Diamond City, NC History
By the Water's Edge
Joel G. Hancock
Reprinted from Strengthened by the Storm, Chapter 1
... The largest and most distinctive of the (pre-1900) downeast communities was Diamond City. It was situated near the east end of Shackleford Banks at “the mouth of the Ditch.” By 1895, it may have had a population of as many as five hundred. Like most of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it was first settled in the early part of the eighteenth century. The community had its most rapid growth in the 1850's, spurred by a boom in the local whaling industry. New England whaling vessels are known to have visited the area as early as 1726. Local shore-based whaling crews eventually supplanted the Yankee whalers and by 1880, six crews of eighteen men each were working off Diamond City's beaches.
Whaling was seasonal and limited almost entirely to the months of February, March, and April. So, for most of the year, the men of Diamond City were obliged to “work the water” in the same manner as their neighbors to the north along Core Sound. Yet even in these ventures the “proggers” of Diamond City held somewhat of an advantage over most of their neighbors. Because their community fronted on the ocean to the south and the sound to the north, they had ready and easy access to both shores.
The most distinguishing physical feature of the area, aside from its proximity to the sea, was a large sand dune that sat near the geographic center of the community. It was called the “Yellow Hill” and was said to have been twelve hundred feet long, over four hundred feet wide, and reached a peak of at least forty feet in height. Some of the more affluent families of Diamond City kept “fishing camps” south of the hill, near the ocean, while maintaining their primary homes on the sound side of the giant dune. The hill served as a windbreak of sorts and provided some relief from the seemingly perpetual sou'westers that blew in off the Atlantic. Also on the lee side of the dune was the horsepen used for the annual corralling of the many wild horses that roamed the Island.
The community originally was known as “Lookout Woods” as it sat overlooking the natural harbor created by Cape Lookout. Eventually a more appropriate and distinctive title was sought to distinguish the community from the smaller villages elsewhere along Shackleford Banks. By 1885, the name Diamond City, a reference to the black and white diamonds of the nearby Lighthouse, was generally accepted and used on all official documents.
* * *
Despite having a population that was comparatively large, there is no record of any churches having been built at Diamond City. There was a schoolhouse used for meetings by the many itinerant preachers who found their way to the community. A congregation of the Southern Methodist Church had been organized and a meetinghouse built farther to the west along the Banks at “Wade's Shore” as early as 1863. Meetings were held at the “Banks Church,” officially called “Jones' Chapel,” on a monthly basis. Worshippers from Diamond City attended those services whenever possible.
Though there was no church building at Diamond City, the Conference Records of the Southern Methodist Church make reference to a “work” at both ends of the Banks; including one at the Diamond City Section. Yet, apart from the band of Methodists who worshiped at Wade's Shore, it appears that there were no other organized congregations at Diamond City previous to the arrival of Latter-day Saint missionaries in 1897.
In spite of the absence of church buildings, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of religion in the lives of Diamond City's residents. Every family kept a copy of the Bible which was used as the standard text for secular as well as religious training. “Camp meetings,” or “protractive meetings,” as revivals then were called, were convened in summers and lasted for as long as three or four weeks. These services might have been conducted by a minister from any of several different denominations, but that was of no great concern to the worshipers.
“Denominationalism” had not yet taken firm root in the area and church affiliation was not considered of any critical significance. Different preachers of the same denomination might differ in their teachings on any particular point of doctrine. The meetings generally were well attended and held out in the open under the shelter of trees. Both the absence of resident ministers and the spirit of tolerance for other faiths later would prove significant.
In addition, the many camp meetings were a chance for those earnestly seeking the truth to study and compare the doctrines of the various ministers and their denominations. Among most of the faiths there were no great distinctions as almost all were caught up in the revivalist movement of the late nineteenth century. They primarily stressed Biblical “inerrancy” and “salvation by grace,” and encouraged a free expression of religious emotions in their songs, prayers, and sermons...
* * *
To the people of Diamond City and Shackleford Banks, matters of the spirit
could be just as real as the more tangible aspects of life. Indicative
of such is a story told of William (Billie) Hancock by his grandson and
of how a vivid dream on a late spring evening helped to save Diamond City
from a summer of privation.
According to the story, the spring whaling season of one year in the 1870's had passed without the sighting of a single whale. Finally, in mid-June, a whale was spotted far off the Beaufort Inlet and Billie Hancock's crew set out to bring it in. The story continues:
They floated the boat out until they put a lance into the whale. They started shooting it, but the whale was so big that shooting it didn't do any good. The moon was shining bright, so they hung with the whale until after the night had fallen. Then the whale headed out toward Cape Shoals. The line on the whale finally broke and they lost it. Everybody was so worn out that they rowed back to shore very discouraged.
