Castle Island

On a recent winter’s day, unseasonably warm with clouds drawn high across the sky, thin as a whisper, I paddled around Castle Island in the unwilling company of Canada Geese. It wasn’t a long circumnavigation. The island is only a few acres of sand in the middle of the Pamlico River but it’s sand with a history.

Canada Goose in flight, Castle Island, Washington, NC
Canada Goose in flight, Castle Island, Washington, NC

Castle Island lies a few hundred yards from the waterfront of Washington, North Carolina. The original Washington the townsfolk call it to distinguish their town from the usurper to the north. The old town has been an important river port since before the Revolution.


It wasn’t always called Washington, but Pea-town didn’t sound sufficiently dignified for the ambitious citizenry. And it wasn’t called Castle Island until the limekiln was built and people noticed the chimneys of the shaft kilns resembled a castle’s keep.

The river deposits the sand and silt that makes the island. What the river gives, it sometimes takes away. Floodwaters from hurricanes in 1913 and 1999 carved the island like a sand castle on a rising tide, undercutting the upstream bank, toppling trees, and scouring the river bottom of the bones of old boats. The 1913 hurricane went unnamed. The one in 1999 they called Floyd.

Castle Island, Pamlico River, at Washington, NC
Castle Island, Pamlico River, at Washington, NC

Mostly the river flows sluggishly past the waterfront and the island. The work of wearing down ancient mountains, once as tall as the Andes, has been accomplished over geologic time. The coastal plain of North Carolina has been levelled by ancient oceans. The Pamlico River flows across the plain at the speed of a man’s unhurried walk, burdened by 208,000 tons of sediment each year, stained the color of English tea by tannin leeched from miles of wetlands upriver.

Oyster Shells & Lime

Historically, the limekiln was the first thing built on the island. The kilns burned oyster shells to make cement. David Cecelski’s article A World Built of Oyster Shells describes the process. The brick chimneys, called a shaft kiln, resembled a blast furnace. Workers built a hardwood or coal fire in the middle of the shaft kiln, then dumped oyster shells into the top. Hot lime flowed out of the bottom.

It took a lot of oyster shells to fire a shaft kiln, but oysters were as common as dirt back in the day. In the 1880s, a single cannery in New Bern shucked as many as 2,000 bushels a day. Oyster shells paved the streets of Washington, a rough surface for pedestrians until the wheels of horse-drawn carriages and drays ground them down. Farmers spread slacked oyster shells on their fields. Ground oyster shells, called grit, were mixed with chicken feed. The oysters are mostly gone now.

Washington, NC waterfront from Castle Island, Pamlico River
Washington, NC waterfront from Castle Island, Pamlico River

And there’s nothing left of the limekilns on Castle Island or the Fowle Shipyard built in 1818 or the sawmill or the Union artillery fortifications that defended the town from recapture by Confederate forces. Even the wrecks of abandoned boats that once lay off the north shore of the island are gone, swept away by Hurricane Floyd.

Ship’s Graveyard

The ship’s graveyard at Castle Island was surveyed by field teams from the Program in Maritime Studies, East Carolina University, 1998-2000. They examined the wreckage in place, diving in the shallow water, mapping the site for further study. For two seasons they documented 11 wrecked or abandoned vessels — a 95’ coastal schooner, a 35’ sharpie schooner, a stern-wheel river steamer, oyster sloops, and flats, a sailing canoe and a motorboat. Then Hurricane Floyd raged down the Pamlico.

The storm struck September 16, 1999, dumping 15” to 20” of rain on the Tar Pamlico Basin. The storm surge crested a record 8.55 feet above normal at Washington. Thousands of people were homeless; 47 died.

The archaeologists’ final report stated: “The carnage visited on the archaeological sites in the Tar Pamlico Basin by Hurricane Floyd cannot be overstated.” Pretty florid language for academics. When the team returned to Castle Island in the summer of 2000, only two of the wrecked vessels could be relocated. The river had claimed the rest, carried them downstream or blasted their rotting timbers like shrapnel.

