Portsmouth Island, just across the inlet from Ocracoke Island, is an enchanting place to visit. This uninhabited island is rugged and remote, one of the last Atlantic coast islands that is free of development, thanks to its status as part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. There is much to do on this island, all of it free and simple, filled with history and the allure of the natural world.
On the north end of the island is a veritable ghost town known as Portsmouth Village. The village was once one of the largest settlements on the Outer Banks, though no one lives there now, save a caretaker. Portsmouth Village was established in 1753 on the shores of Ocracoke Inlet, and it was predominantly a “lightering” village. Large ships that used Ocracoke Inlet as a major trade route to the mainland would have to be unloaded to pass through the inlet and the shallow sounds and then reloaded as they found deeper waters. The residents of Portsmouth Village did the lightering of the load by moving goods to several smaller flatboats and then reloading the ships a ways down the water. A large community sprang up around this business, with a post office, a church, a school and many homes.
In 1846 Hatteras Inlet opened in a hurricane and was deeper and safer than Ocracoke Inlet. The shipping route shifted to the north, and the Portsmouth villagers had to find other ways to make a living. Later, during the Civil War, many islanders fled to the mainland to avoid advancing Union troops and never came back after the war. Portsmouth Village’s population continued to decline until there were only three residents left in 1970. In 1971, one of them died and the other two left the island reluctantly. In 1976 Portsmouth Village was saved when Cape Lookout National Seashore was established. The village is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of the buildings have been restored, and visitors can enter the church, Coast Guard station, school house and post office for a peek at old island life. The interiors look as if the people have just left, and you can look into the windows of some old buildings and see the villagers’ former belongings. There is also a visitor center in a restored house where you’ll find restrooms and exhibits on the island’s history. You can walk from the village to the beach, though it is a long walk so be prepared. The beach at Portsmouth Island is expansive and clean, and the shelling is outstanding.
Conveniences are few on Portsmouth Island. Restrooms are available, but drinking water and food are not. Bring your own, plus sunscreen and insect repellent. The mosquitoes can be voracious on Portsmouth Island in the warmer months. The island is only accessible by boat. See Recreation for information on Portsmouth Island ferry services and boat rentals.