They were so tired when they got home that my grandfather went right to sleep and had a dream. His dream was so real that he got out of bed and went and called two more men from the crew and told them what he had dreamed. He had dreamed that the whale had died and had grounded at Cape Point. After telling the others, he began to run to the Point (approximately six miles) to see for himself if the whale had, in fact, washed ashore. The other crewmen must have accepted what their Captain had told them for they soon followed him to the Point.
Grandfather ran straight along down the beach because there were so many
trees back then. He said that when he got to Cape Point the tide was so
low and the moon was shining so bright that he could see something out
on the reef. He said to himself, “That's got to be that whale! We
need it so bad!” So he waded off and soon saw that it was the whale.
* * *
Diamond City was but the largest of several communities on Shackleford Banks. Just to the east of the village, and across the small “Drain” that eventually became Barden's Inlet, was the small settlement of Cape Lookout. It sometimes was called “Cape Hills,” but as the former name suggests, this neighborhood was centered around the large lighthouse that had been constructed there a century earlier. Later the United States Life-Saving Service built a station in the same vicinity. Cape Lookout technically was a part of Core Banks, but the closest community northward along the shore was at Portsmouth Island, some thirty miles distant. Because of this geographical separation, the inhabitants of Cape Lookout were more closely associated commercially, socially, and by blood line to the communities and people of Shackleford Banks than to Portsmouth Village.
Just to the west of Diamond City was the community of Bell's Island. Renowned for the large and bountiful persimmon trees that grew wild there, it was somewhat smaller than its sister village. Later tradition would consider it as part of that larger settlement. Still further west was a tiny hamlet known as Sam Windsor's Lump. It took its name from the only Black, or “Colored,” family living on the Banks. To the south of the Lump was the dipping station used to disinfect cattle and other livestock from all over the Banks.
The westernmost part of Shackleford Banks was known as Wade's Shore. It extended for more than two miles and was the most densely wooded part of the entire Island. To this day that area is covered with thick patches of cedar that nestle neatly among the large and rolling dunes. The east end of Wade's Shore was called “Whale Creek Bay,” a reference to it having been the shipping point for most of the by-products taken from whales and moved overland from the ocean side. At Whale Creek Bay the fig trees grew dense and wild. A very small church had been built there by the Southern Methodists, but it was used by any denomination that needed its facilities.
The west end of Wade's Shore was the “Mullet Pond.” Here, at the edge of the Beaufort Bar, mullet would school in abundance in late summer and early fall. Like Bell's Island and Cape Lookout, the communities at Wade's Shore were very closely associated with Diamond City. In fact, the residents of the entire Island might properly have been considered as having been citizens of Diamond City.
The basic pattern of life all over the Banks was very much the same.
It was almost entirely on the shores of the surrounding sounds and ocean
that all were left to carve out their existence. That pattern in itself
was somewhat unique. They were not bound to the soil as were the dirt
farmers of the mainland. Raw land sometimes was viewed as merely a bridge
Rather, the proggers along Back Sound made most of their living amid the marshes and on the tide-plain that skirted their Island home. Neither the land nor the water completely ruled the setting. With northerly winds and a high tide, the sea predominated as acre after acre ultimately gave away to the deluge of the tides. But sou'westers and ebb tides saw the shoals rise again and appear once more as dry land. Rich with bottom fish, shellfish, flounder, and crabs, the tide-plain offered a cornucopia of all that was to be harvested from the shallow sound.
There, literally at the water's edge, was nearly everything necessary
to sustain their humble manner of living. Almost of necessity, that shoreline
became the focal point of their lives. Within the expanse of just a few
hundred feet was found what was at once their homes and their gardens,
their schools and their workshops, their theaters and their playgrounds.
* * *
Like every coastal community before and since, the residents of Diamond City were familiar with the wrath of sudden and violent ocean storms. The fury of fierce winds, coupled with treacherous off-shore shoals, had given their section of the Atlantic coastline the infamous title of “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” But even the most storm-hardened inhabitants of Shackleford Banks were unprepared for the monster storms that struck their communities in 1896, and again in 1899. Obviously, these storms would have been labeled as hurricanes by modern meteorologists. But accurate and long-range weather forecasting was quite unavailable at that early date and the fact that these storms came unannounced served to make them even more destructive.
The actual means by which the hurricanes worked their devastation was quite simple. Winds and water combined to build a storm surge of ocean water that eventually inundated the entire Island. The immediate impact was in the form of flooded homes and lost herds of sheep, goats, and cattle. Yet these same effects sometimes had been felt by every other community along the Atlantic Coast. Taken alone, they might have been insufficient to cause the disruption of life that eventually resulted.
