Sunday, October 4, 2009

What Is Ocracoke? Part 3 Of Many.

Just what is Ocracoke, you ask? This is Ocracoke Island.
Ocracoke Island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and is located at the southernmost tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The island sits 26 miles off the mainland coast and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Pamlico Sound to the West. Ocracoke is a historic fishing village turned tourist attraction, accessible only by ferry, plane, or private boat. Ocracoke has 16 miles of pristine, undeveloped beaches and was actually named the #1 Beach in the United States in 2007 by "Dr. Beach," aka Dr. Stephen Leatherman, professor of coastal ecology/geology at Florida International University, who annually rates nationwide beaches. Different Internet sites vary. Some say ecology, others say geology. I'm just giving you the low-down on the down-low. Ocracoke Island is one of the barrier islands of the Outer Banks where Blackbeard, the pirate, is known to have once roamed. It is home to approximately 800 year round residents and its economy is based almost entirely on tourism. Fishing also makes up a portion of the local economy - both commercial fishing and chartered sport fishing. Sir Walter Raleigh's flagship, "Tiger," enroute to Raleigh's Roanoke Island colony, was the first known unfortunate vessel wrecking here in June 1585. It ran aground on a sand bar in Ocracoke Inlet and was forced to land on the island for repairs. The name, "Ocracoke," is no doubt Indian. On the earliest maps, the name was shown as "Woccocon," and in 1715, the name had become "Ococcock," and soon after that, it was shown as "Ocracoke." Ocracoke was established as a port in 1715 and recognized as a town in 1753. Its European history began in 1719, when John Lovick, Secretary of the Colony of North Carolina and a Deputy of the Lords Proprietors, was granted the 2110 acres of the island of Ocracoke. During the early 1700's, Ocracoke was mainly used for rasing sheep and cattle. During the revolution, British warships were prevented from guarding the inlets due to the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks. Many supplies for Washington's army were shipped to Ocracoke for transfer to light craft which could ply the shallow waters of the sound. Ocracoke Island soon became a settlement for pilots who transported goods to ports on the North Carolina mainland since larger vessels were unable to navigate the shallow waters of the Pamlico Sound. Pirates have also been featured prominently in the colorful history of the island, the most notable being the infamous Blackbeard, or Edward Teach, who was killed in a naval battle here on November 22, 1718. On July 30, 1759, William Howard, of the Province of North Carolina, bought Ocracoke Island for 105 pounds and made his home here. Over the next 200 years, Ocracoke prospered and grew, attracting sailors, pilots, and commercial fisherman. As sturdier homes were built and more families were being raised on this isolated ribbon of sand, stores, churches, and a school were established. Today the year-round population is about 750. During both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Ocracoke Inlet, with its deep and navigable channels, was a strategic point of entry into Pamlico Sound and ultimately to mainland North Carolina. During World War II, a naval base was constructed in the harbor and the first radar tower was erected near the beach. The Second World War was closer to our shores than many Americans realized. Local residents reported seeing numerous ships buring off-shore as the result of aggressive U-boat activity. There is a British Cemetery next to the Howard family graveyard which is the final resting place of four sailors from HMS Bedfordshire, which was torpedoed on May 11, 1942. Island residents discovered their bodies on the beach and arranged for their burial under the shade of several ancient live oak trees. Ocracoke residents have survived not only world political unrest, but also hurricanes and shipwrecks. During the 1800's, many Ocracokers were owners, captains, or sailors on schooners that plied the waters along the Easter Seaboard. Throughout the years, over 500 vessels have met their fate in the waters around nearby Diamond Shoals. For sea travelers, navigating the Outer Banks means treacherous ocean currents and shipwrecks. Avoiding navigational hazards is much more difficult than simply recognizing the dangers of the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." In earlier days, wooden sailing ships carrying trade goods and passengers kept the nation's commerce afloat. To follow trade routes along the coast, these ships had to round not only North Carolina's barrier islands, which are located as much as 30 miles off the mainland, but also Diamond Shoals, a treacherous, ever-shifting series of shallow, underwater sandbars extending over ten miles out from Cape Hatteras. Navigating Diamond Shoals is also made more complicated by two very strong ocean currents that collide off Hatteras and Ocracoke islands - the cold-water Labrador Current from the north and the warm Gulf Stream from the south. To utilize these currents, vessels must come very near to the Outer Banks and the winds, storms, nor'easters and hurricanes common to this region can make it a very dangerous practice. Over 1000 boats and ships have been lost near Cape Hatteras and now rest in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Strong winds and heavy seas can force ships to be battered apart by crashing breakers. The low islands offer no natural landmarks, so ships caught in storms were often grounded before the crew espied shore and recognized their misfortune. The Graveyard of the Atlantic, with one of the highest densities of shipwrecks in the world, entombs thousands of vessels, and countless mariners who lost a desperate struggle against the forces of war, piracy, and nature. Because of the frequency of storms and other navigational hazards, the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Lifesaving Service which became the U.S. Coast Guard have kept a steady watch for approximately 200 years. Most of the area wrecks have decayed and are lost to the ocean forever, but divers have access to a diverse assortment of sunken vessels offshore. Many shipwrecks lie hidden under sand dunes and occasionally will be exposed by storms, then covered up again when the beach sands shift. Many of the older homes in the historic district were built from lumber salvaged from ships wrecked in storm-tossed seas and a lot of island inhabitants made a significant part of their living scavenging cargoes. Ocracoke, unfortunately, made national news this past summer when a truck carrying fireworks for the Fourth of July celebration exploded at the South Ferry Terminal, killing three people and injuring 2 others.

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