On a brisk February morning with the sun just above the horizon and the temperature just above freezing, I drove to the end of the Buffalo City Road where it was flooded by Milltail Creek and launched my kayak. There was no one nearby and no sound but the rattle of a belted kingfisher. I had finally arrived at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
For months I had read about the history of Milltail Creek but was prevented from visiting by winter storms, a virulent pandemic, and a young man who drowned in the cold water of Croatan Sound a few miles away. Eventually, my caution and my patience wore thin.
Several of the paddling trails in the refuge begin at the end of Buffalo City Road. At the other end of the road, all that remains of Buffalo City itself are scattered debris, rotting railroad ties, and rusting rails but at one time Russian was spoken here as commonly as English.
Buffalo City was a company town built in the 1870s for the single purpose of logging juniper, cypress, and pine from the swampland of the Alligator River. It was built by blacks and Russian immigrants, over 200 of them. The houses where they lived were made from milled lumber rejected by the Buffalo Timber Company as unmarketable. The houses were painted red or white. White workers lived in the red houses, blacks and immigrants in the white.
At its peak, the population of Buffalo City reached 3,000. There was a hotel, post office, schoolhouse, company store, stockade, 100 miles of rails, and four dirt roads layered with sawdust and planks to keep people from sinking in the mud.
Workers were paid 50 cents a day, paid with aluminum coins that could only be redeemed at the company store. There was no police force, no authority but the company. People who defied that authority were held in a stockade in the middle of town until collected by the Dare County Sheriff. Sometimes justice was served by the locals, mostly beatings, but at least one offender was rumored to have been burned alive.
Workers were paid to wade through swamp and fell trees by hand, drag them by mule teams through the muck and slash to the railroad tracks, load them onto flatbed cars hauled by steam engines either to the mill on the bend of Milltail Creek or by barge to the sawmills at Elizabeth City. They endured the heat and humidity of North Carolina summers, cottonmouths and alligators and biting flies, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and flu until it was no longer profitable. The Buffalo Timber Company closed in 1903.
Buffalo City became a company town without a company.
The Buffalo Timber Company closed in 1903, the year the Watts Act was passed in North Carolina. The law made distilling liquor illegal except in incorporated towns. Democratic party leaders considered county distilleries “Republican recruiting stations.”
It didn’t stop there. The Anti-Saloon League’s referendum for state-wide prohibition passed and on the first day of the year 1909, North Carolina became a dry state. (The 18th Amendment and national prohibition didn’t catch up until 1920.)
The stage was set for Buffalo City’s revival.
The two irreducible ingredients of moonshine are water and secrecy. Buffalo City had both and grinding poverty with little hope for gainful employment. “There were only two ways left of working at Buffalo City,” Gus Basnight said, “cutting net stakes for pound nets at 15 cents each or making whiskey.”
Almost every family still living in Buffalo City by the 1920s had a still secreted somewhere in the surrounding swamp and a route to get it to market, down Milltail Creek to Elizabeth City.
Distilled “by the light of the moon,” moonshine was the only cash crop available to most residents of Buffalo City. They took full advantage of the opportunity. In a state famous for moonshiners, Buffalo City was once the moonshining capital of North Carolina according to historian David Pierce, author of Tar Heel Lightnin’.
The Hattie Creef was a 55-foot oyster boat built in 1888 at a boatyard in Manteo. Around the turn of the century, her sails were replaced with an engine. She hauled freight between Elizabeth City, Manteo, and other ports on the sounds. She also hauled moonshine from Buffalo City.
The Hattie Creef was a blockader, a name remembered from the Civil War when blockade runners attempted to circumvent the Union navy blockading southern ports. She carried her cargo of moonshine down Milltail Creek, following the paddling trails still in use in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, then across the sound to Elizabeth City, returning with sugar used by the stills located on the banks of Milltail Creek and the surrounding swamp forest.
Distilling liquor without paying the Federal excise tax had been illegal since the Civil War but became hazardous when revenue agents from the Bureau of Prohibition began enforcing the 18th Amendment in 1920. Some moonshiners lived and died hard but the Hattie Creef lived a long life. After 90 years, she was finally dismantled in 1978.
During Prohibition, making moonshine became more profitable but with increased risk. Federal revenue officers patrolled Milltail Creek, eventually even using aircraft to search for illegal stills, but the moonshiners were wily. They towed their jugs of whiskey on a line behind their shoal-draft boats headed down the creek toward market and threw the line off if intercepted by revenuers, returning when the coast was clear to retrieve their whiskey.
Milltail Creek now exists entirely within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. There are no more loggers or moonshiners, none that are known, but the place has a history that lingers, that whispers, especially paddling alone on a winter morning.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Dare County, NC