Castle Island, Pamlico River, NC, in fog.
Castle Island, Pamlico River, NC, in fog.

Castle Island has been many things in its history – a dumping ground for ships’ ballast, a shipyard, sawmill, lime kiln, Civil War artillery battery, bordello, fish cam, and a pasture for goats but in its long association with the river port of Washington, North Carolina, it has never been abandoned.

The most recent occupants of the island were a herd of goats. Washington’s Chamber of Commerce hoped to turn the island into parkland. The goats were intended to prune the underbrush. That hope, and many of the goats, were ended by Hurricane Bertha.

Bertha came ashore on July 12, 1996, like a runaway freight. By most standards, it was a moderate Category 2 storm, but the prolonged wind piled water onto the western shore of Pamlico Sound and up the Pamlico River. The hurricane arrived with high tide. The storm surge reached seven feet at Washington. There is hardly any part of Castle Island higher than six feet.

Not Our Goats

Despite the widespread human suffering resulting from the storm, the fate of the goats of Castle Island became something of a cause celebre. According to Bland Simpson in his book The Inner Islands, the Chamber of Commerce became the target of the public’s ire. The Chamber tried to distance themselves, claiming they had removed their goats before the storm. It must have been someone else’s goats awash in the Pamlico River.

Before the storm, the goats had done an admirable job clearing the tangle of vines and underbrush from the island but with unintended consequences. The vines had served as rigging threading together the sweetgum, sycamore, and bald cypress trees loosely rooted in the soil. When two storms – Hurricanes Bertha and Fran – battered the island in 1996, the wind toppled the tallest trees. Their upended root balls still litter the island like bleached bones.

There were once other bones, ship’s bones, visible when a stout northwesterly wind blew the water out of the river. On the upstream edge of the island, there were the broken ribs of oyster shell barges, fishing and coastal schooners, even a stern wheel steamboat, all left to rot when they became unprofitable. Their graveyard is near where the sailboat pictured is anchored in the fog.

From 1998 to 2000, the wreckage was researched by students in the Program in Maritime Studies, East Carolina University, Greenville. Then, in 2000, Hurricane Floyd ended their research and the ships. The storm swept wreckage downstream or buried it in sand or ripped it apart with the strength of the storm current. What remains as an epitaph is the University’s Research Report No. 14, The Castle Island Ship’s Graveyard.