Ocracoke Post Office History
“The Post Office has long been at the center of community life on the island. In the first half of the 20th century, before ferries and paved roads, the mailboat was Ocracoke’s primary link to the outside world. The trip across the sound took about 4 hours. Islanders would gather at the mailboat dock in late afternoon waiting for letters, packages, relatives, and news from the mainland. It was the perfect time to visit with neighbors, share stories, and hear what was going on around the village. The first Post Office was established on Ocracoke on this date in 1840. Twenty-eight year old William Hatton Howard, great-grandson of Ocracoke’s last colonial owner, William Howard, Sr., was appointed Ocracoke’s first postmaster. For the next sixty years the post office was located in successive postmasters’ homes or in one of the village’s general stores.
In spite of federal oversight of mail delivery, service on isolated Ocracoke Island was often unreliable throughout most of the nineteenth century. As late as 1899 mail was brought to the island at most three times per week. The route started at Marshallberg, North Carolina (near Beaufort), then traveled through the coastal towns of Davis, Wit, Atlantic, Lupton, and Portsmouth before ending at Ocracoke. Mail was then sent three miles to Shell Castle Island in Pamlico Sound.Mail was carried on sailing vessels, typically sloops or “bugeyes,” (two masted schooners with raked masts, a covered deck, and a small cabin aft of the main mast). Many factors served to delay mail in the nineteenth century, not the least of which was weather. Storms, hurricanes, fog, and ice, as well as human error contributed to delays. ” Philip Howard
Elizabeth O’Neal Howard, daughter of Big Ike O’Neal, attended school on the mainland and worked at her Father’s store during her early years, and later for Stanley Wahab as a bookkeeper. She was Ocracoke’s postmistress from 1941-1973 and made a lasting impression on everyone that knew her.
One of Ocracoke’s most memorable mail carriers was Charlie McWilliams. He was almost always pictured with a half smoked cigar and known affectionately as “Charlie Mac.” During the 1950s, mail came by the way of Hatteras as well as on the mailboat from Atlantic. After the mailboat era, Charlie Mac had the responsibility of keeping the mail moving between the villages of Hatteras and Ocracoke. It was a six day a week job, and during four years, there were only four days that the weather kept him from delivering the mail to Ocracoke. His Dodge truck, once an Army ambulance, pulled out of Ocracoke at 5:30 am and chugged up the fifteen mile beach to Hatteras Inlet. On low tide, Charlie Mac made the run in 30 minutes on the beach. At high tide he had to allow an hour for the trip on the deep rutted back road. Upon reaching the northern end of Ocracoke Island, he and any passengers who may have accompanied him, boarded the 42′ Miss Hatteras and crossed Hatteras Inlet for the final leg of the journey to Hatteras Village. It took about 40 minutes to cross the 6 mile stretch of water. On the return trip to Ocracoke, Charlie Mac normally left Hatteras Village at 12:30pm and he, along with the mail and any passengers, usually arrived in Ocracoke Village around 2:30pm. -(Credit Ocracoke Album Book)
Some photos of Charlie McWilliams below. He was also known to be one of the great island decoy carvers!
Dudley continues with this observation: “Initially the delivery route was a roundtrip of 85 miles, made once per week. The boat left Beaufort, Monday, 6:00 a.m. and arrived at Pilot Town [Ocracoke] Wednesday, 6:00 p.m. It departed from Pilot Town on Thursday, 6:00 a.m. and arrived in Beaufort, Saturday, 6:00 p.m.”
On October 21, 1902 Thomas Wallace (“Mr. Tommy”) Howard was appointed postmaster at Ocracoke. He held the position for nearly 40 years, until he retired in 1941. Soon after his appointment Mr. Tommy built a small building close to his home (near where the Silver Lake Motel is located today), the first of Ocracoke’s four dedicated post office buildings.
Although Dudley lists six mailboats that served Ocracoke during that period (the Kitty Watts, the Ripple, the Meteor, the Hero, the Viola, and the Lillian) Ocracokers remember only the Morehead City and the Ocracoke. According to retired Ocracoke postmaster Elizabeth O’Neal Howard, as quoted in Alton Ballance’s book Ocracokers, “the first mailboat service was …runned by two men called Mr. Gus and Mr. Pinter…. They had two boats. One would leave Morehead City early in the morning and the other would leave from Ocracoke at the same time.” The round trip took two days.
Mail was also carried back and forth between Hatteras and Ocracoke. Elizabeth Howard remembered that her father-in-law, Mr. Tommy, would pole a skiff thirty miles to Avon once a week to pick up mail and passengers.
In the winter of 1917 Pamlico Sound froze over, trapping the mailboat near Portsmouth Island. Unable to move his vessel for fear of sinking, the captain simply walked across the ice to Portsmouth village.
Before Ocracoke’s harbor was dredged, mailboats from the mainland docked at various piers along Pamlico Sound, for a time at the old Pamlico Inn, and later at a long, narrow dock to the north of the “ditch.” In the late 1920s Mr. Frank Jackson would bring his shallow draft skiff to the mailboat, then transfer the mail to Doctor Angle’s dock (just south of present day Captain’s Landing hotel).
Photos below of the Ocracoke Post Office through the years. It was located along the harbor front in the early years, mostly it was located in someone’s store, eventually it became its own dedicated building. The final move was to the outer edge of the village, featuring a more modern post office and large parking lot.
The Ocracoke Post Office is an important part of community life. We do not have home delivery on the island, so everyone stops by the post office regularly to pick up their mail. Most folks visit the Post Office daily.
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