The Ocracoke – Washington Freighters: The Last of an Era of Maritime Commerce – Washington Daily News

I will be sharing this space today with my friend and local historian Blount Rumley, who wrote this article.

Ever since the first settlers came to occupy the Outer Banks of North Carolina, there was a need to provide these islands with the elements needed to sustain a community; material that the community could not produce for itself. In return, bank dwellers sold goods from the sea, operated trading ports, and later provided a place to relax from mainland life.

Neighboring mainland coastal towns were the logical link to the Outer Banks, as they had the necessary transportation and service links to other parts of the country. Washington was the main connector with Ocracoke, and there was a strong business and social relationship between them.

Individuals and business entities from opposite ends of the trade route operated ships to transport goods back and forth. Another class of ship carried passengers, mail, and small items, but these are ships that carried heavier materials and larger shipments. Over the years, many ships, for example, Annie Wahab, Nellie, Mary S, Preston, Reliefand those listed below, raced into the 20th century, the last of an era.

Russell L- Belonging to Captain Ike O’Neal, it was a Bug-Eye, which wore Leg-O-Mutton sails. A gasoline engine was retrofitted. On one trip, she sailed from Ocracoke to Washington in a record time of 5.5 hours, registering 12 knots. The motorized Bessie Virginia could never beat that time. It was the last sailboat on the run. She ran aground near Ocracoke after a storm circa 1922. On a voyage to Ocracoke, a goat on board ate much of the jib, which was left unused. The boat could not return to Washington on schedule until the jib was repaired.

Dryden – Vessel William G. Dryden, operated by Captain Jesse Garrish, was similar to the Bessie Virginia but somewhat smaller, and was used on the Ocracoke-Washington run. She also ran from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter for a time. She was the first diesel-powered boat on the Washington route.

Lindsay C.Warren – The Warren was a former military patrol boat converted into a freight transport boat. On January 26, 1950, the captain, Glenn Willis of Beaufort, was shot and killed in Washington by a crew member. This ended the roughly one-year lifespan of this race.

Mouth paw – The Mouth paw, owned by Kim Saunders of Washington, was in service for a short time after World War II. It was a former military aircraft rescue boat. Kim replaced the faster gasoline engines (possibly Packard) with more fuel efficient diesel engines.

Bessie Virginia – The m/v Bessie Virginia was built in Crisfield, MD circa 1910 of California red pine, with 3-inch-thick boards. Its length was 64 feet 11 inches, with a width of 18 feet. Her draft was 5 feet, with a cruising speed of 10 knots. She had a Cummins diesel when purchased, and this was replaced with a gray diesel at Swan Quarter. She was purchased in 1949 or 1950 by Captain Van Henry O’Neal and his father, Captain Walter C. O’Neal of Ocracoke. The first lieutenant from 1949 to 1961 was Powers Garrish. Her average loaded trip time was 7 hours and 15 minutes, but on a trip with a good tide she did it in 6 hours and 55 minutes (The above is a quote from Van Henry O’Neal) .

In addition to passengers, she carried virtually anything that could physically make the trip. Henry Rumley helped support a house caravan across the bridge in Washington. Van Henry managed to guide him across the railroad bridge in a very precise maneuver, and he headed for Ocracoke.

Note the photo from Ocracoke showing the fuel drums that almost always surrounded the wheelhouse. Soft drinks were always loaded on board, as were groceries from local wholesalers. She carried medicine, clothing, building materials, motor vehicles, passengers, livestock and anything that could fit on board. Van Henry could often be seen visiting stores in Washington with a list of necessary items from the Ocracokers. She carried full loads of seafood for individuals and wholesalers on reverse trips to Washington.

When the state was paving the first roads on Ocracoke, the Bessie Virginia brought all the concrete for the job from Norfolk; 17,600 one hundred pound bags. It took a few trips to Norfolk to do that. (Quoted from Van Henry, 1992). During World War II, the navy transported its own concrete to build the road from the naval base to the munitions depot.

By 1961, the state’s ferries, bridges, and Highway 12 had been significantly improved, and with them came the inevitable decrease in the need for coastal freight ships. In February 1961, the Bessie Virginia reduced its Washington run to every two weeks. On May 25, 1961, Van Henry sold the Bessie Virginia and discontinued service to Washington. Van Henry delivered the ship to its buyer in Norfolk, Virginia. His son, Ronnie Van, went with him, and Ronnie Van joined the Coast Guard the next day.

This ended an era that had begun at least 180 years earlier.