It was the latent consequences of the storms that proved particularly devastating on Shackleford Banks. Barren beach sand soon replaced what had been fertile soil. Fresh water wells turned brackish, trees and shrubbery died, and vegetables refused to grow. After the storm of 1896, many residents of the Banks openly considered moving inland or to higher ground. Some families determined then that it would be wise to look for a safer place to make their homes. From that time forward, the population of Diamond City and the Banks began steadily to decline.
If there remained uncertainty among those who remained on Shackleford Banks as to whether or not such a move would be necessary, those doubts were removed in 1899. That August brought a storm to which all subsequent storms would be compared for more than a generation. Throughout Carteret County, havoc and destruction were left in its path. In the small community of Wit (Sea Level) alone, seven lives were lost. Yet nowhere in Carteret County was the damage of greater eventual consequence than at Diamond City and Shackleford Banks. There, the wind and tides of the south Atlantic left more than battered buildings as their legacy. Rather, they rang a death knell for the several communities that had grown and flourished on what had been a comfortable and hospitable island.
More than half a century later the few remaining survivors of the storm could describe it as vividly as if it had occurred the previous evening. “The wind blew from the northeast at first and brought in tides from the sound,” one explained to Lillian Davis. “Then following hours of that, all was perfectly calm for a short while. Suddenly the winds shifted to the southwest and again blew as hard or harder than before. With the southwest winds came the waters from the ocean and the two waters met. This time few, if any, homes were without water in them.”
Even the giant sand dune that ran through the center of town had been almost washed away by the storm. To add insult to the already intolerable injury, the ransacking waters had uncovered graves in the local cemetery and left bones and caskets strewn everywhere.
What before had been contingency proposals soon became the order of the day. From Cape Lookout to Wade's Shore, the residents of Shackleford Banks scurried to find new places to live. Some pulled up stakes and moved their families to the mainland. Many Cape Lookout residents ended up at Marshallberg. Several families from Wade's Shore found their way to Broad Creek and the “Promised Land” section of Morehead City. Still others moved west across the Beaufort Bar to Bogue Banks and settled as squatters among the sand hills of Salter Path.
But for most of the people of Shackleford Banks, and especially those of Diamond City, the choice of where to go was rather simple. They realized that they could no longer stay on the Banks without risking their property and the safety of their families. But they were unwilling to effect a total separation from the only home most of them had ever known. Their option for a place to rebuild and start anew was directly across Back Sound at a place known as Harkers Island.
There had already been some movement of families and homes between the two islands even before the great storms. Many people had blood relatives in both communities and some had maintained houses on both sides of the Sound. Standing on Harkers Island's southern shore, refugees from the Banks still would be able to gaze across to the sites of their former homes. By sailskiff they could easily cross the channel and return to those places in less than an hour. This close proximity also was important for more than sentimental reasons. It allowed them to continue to work the same bays and marshes they had known so long and so intimately before having been obliged to leave.
Harkers Island is blessed with natural outlets at every corner that allow rising waters to pass it by. It is protected from the damaging force of the ocean by Shackleford Banks to the South and Core Banks to the east. There, those who had been forced to flee from the Banks hoped to be spared from the destruction caused by high tides and flooding that had prompted their exodus.
* * *
Harkers Island, originally known as “Craney Island,” took its eventual name from Ebenezer Harker who purchased the entire tract from George Pollock in 1730. The Island has the shape of a three-mile-long dogleg and its pristine shoreline is protected by intricate patterns of precarious shoals. Vegetation there was so dense that any movement about the Island at that time had to be along the shore. An interior roadway or path through the brush and timber was not cut until after the turn of the century.
Prior to the sudden and large movement of settlers from Shackleford Banks, Harkers Island had been sparsely settled with small clearings of humble homes found among tangled thickets of oak, pine, cedar, and yaupon. The soil was sandy but fertile and offered bountiful harvests of most garden vegetables. The lush vegetation was ideal for most livestock, and many sheep, goats, and cattle roamed the forest unfettered and unclaimed. In fact, about the only blemish to be mentioned was that large and vicious mosquitoes seemed to envelop the landscape from April until October.
At the east end of the Island was a giant mound of seashells left centuries earlier by the Native Americans. That part of the Island was and is known as “Shell Point.” The northwest corner of the community was adorned with the tallest trees on the Island and called “Harker's Point;” it having been the homesite of the family from whom the Island took its name. At various points in between could be found such places as the “Sand Hole,” the “Bay,” and the “Willow Pond.”
Looking across from Shackleford Banks, no part of Harkers Island was more distinctive or inviting than “Red Hill,” the name given to the Island's southwest corner. It sat at the convergence of several inland channels and offered direct access to Beaufort, the Banks, and the mainland communities to the north. Its name came from the high banks of sand that lay at the edge of the water and glowed a glistening red as they reflected the summer sun.