Lawn furniture and beer can, Castle Island, Pamlico River, near Washington, NC
Lawn furniture and beer can, Castle Island, Pamlico River, near Washington, NC

There’s nothing much left on Castle Island now except cypress trees and brush and poison ivy, aluminum beer cans and plastic lawn chairs and a rusted grill. For the first time in generations, the island has been left to itself, without even goats to check the growth of underbrush.

Sense of Place

When I paddled around the island, there were no boats beached on the sandbars, no one picnicking on the beach, no one but the laughing gulls wading in the shallows, but a sense of place clung to the few acres of sand, a sense of history. A stone’s throw from Washington’s waterfront, it seemed slightly asynchronous, as if unstuck in time.

It felt like the island didn’t exist solely in the present but stretched across time like a plume of silt in the river’s current. There was something ephemeral about its solidity, a destination that can be seen but never reached, a place that exists as much in memory as reality.

Castle Island seen from the Washington, NC waterfront
Castle Island seen from the Washington, NC waterfront

An Unlikely Weapon

Pulling on the thread connected the small Southern port of Washington, North Carolina, to the most daring raid executed during the Civil War.

I’ve lived in the village of Chocowinity, North Carolina less than a year. Settling into the place, I began to explore the local history. In a book called Washington and the Pamlico, I came across an intriguing thread. “The first torpedo boat was built in Washington by Lt. John M. Lay of the flagship USS Louisiana during the Union occupation.” I pulled on that thread.

Spar torpedo fitted to a steam launch.
Spar torpedo fitted to a steam launch.

The Washington referred to was in North Carolina, a few miles from where I live now, and the man’s name was actually John L. Lay. He wasn’t a lieutenant but an assistant engineer and it wasn’t a torpedo boat he invented but a variation on the spar torpedo. Some called it a bomb on a stick.

The spar torpedo wasn’t even a new weapon. The Confederacy, hard pressed by the Union’s naval strength, had innovated weapons out of desperation. In 1864, one of those desperate innovations, the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, tipped the balance of power in North Carolina ass over tea kettle.

By 1864, the forts on the Outer Banks had fallen, the Confederate Mosquito Fleet had been destroyed, and the ports of New Bern, Beaufort, and Washington occupied. The Union dominated North Carolina’s inland sea. The Confederacy had nothing to challenge the Union’s naval blockade, nothing until the Albemarle.

In April 1864, the Albemarle launched from a cornfield beyond the reach of Union forces, steamed down the Roanoke River and sank the USS Southfield, a wooden gunboat of 750-tons, and drove off the USS Miami. In May she confronted a flotilla of seven Union gunboats in the Albemarle Sound. The Union fleet mounted 55 guns, the Albemarle only two. She fought the fleet to a standstill but suffered damage to her steering gear and her smokestack was riddled with shot. The damaged smokestack affected the steam boiler’s draft. Her crew had to feed bacon, lard, and butter into the boiler to keep up steam. The battle ended with nightfall.

The Battle of Albemarle Sound was no one’s victory but proved to the Union they had nothing that could withstand the Confederate ironclad. She had to be stopped at any cost or their naval blockade of North Carolina was at risk. The Union needed a desperate weapon of their own and a hero to wield it.

The weapon was John Lay’s spar torpedo. The hero was John Cushing.

John Louis Lay

John Lay was an ambitious man by anyone’s standard. He joined the Navy as assistant engineer of the USS Louisiana, a 295-ton propeller steamer active in operations on North Carolina’s sounds and rivers. In February 1862, he led engineers that spiked the southern end of the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal, sinking several schooners and a dredge in the mouth of the canal, preventing Confederate access from the north. In April 1863. when a Confederate brigade invested the port city of Washington, North Carolina, Lay volunteered to command a battery on the transport ship Eagle. For 18 days he was under continuous fire from shore batteries and small arms but held his position and helped prevent the enemy from sweeping the Pamlico River of Union gunboats and taking the city.

He was also an inventive man. Off duty, he tinkered with the mechanics of a spar torpedo. Spar torpedoes were simply a cannister of black powder mounted on an extended bowsprit. The point was to impale an enemy ship on the spar and then detonate the black powder or lower the cannister below the hull of the ship, and then detonate the black powder. A small boat armed with a spar torpedo could substantially damage or even sink a ship.

