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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.