Red Hill was the highest part of the Island, as the elevation rose sharply beginning at the tide line. Most of the land was fifteen feet or more above sea level no more than the same distance from the shore. For those fleeing the ravages of sudden windswept tides, it appeared especially alluring. Thus many of the very first refugees from the Banks ended up amid the towering oaks of Red Hill.
As at the Banks, fishing remained the main occupation, but there was also a sawmill and a little farming. Boat building was another enterprise for which many at the Harkers Island claimed a special talent. Even at that early date, the craftsmen of the Island were fashioning precision vessels; mostly sailskiffs and sharpies, and sailboat racing was a major source of their recreation.
The newcomers from the Banks brought with them their pastimes and customs as well as their physical belongings. By 1900 there had begun an annual twenty mile race from Shell Point along Core Sound, northward to Davis' Island, and back to Shell Point. A Latter-day Saint missionary who served at the Island in the spring of 1903, recorded witnessing one such event that was won by the “Twilight,” a twenty-two foot, single masted sailskiff. He noted that the boat was captained by “one of the prominent men of Harkers Island, Charles Hancock.” The trophy for winning the competition was a large silver cup that the author's father, who is the son of that day's winner, fondly and vividly recalls.
Another distinctive tradition that followed the newcomers was their passionate love for both the hunting and eating of loons. The agile diving birds were found in large numbers in early spring both at the Banks and at the Island. A visitor in 1900 observed as many of those still living at Diamond City gathered on the beach shore to “shoot at loons.” That same ritual would be repeated each spring at Harkers Island for several generations.
As at the Banks, the shoreline remained the focus of their daily routines after moving to Harkers Island. Commerce, travel, social life, and religious gatherings all were most often found at the “Landing,” as the shoreline was called. All but a very few of the homes were built close by and fronted on the southern shore along the waters of Back Sound. For many years to come, everything of importance seemed to happen at or near the Landing.
In 1870 the Northern Methodist Church had sponsored the construction of a small school, or academy, on Harkers Island. It too was built along the south shore and was called “Jenny Bell's Academy,” taking the name of the New England school teacher-missionary who was its first headmistress. The site on which it was built has been known since as “Academy Field.”
From the platform of her school, Jenny Bell dispensed not only worldly learning and religious instruction, but also the shoes and clothing that the Methodist conference regularly sent in wooden boxes to the "po' folks" of Harkers Island. Not long afterward the Methodists built a small combined church and parsonage, and for the next three decades the Northern Methodist Church was the one and only organized religious group at the Island. Early records indicate that there was no full-time pastor but that a single minister was assigned to work that as well as other areas, dividing time among the several congregations.
* * *
Only a few families lived at Harkers Island before the storm of 1896 caused some to flee from the Banks. When the first Latter-day Saint missionaries visited in 1898 they noted that twenty-eight families called the Island home. They also observed that the Island's residents were “good, humble, but very poor people. All they lived on was a few fish they would catch, then sell them, and not worry any more until all the money was gone.”
By late 1899 the exodus from Diamond City had begun in earnest. Raw acreage on Harkers Island sold for one dollar per acre, allowing even the humblest of families the opportunity to start anew with adequate land. Local tradition has it that William Henry Guthrie was the first to leave the Banks after the 1899 storm. Within a month, the flow of families across the Sound became a flood. Some houses were torn down board by board, loaded on skiffs, transported across the water, and then hastily rebuilt. Other homes were left in-tact, laid upon dories, and floated across. Some families went back across to gather the remains of their buried relatives from what was left of the graveyard to prevent any further desecration in later storms. By 1910 there was not a home left at Diamond City. A few structures remained on Shackleford Banks until many years later, but they were used only as fishing and hunting camps or as summer retreats.
At Harkers Island the population quadrupled during the same time that Shackleford Banks was being deserted. Life on the Island necessarily would be far different in the years that followed the great migration. Among the newcomers to the Island, families that might have been neighbors on the Banks were scattered about on a new terrain. Among the original residents, families that had lived in isolation, or at least in seclusion, now were faced with the perception of a massive influx of new settlers and were greatly outnumbered. In just three years theirs had gone from being one of the smallest to one of the largest communities in Carteret County. Schools, churches, and other institutions would not be adequate to meet the expanded needs of the rapidly increased population. Similar institutions that had served the Banks communities would have to be restructured and rebuilt ...
From "Our Shared Past"
prepared for the Diamond City & Ca'e Bankers Reunion, August 1999
as a collection of writings, research and recollections to tell the story
of the Banks communities.
|Down East Community Tour|