A steam launch deploying a spar torpedo.
A steam launch deploying a spar torpedo.

The Confederacy had pioneered the use of spar torpedoes, most notably the CSS H.L. Hunley.

CSS H.L. Hunley

The Hunley was the first successful submarine in combat but she was hardly seaworthy. She had sunk twice in sea trials on Charleston Bay, killing her crews. When she steamed out of harbor on the night of February 17, 1864 with her third crew, she remained on the surface, quietly aiming for the USS Housatonic, a steam-driven sloop on station with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron standing off Charleston.

The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley fitted with spar torpedo. Photo credit: CNET.
The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley fitted with spar torpedo. Photo credit: CNET.

The Hunley was powered by a hand-crank turned by her crew and armed with a 2-foot-long torpedo packed with 135-pounds of black powder mounted on a 16-foot-long spar. She sank the Housatonic but never returned to port.

Raised from the bottom 137 years later, her hull intact, the skeletons of her crew were still at their stations with no indication they tried to escape. The Hunley’s external ballast weights were still in place, her bilge pumps still secured. Recent experiments indicate the crew of the Hunley were likely killed by the blast wave of their own device. At most only 42 feet from the explosion when the torpedo was manually denotated, the crew suffered severe injuries to their soft tissue—lungs and brain. They died at their posts.

A spar torpedo wasn’t a weapon for the timid.

On the Pamlico River, John Lay experimented with a much cheaper method of delivery, an open boat driven by a steam engine. A steam launch was discardable in the economy of the Civil War. They lacked the stealth of a submarine or any protection for their crew, but they were cheap to build. In the calculus of war, the crew of a torpedo boat was also expendable.

The success of John Lay’s sea trials on the Pamlico caught the attention of the Navy Department. In December 1863, he was ordered to New York to further develop his designs.

The success of the Confederates with spar torpedoes caused the US Navy Department to request proposals from inventors for similar weapons. John Lay teamed with Chief Engineer William Wood and submitted their design. Their torpedo carried only 40 pounds of gunpowder, compared to Hunley’s 135 pounds, and included a mechanism for detaching the torpedo and detonating it remotely. The Navy awarded Lay and Wood the contract. Several of their designs were fitted to steam launches and tested in New York during the summer of 1864. It was in New York that John Louis Lay met William Barker Cushing.

William Barker Cushing

William Cushing was a man who couldn’t sit still. At 14-years-old he enrolled in the Naval Academy, Annapolis, as midshipman. Candidates were allowed 200 demerits per year before being summarily dismissed. In his first year, Cushing earned 99. In his second, 188. In his fourth year, only months before graduation, he reached 200. Three weeks later, the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter.

He convinced Gordon Wells, Secretary of the Navy, to appoint him Acting Master’s Mate in the US Volunteer Navy. Cushing was nothing if not convincing.

He served with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron on the North Carolina sounds, distinguishing himself by ingenuity and bravery. He once attempted kidnapping Confederate General Louis Hébert from his headquarters in Smithfield, NC, arriving with 20 men in two boats minutes after the General’s departure. In 1864 he led a 15-man team for 3 days secretly reconnoitering Confederate held territory between Fort Fisher and Wilmington on the Cape Fear River. Shortly afterward he was tasked with sinking the ironclad Albemarle.

Cushing proposed an attack on the Albemarle using small boats fitted with spar torpedoes. The Navy Department sent him to New York where John Lay already had his torpedo design fitted on two steam launches. The launches were less than 50-feet-long with a draft of three and a half feet. Cushing put the launches through successful sea trials on New York Harbor. He had a 12-pound howitzer mounted on the bow of each boat and sent them south through the inland waterways while he traveled by rail. He expected to rendezvous with them at Norfolk, Virginia. Only one launch arrived. The other had lost its way and blundered into occupied territory in Virginia.

Undeterred, Cushing piloted the remaining launch south through the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal and, on October 27, 1864, met the Union flotilla cowering at the mouth of the Roanoke River, dreading the appearance of the Albemarle.

