Pamlico's Past

Exploring the History of the Pamlico River and Sound

As we approach the height of hurricane season, here is an account of a storm that had a significant impact on Pamlico's past.

1806 Chart of Ocracoke Inlet (click image to enlarge)1806 Chart of Ocracoke Inlet (click image to enlarge)It was September 28, 1806. Busy Ocracoke inlet was filled with trading vessels hailing from far away ports found in the Caribbean and along America's northern coast. Many of the mariners in the harbor had little clue as to the maelstrom they were about to suffer.

"Lighters," small vessels more suited to the shallow inland waters of eastern North Carolina, were busy off loading cargos of naval stores and lumber onto larger ships to be transported to distant ports. Others were taking on mercantile goods from such localities as New York and Philadelphia, or sugar and molasses from the West Indian islands to be transported across the sound to the river ports of Washington and New Bern. In addition, there were two Revenue Cutters at anchor in the busy harbor.

The Revenue Cutters were part of the Revenue-Marine, which was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1790 to serve as an armed maritime law enforcement service. The service operated under the authority of the U. S. Department of the Treasury, the commanders of the local cutters answering to local customs officials. The service officially changed its name to the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service in 1894, and in 1915, it merged with the U. S. Life-Saving Service to form the U. S. Coast Guard.

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Traveling through the fertile farmland of eastern North Carolina during the summer of 1944, Joseph Buchen's thoughts drifted to an earlier time in Germany and the family left behind after being drafted into Hitler's army. He wondered how they were coping now that the Allies had begun massive bombing of his homeland. But why, you might ask, was a German soldier at the height of World War II traveling through eastern North Carolina? The answer might surprise you, but Joseph was amoung a dozen or so German prisoners of war on their way to the waterfront of Washington, N.C. to perform a day's work at the Moss Planing Mill.

Williamston POW Camp (click image to enlarge)Williamston POW Camp (click image to enlarge)Following the surrender of 230,000 Axis troops in Tunisia, North Africa on May 12, 1943, the U.S. Army established prisoner of war camps in many southern states, including North Carolina, to house some of the captured German and Italian soldiers. The Army's prisoner of war program was so secret that few people other than the guards who ran the camps and the civilian employers who "leased" the services of the prisoners from the military knew of its existence. One such camp was located in Williamston, a satellite of a major camp located in Butner, N.C. Joseph Buchen was one of approximately 500 prisoners housed at the camp which was located near the banks of the Roanoke River. At first, the Williamston camp housed mostly Italian prisoners, but by mid 1944, the Italians were replaced by Germans. Betty Bryant describes the camp in Martin County Heritage, "Living quarters for the prisoners as well as the guards, were tent structures composed of a raised wooden floor, 20' by 20', sides boarded to shoulder-level, and a tent top. Each living unit housed 6 men. All other structures in the camp were also tents, except for the recreational building and the small chapel standing just outside the compound." The men in the camp were hired out by the U.S. Army to perform manual labor on local farms and lumber mills. Wages were collected by the Army in compensation for the work done by the prisoners. Most of the pay went towards the upkeep of the camp while prisoners were able to retain a small percentage of the earnings for themselves. The Williamston camp remained open until the end of World War II when the prisoners were repatriated to Europe.

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When posed the question "Who were the guardians of mariners of the past?" most folks would picture brawny surfmen of the U.S. Life Saving Service or even dedicated men who served as keepers of lighthouses. The majority of people would not think of the men and women who served the U.S. Weather Bureau whose job it was to warn mariners of pending storms. This is the story of these folks and two of the towers they maintained.

Storm Signal Diagram (click image to enlarge)Storm Signal Diagram (click image to enlarge)Over one hundred years ago, when coastal shipping was a major method of moving goods to market, the Federal government realized that a system was needed to warn mariners of impending bad weather. So in 1898, President McKinley ordered the newly established Weather Bureau to set up a series of coastal warning display towers.

Towers were built at existing Weather Bureau stations located in important coastal locations, like the U.S. Weather Bureau stations at Hatteras and Manteo. Towers were also built to "supply the needs of the more important ports not having regular Weather Bureau offices." North Carolina ports meeting that criteria included Beaufort, Columbia, Edenton, Elizabeth City, Plymouth, New Bern, Southport and Washington. 

A coastal warning display tower, sometimes known as a "storm warning tower," was a special kind of skeletal tower designed to display storm warnings using flags during the day and colored lanterns at night. The flags were substantial in size. The daytime flags consisted of eight-foot square red flags with black centers, two of which were flown as a hurricane warning, or a single red pennant that was 8 feet by 15 feet flown to indicate a small craft warning. 

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In 1857, Washington, N. C. was idyllically described in "Harper's New Monthly Magazine" as follows, "It is a flourishing place...an exterior view of the town presents nothing but a few steeples, peering out from a thick grove of trees, and the street views only continuous archways of verdure. In fact, its modest white wooden houses are completely buried in trees..."

Shelling of Washington (click image to enlarge)Shelling of Washington (click image to enlarge)

But by late March 1863 the winds of war had swept over Washington and the view presented a much starker picture. Union occupation of the town had been in place for just over a year. Commerce with the outside world had virtually ceased to exist. Those that could have fled up the Tar River to Confederate occupied territory, living with kinfolk and friends. A member of the 44th Massachusetts Infantry described the scene as he disembarks at the town wharf, "...the houses in the town still bore the marks of the raid made upon it the autumn before by the enemy; one house was pitted all over with a stand of heavy canister-shot; another had two eight-inch shot-holes through it." Union soldiers and "contrabands," or African-American fugitives, have swelled the population of Washington to about 4,000 souls. Many of the male citizens of fighting age had left to join the Confederate Army or Navy. Of the few that remained, some had decided to remain loyal to the Union and join the North Carolina Union Volunteers. Mothers without husbands had been forced to find the means to feed and care for their families. As explained by a Massachusetts soldier, "...many of the women, with gingerbread and fruit for sale, drove a roaring trade."

For those that remained, life under Yankee occupation was about to get even harsher. Confederate General D. H. Hill stood ready to lay siege to the town with a force of over 9,000 men. Hill had been given three objectives by Robert E. Lee: harass the Yankees, forage for supplies, and create a diversion.

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Constructing A Ship's Rudder (click image to enlarge)Constructing A Ship's Rudder (click image to enlarge)During the Antebellum Period, the port of Washington, N.C. was a major shipbuilding center for North Carolina. But did you know that one of Washington’s most successful shipbuilders was a “freedman,” a former slave who had been granted his liberty by his former owner and rose to be one of Washington’s most successful business men? His name was Hull Anderson. Anderson’s story is one of a thriving entrepreneur, but ends in the eventual abandonment of his home and business in Washington, N.C. for life in a strange country. But why would he desert Washington and take his chances in a foreign land?

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