, as most phone calls are returned in the afternoon and evening with cost quotes and trip details.
Of course, the trip to Portsmouth Island will also depend on the weather and the size of the group that is traveling. Those who invest in a boating tour will have access to the Portsmouth Island beach as well as the old village, should they choose to visit both during their trip. Additionally, the tour will include helpful and interesting information about the island, as guides are especially knowledgeable regarding the island's history and how best to navigate it.
Due to the rocky nature of the island and how undeveloped it is, it is not wheelchair-accessible.
Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting Portsmouth Village
Since the village and the surrounding island are protected land, it's important to keep several things in mind when visiting. Visitors should abide by the guidelines as outlined by the National Parks Service since the area is a historical and archeological site:
Portsmouth Village is only accessible via boat, and NPS offers an extended list of ferries in the area here.
The Theodore and Annie Salter House have the only restrooms on the island.
Insect repellent, snacks, drinking water, sunscreen, a hat, comfortable walking shoes, and comfortable clothing are recommended for the trip.
Camping is permitted along the beach but is not permitted anywhere near the historic Portsmouth Village.
Pets must remain on a six-foot leash at all times on the island.
Metal detectors are not permitted on the island in order to protect the historic artifacts that have been found there.
What to Know About Portsmouth Village & Its History Before Going
Some people might wonder what's so special about Portsmouth Village and why it's worth visiting at all. Ocracoke Island is a popular, albeit remote, vacation destination in North Carolina - so why would anyone wish to visit another island that's even more remote? For history buffs and ghost town lovers alike, Portsmouth Island offers plenty. Not only is the shoreline beautiful in its practically untouched nature, but the village itself dates back to 1753 when it was authorized by North Carolina Colonial Assembly. Due to this, it predates many of the older villages on the Outer Banks, which makes it a historic treasure on the shoreline of North Carolina.
The village grew to become the largest and most populated by 1770, as it was also a busy seaport. Business continued to increase at this shipping port until the mid-1800s when the weather - and the landscape - of North Carolina's Outer Banks began to change. Ocracoke Inlet was beginning to shallow which was the first sign that a major change was underway; a bad hurricane deepened the expanse between Hatteras and Portsmouth Island, making it even more unsafe for the residents who continued to live there. Many of them were forced to leave during the Civil War, and following that, the island was reduced to only a fishing village. By the 1970s, few residents remained, and it was completely abandoned shortly after.
Those who are visiting today will be able to see:
- Portsmouth Island Beach: Visitors have the chance to visit the beach, the old village, or both, and it's definitely worth seeing both on the same trip.
- Theodore & Annie Salter House: This is where visitors can find the restrooms, and also where they'll learn more history about Portsmouth Village.
- The Post Office & General Store: The post office also served as the village general store, and visitors can still peer inside and see artifacts leftover from centuries prior.
- The Methodist Church: While the original church was destroyed after a storm in 1913, the one that stands today is still representative of the religious community that existed as far back as the 1700s.
- The Schoolhouse: This is the only one of its kind on the island and officially closed its doors in the 1940s.
- The U.S. Life-Saving Station: This shingle-style station is a unique feature on the island and is part of its maritime history.
Visiting Portsmouth Village is a worthy experience for those who are staying in Ocracoke. While it does take some effort to arrange transportation, it's well worth it to experience the maritime history that would be hard to find anywhere else in the country.