That night, Cushing steamed eight miles upriver, skirting the sentinels posted on the river banks, finally arriving at Plymouth where the Albemarle was berthed and guarded by a garrison of several thousand men. It was only when the ironclad was in sight that Cushing realized she was surrounded by a log boom that extended 30 feet from her hull, protection against just the sort of attack he intended.

The guard on the deck of the ironclad sighted Cushing’s launch at the same time. A bell rang the alarm. Rifle fire broke out. Cushing drove the launch in a circle, gathering speed, and aimed full speed straight for the log boom. He reasoned the logs had been submerged long enough to be waterlogged and coated with algae. When the launch struck, she’d ride over them.

Cushing attack on the Confederate ironclad Albemarle.
Cushing attack on the Confederate ironclad Albemarle.

Riflemen on the deck of the Albemarle were pouring fire into the boat. Cushing answered with the howitzer loaded with cannister shot, clearing the Albemarle’s upper deck.

Confederate soldiers on shore had a clear view of the scene lit by their bonfires. They continued to fire on the launch as it accelerated toward the log boom. Several shots tore Cushing’s coat as he stood at the bow, adjusting the lines that positioned the spar torpedo. The launch struck the log boom and drove over the top. Somehow Cushing kept his balance. The end of the spar almost touched the iron hull of the Albemarle. Cushing lowered the torpedo into the water as the launch’s momentum carried it forward until the torpedo was under the Albemarle’s hull. He pulled another line; the torpedo disconnected from the spar and fell into the water. A bullet cut the palm of Cushing’s hand. At the same moment, he pulled the lanyard that triggered the bomb.

Inside the torpedo, the lanyard released an iron ball that fell on a percussion cap. The percussion cap detonated the black powder. A moment later, the Albemarle’s hull pitched upward, driven by a column of water. At the same time, the gun crew of the Albemarle fully depressed the barrel of their 8-inch gun and fired, 15 feet from Cushing’s launch. The shot shattered the boat’s heavy bow timbers.

“Save yourselves,” Cushing shouted to his men and dove into the river.

The destruction of Picket Boat #1.
The destruction of Picket Boat #1.

The Confederates launched small boats. In a few minutes they had recovered Cushing’s crew, those still alive. Only Cushing escaped. He made his way down river, through swamps and past Confederate patrols, until he stole a boat near the mouth of the Roanoke and rejoined the fleet.

After the war, A.F. Warley, captain of the Albemarle, said of Cushing’s raid, “A more gallant thing was not done during the war.”

Bad Endings

It didn’t end well for John Lay or William Cushing.

After the war, John Lay went to work for Peru, developing the Callao harbor defenses against the Spanish. While in Peru, he came up with his next invention. He called it a dirigible torpedo. Driven by a propeller and powered by a carbonic acid engine, the torpedo unspooled electrical wires that allowed control from either the shore or a boat. He sold his torpedoes to Egypt, the U.S., and Russia, making over a million dollars in direct sales or manufacturing rights. His cleverness didn’t extend to financial investments. He died on April 18, 1899, impoverished, at Bellevue Hospital, New York. The hospital staff didn’t know his name or history. He left behind a wife in London, a married daughter in Java, and a son on the Pacific coast. His obituary appeared in the Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers.

After the sinking of the Albemarle, William Cushing was a national hero. He had a private audience with President Lincoln and received a Vote of Thanks from Congress. Herman Melville wrote a poem about him. He went on to distinguish himself in the battle of Fort Fisher and numerous smaller actions. After the war, he served in both the Pacific and Asiatic squadrons, married, had a family, and commanded his own ship but died of illness on December 17, 1874, 32-years-old. He lived only 10 years after he sank the Albemarle. He is buried at the Naval Academy, Maryland. His life was brief but brilliant.

As for the USS Louisiana, the ship on which John Lay served while first tinkering with spar torpedoes on the Pamlico River, she was ingloriously stripped of spars and machinery, disguised as a blockade runner, stuffed with 215 tons of powder, and towed close to the Northeast Bastion of Fort Fisher, the last of the Confederate coastal forts still standing. At 1:40 am on Christmas Eve, 1864, the Louisiana exploded. A shock wave rolled across the ocean, rattling the spars and rigging of the Union fleet assembled for the attack. The spectacular detonation did almost no damage to the fort.


