They have been collecting the dead here for almost 270 years, before the colonies became a country, before the country was shattered by war. The dead in St. Peter’s graveyard were safeguarded even as civil war raged above them, as artillery riddled houses, cavalry charged through the streets, and the church burned down to the ground to meet them.
St. Peter’s has been holding the dead for a long time. There are three Revolutionary soldiers, 17 Confederate dead, and far too many children.
Massive trees have grown to shadow the graves — magnolia, oak, cypress, dogwood, birch, even a Ginkgo. Palmetto palms surround the graves like bayonets planted in the ground. And sunlight flows like water, ebbing and flooding among the headstones.
In the shadow of a massive magnolia tree lies the grave of Colonel James Bonner. He named the town Washington after his friend and fellow soldier, George Washington. Beneath a cypress tree, Thankful O’Cain and her babies are buried. Nearby the relatives of film director Cecil B. DeMille are encrypted, waiting for the resurrection that was promised.
In 1890 they stopped burying the dead in St. Peter’s. Townsfolk were concerned the dead would contaminate their well water.
Castle Island is only a stone’s throw from the Washington waterfront. It’s a few acres of sand in the middle of the Pamlico River named for the crenelated chimneys of lime kilns that once occupied the island. The chimneys resembled medieval towers. The kilns rendered lime from oyster shells to make cement.
History is piled on Castle Island like oyster shells. There was a shipyard once and a sawmill, Union troops and an artillery battery. Much later there was a whorehouse.
Through the years old boats were left to rot on the shore or burnt to the waterline for their metal fittings. The hulls settled into the mud like time. They piled up like cordwood upstream of the island, a ship’s graveyard. The bones of an oyster shell barge jostled a sharpie schooner, a motorized fishing boat from the early 20th Century, a bugeye schooner, and a barge or ferry boat. In all, 11 vessels were researched by the Eastern Carolina University’s Maritime Studies staff in 1998 and 1999.
Castle Island, Pamlico River in the fog. Boats moored up-current are near the location of the ship’s graveyard.
Then Hurricane Floyd struck in 2000. The Pamlico River rose 24-feet above flood stage. Houses, buildings, farms, even small towns were swept away. The river spilled onto the 500-year floodplain. And the current scoured the ship’s graveyard.
The remnants of vessels up current of the island are gone now. They may have been carried downstream or broken up and shot downriver by the force of the flood. Whatever more we may have learned from them is lost.
Boats are still being lost to hurricanes. The sloop Rebecca aground after Hurricane Dorian.
The Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge spans the Pamlico River at Washington, NC. One end vanishes in the fog, the other ends abruptly at the draw span.
The fog has leeched the color from the photo except for the red light of a single channel marker.
As an old man Bill Seller remembered when he was young, staying at his grandparent’s house in Washington beside the Pamlico River, windows open in the sultry heat, listening to the freight trains slowly cross the bridge in the middle of the night, restricted to 10 miles per hour over the wooden trestles, counting the cars as their wheels clattered across the open joint at the end of the draw span.
Grandpap is an island sunk in the Pamlico River downstream of Washington, NC. The island has been eroded by storms. It’s only a name on the charts now, a shoal patch, and the bones of some cypress trees rooted in the water.
The trees stand isolated in the fog. A few sodden cormorants dry themselves on leafless limbs. The river flows past sluggishly on its way to the Pamlico Sound.