Tag Archives: Pamlico River

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


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.