In the early morning, daylight is still an unkept promise and Chocowinity Bay remains only a lighter shade of darkness. Lights from the docks dance on rippled water like the spirit of God on the face of the deep. Everything is in subtle motion, the water, the light, the skeletal branches of the winter trees, the air, and the planet itself, a motion so immense that the dance is measured in hours, days, and years.

It’s a small place, Chocowinity Bay, but vast, the world in a grain of sand. From my garret window, I can see the seasons pass and the years. I can watch the trees that stand at the water’s edge, themselves watching, like opposed mirrors endlessly reflecting the other’s image until you can’t tell them apart anymore. The observer and the observed become indistinguishable.

View from my garret window, Cypress Landing, NC.
View from my garret window, Cypress Landing, NC.

When the sun crests the horizon, the light first strikes the masts of sailboats in the marina at Cypress Landing. They catch fire like burning pennants, an army of shadows with pennants on fire. It’s visually compelling, a salutation to the sun. For some time the masts alone remain bright and burning before the earth turns and sunlight floods the bay.

Everything travels in waves, light and water, wind and time. Even our lives if we could feel the scend of it, the rise and fall, pitch and yaw. Our voices are the sound of waves and our breath the rhythm.

Brickyard Boat

The water on Chocowinity Bay isn’t driven by the moon but the wind. Wind tides. In the hard blow of a Nor’easter or the spiraling winds of a hurricane, the water can be blown out of the bay, uncovering old bricks from a Civil War brickworks or the bones of a scow schooner settled in the mud.

The schooner was intentionally scuttled to serve as a breakwater, but even when fit, she was never suited to sail in open water. At best, she kept to the creeks and rivers and sounds of North Carolina, maybe sailing as far north as Virginia through the Dismal Swamp.

For lack of a more formal name, the wreck was simply called the Brickyard Boat.

A Working Boat

The Brickyard Boat measured 73′ long, 14′ beam, and slightly more than 2′ depth of hold. Her bow and stern were as blunt as a barge and her hard chine didn’t make her any less ungainly. She was rigged as a schooner with two masts. A centerboard kept her flat bottom from skipping to leeward like a stone when sailing to windward but she was never a weatherly boat.

A working boat, she probably had the beauty of an old prizefighter with flattened nose and cauliflower ears, hauling bricks from one shoal water port to another. She was a simple design that required a shipwright with minimal skill and even less budget to build. Folklore had it that any barnbuilder could construct a scow schooner over the winter and sail it through the summer. When she was unceremoniously wedged between pilings and scuttled to serve as a breakwater, she was likely burned to the waterline to salvage any metal in her hull.

When they excavated the Brickyard Boat, they found a boot and a shoe embedded in the silt. One of each.


The shoe was flattened at the counter, the material that stiffened the heel, probably from a sailor repeatedly slipping out of his shoes to climb the rigging barefoot. The copper rivets securing the leather uppers were characteristic of shoes made for the Union Army during the Civil War specifically for black soldiers whose broad feet tended to burst the seams of standard Army issue. The light wear of the shoe suggested it was sold as surplus after the war had ended. The single boot was Union Army issue made by Confederate prisoners.

They make the wreck seem less academic, more human, like empty shoes found on the roadside after a traffic accident. They’re a connection to the crew that sailed the Brickyard Boat, to the lives they led in that turbulent time soon after the Civil War, a time that now seems incomprehensibly distant.

When the marine archaeologists finished their excavation and measurements, they returned the bricks and silt and debris that had previously covered the wreck. It was like covering a grave. The bones of the schooner lie there still, a short walk from my home, the site marked at Cypress Landing with a plaque like a headstone.

The wreck site of the Brickyard Boat is memorialized at Cypress Landing.
The wreck site of the Brickyard Boat is memorialized at Cypress Landing.

Note: The wreck site lies just beyond the foreground docks in the masthead photo, among the reeds and the overhanging cypress trees at Cypress Landing, North Carolina.

