Excerpt: Living at the Water’s Edge by Barbara Garrity-Blake and Karen Willis Amspacher

Garrity-Blake and Amspacher: Living at the Water's EdgeThe Outer Banks National Scenic Byway received its designation in 2009, an act that stands as a testament to the historical and cultural importance of the communities linked along the North Carolina coast from Whalebone Junction across to Hatteras and Ocracoke Island and down to the small villages of the Core Sound region. This rich heritage guide introduces readers to the places and people that have made the route and the region a national treasure. Welcoming visitors on a journey across sounds and inlets into villages and through two national seashores, Barbara Garrity-Blake and Karen Willis Amspacher share the stories of people who have shaped their lives out of saltwater and sand. The book considers how the Outer Banks residents have stood their ground and maintained a vibrant way of life while adapting to constant change that is fundamental to life where water meets the land.

Heavily illustrated with color and black-and-white photographs, Living at the Water’s Edge will lead readers to the proverbial porch of the Outer Banks locals, extending a warm welcome to visitors while encouraging them to understand what many never see or hear: the stories, feelings, and meanings that offer a cultural dimension to the byway experience and deepen the visitor’s understanding of life on the tideline.

In the following excerpt (pp. 7-12), Barbara and Karen share the past dangers of the North Carolina coast for ships and the lighthouses that saved them.



I’ve seen right many boats hit the shores of this island. Some of them they got off, and some of them busted up. —Anderson Midgett, Hatteras Island

“Graveyard of the Atlantic” is a well-earned moniker for North Carolina’s coastal waters. Hundreds of vessels have sunk or broken apart in the deadly combination of quick-changing weather, dynamic currents, and hidden shoals along what was once a key shipping route between New York and Charleston. The Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras are especially notorious for dooming ship after ship in their attempts to round the cape en route to northern or southern ports.

Shipwrecks were once so frequent that the state appointed commissioners to manage wreck auctions called “vendues.” Well into the twentieth century, banks dwellers and mainlanders alike gathered on the beach to bid on sails, turnbuckles, barrels, lanterns, ropes, and cargo. Lumber wasn’t easy to come by; planking was coveted as building material. The Salvo Assembly of God Church was built from the timbers of the G. A. Kohler, a grand four-masted schooner wrecked on the beach between Avon and Salvo during the ’33 Storm. Many old houses have beams, joists, and other materials salvaged from a wreck.

One of the worst wrecks in American history occurred off North Carolina in 1837. The steam packet Home, en route from New York to Charleston, encountered the Racer’s Storm and broke apart off Ocracoke. Ninety of the 135 people aboard—many of them women and children—drowned. The vessel was equipped with only two life jackets. The dead were buried by Ocracoke villagers, as a lifesaving station wasn’t established on the island until 1905. The tragedy of the Home received national press coverage and led to the federal requirement that all vessels carry life preservers for each passenger. Shipwrecks like the Home brought to light the need for the establishment of lifesaving stations up and down the nation’s coasts.

The village of Portsmouth, made up of 150 souls in 1900, once cared for shipwreck victims whose numbers far exceeded the population of the small community. The 605-ton brig Vera Cruz VII wrecked offshore in 1903, bringing forth 421 Cape Verde Islanders needing food, clothes, and a dry bed. Every villager was enlisted to help. A Portsmouth Islander recalled, “Some of the foreigners ran away from the station crew and crawled through the marshes to beg for food at the homes. We fed them when they came.” The villagers used up all the flour in the community to feed these weary victims of the sea.


No matter how hard the winds blow around her, she will stand, wrapped in diamonds, giving us strength every time we see her light come around. —Madge Guthrie, Harkers Island

A light piercing the darkness gives hope and helps orient the lost. No wonder the lighthouse has become a symbol for strength and guidance. Outer Banks lighthouses have long provided an essential navigational aid to ship’s captains, whether the steady burning, fixed light on Ocracoke or the flashing beacons of Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, or Cape Lookout towers. Not only do the lights alert mariners as to how close they are to shore and shoals, but the timing of the beam is specific to its location along the shore. If the flash occurs every fifteen seconds, the crew knows they are near Cape Lookout, no matter how dark or foggy it may be. If it flashes every seven and a half seconds, the Cape Hatteras light is their guide.

The U.S. Congress, alarmed at the growing number of shipwrecks, authorized the first North Carolina lighthouse in 1794. It was to be built on Cape Hatteras, the most treacherous part of the coastline. Vessel captains declared the light to be faint and sorry. The 90-foot tower was raised to 150 feet in 1854 and fitted with a powerful Fresnel lens. Today’s black-and-white spiral tower was built in 1870 and was moved to higher ground in 1999. At 208 feet Cape Hatteras is the tallest lighthouse in America.

Another lighthouse was built on Shell Castle Island in 1798 to serve ships carrying cargo through Ocracoke Inlet. Today’s 65-foot-high, solid-white structure was built on Ocracoke in 1823, emitting a nonflashing, steady light. The first Cape Lookout light was lit in 1812, and today’s 163-foot, diamond-painted tower went into operation in 1859. The black-and-white pattern was the inspiration for the name Diamond City, Shackleford Banks’s whaling community.


Barbara Garrity-Blake is a cultural anthropologist long interested in the 21 villages along the byway from the north end of Hatteras through the Down East region of Carteret County; she lives in Gloucester, N.C. Karen Willis Amspacher, director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island, is descended from Shackleford Banks fishermen and boatbuilders and lives in Marshallberg, N.C.

From Living at the Water’s Edge: A Heritage Guide to the Outer Banks Byway by Barbara Garrity-Blake and Karen Willis Amspacher. Copyright © 2017 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org