Further reading: The Cypress Landing Shipwreck of Chocowinity Bay: 
A North Carolina Sail Flat
by Ann Merriman


I came late in my life to the North Carolina coast, a place of salt marsh and black water rivers, barrier islands and sounds, storms and stifling summer heat, and solitude, vast swaths of solitude where few people live.

It’s a coast of wind and sky and water, salt water, fresh water, brackish water, water snaking through lowlands and swamps, water flowing down rivers, vast sheets of water reflecting the sky, and the imposing presence of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the thin defense of the Outer Banks.

The Carolina coast remains largely as it has always been because few people found a use for it. The coastal lowlands, scoured flat by a retreating ocean in geologic time, is as much water as land. It has been populated historically by people too poor to live elsewhere, mostly marginalized blacks. Because there were few ways to extract wealth from the marshy landscape on an industrial scale, it remains much like it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand. There are few towns on the coast and only one city, Wilmington, a small city by modern American standards, a city being slowly submerged by the rising sea.

Tuscarora War

I live now on the shore of Chocowinity Bay, an indentation in the shoreline of the broad Pamlico River several miles before it meets the sound. Chocowinity was named by Tuscarora natives after the river otter than once lived in the creeks and the bay.

The first attack of the Tuscarora War (1711-1715) was made on John Porter’s house in the village of Chocowinity. He managed to defend himself. Neighbors at the mouth of Blounts Creek weren’t as successful.

A man named Nevil was shot, then laid on the floor of his cabin “with a clean pillow laid under his head, his stockings turned over his shoes, and his body covered with a new linen. His wife was set upon her knees, and her hands lifted up as if she was at prayers, leaning against a chair in the chimney corner, and her coats turned over her head. A son of his was laid out in the yard with a pillow under his head and a bunch of rosemary laid to his nose.”

It seems an oddly specific way to treat the dead, almost reverential. Other stories were more horrendous, some probably colonial propaganda, but the Tuscarora attitude toward death seems significantly different than the colonists, and likely their attitude toward life.

There are no more Tuscarora or otters on Chocowinity Bay.


It’s ironic that Representative Walter Jones Jr., a man who has religiously denied the science of climate change, represents the people in North Carolina most vulnerable to a changing climate, the 3rd Congressional District encompassing the Outer Banks and the Pamlico Sound. And not just vulnerable to the obvious storms and floods. Heat itself is an even greater threat.

Eight of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last ten years. The health effects of extreme heat include cramps, exhaustion, and death from heat stroke, cardiovascular and respiratory stress, and heart attack. The very young and the very old, the poor, and people who work outdoors are most vulnerable. The coastal counties have more people at risk than any other region in North Carolina.

A recent issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal included the article “Climate Change and Public Health through the Lens of Rural, Eastern North Carolina.” In that article the authors stated that “from 1992 to 2006, North Carolina had the highest annualized rate of heat-related deaths in the United States, the majority of which occurred within the ENC-41 region.” ENC-41 are the 41 counties that make up the coastal plain of North Carolina, east of Interstate 95.

North Carolina’s Rural Poor

As the heat continues to rise, poor people who live in substandard housing will be less able to afford the rising costs of electricity necessary to keep cool. People who work outdoors will be less able to avoid cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. And the entire population will suffer greater exposure to diseases that thrive in a warmer, wetter climate, diseases like Zika, West Nile Virus, Malaria, Lyme disease, and Dengue fever.

The Medical Journal article warns of “…serious challenges for rural populations in counties that have limited public health services such as mosquito control, environmental health, or a primary care clinic.” In other words, a significant percentage of Rep. Jones’ constituents.

Overwhelmingly, more counties in Eastern North Carolina have fewer primary care physicians than the state average. Again, from the Medical Journal. “On average, North Carolina has 8.6 primary care doctors (per 10,000 population), while 18 counties in the ENC-41 region reported fewer than 5 primary care doctors and 10 counties had fewer than 2.8. Two counties, Camden and Tyrell, had no (0) primary care physicians.”

Rep. Jones has taken a moral stand on other issues. We need him now to lead us against a threat to the well-being of all coastal North Carolina residents.