North Carolina

In 1899, Diamond City residents fled a hurricane. A storm Saturday blocked a reunion

Descendants of the residents of Diamond City gathered August 17, 2019, at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center for Diamond City Homecoming, an event held every fifth year. The homecoming celebrates the settlements on Shackleford Banks that their ancestors left after a severe 1899 hurricane.
Descendants of the residents of Diamond City gathered August 17, 2019, at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center for Diamond City Homecoming, an event held every fifth year. The homecoming celebrates the settlements on Shackleford Banks that their ancestors left after a severe 1899 hurricane. awagner@newsobserver.com

Just as storms drove their forebears off Shackleford Banks, storms kept the descendants of Diamond City from reaching Wade’s Shore Cemetery on Saturday.

A severe hurricane that made landfall August 17, 1899, caused the residents to leave, often floating their houses across Back Sound to Carteret County destinations such as Harkers Island, Marshallburg, Salters Path and The Promise Land part of Morehead City.

Every five years, in an effort to remember where they come from and who they are, the descendants of Diamond City sail back across Back Sound to Wade’s Shore Cemetery. The 20 graves there are one of the last remaining hints of the Banks’ former civilization.

This year’s reunion comes less than a year after another storm, Hurricane Florence, battered North Carolina’s coast, forcing many descendants into a slow recovery and raising new questions about what it means to live by the water.

“My grandparents left (Diamond City) in 1899 because the tide took them,” said Karen Willis Amspacher, the executive director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center. “There’s been a period of our history where we thought everything was permanent, and it’s just not. And I think that’s how live here: We accept that. We accept that there are no certainties.”

Leaving Diamond City

Residents of Diamond City began talking about leaving Shackleford Banks after a series of storms in 1898. But then, in 1899, the largest storm in living memory made landfall there, washing coffins out of graveyards and flooding gardens, David Stick wrote in “The Outer Banks of North Carolina.”

That storm, Stick wrote, marked a turning point, with residents deciding the time had come to leave. William Henry Guthrie, Amspacher’s great-grandfather, bought 60 acres of Harkers Island, and many residents of Diamond City purchased pieces of that land. Then they floated their houses across Back Sound from Shackleford Banks to their new property, sometimes plank by plank, according to Stick, and some by placing planks between two boats to create a makeshift barge.

Stick wrote, “It only took two or three days to move a house, and 30 or 40 men would join in helping; no money changed hands as it would today, for the same people would pitch in together and move your house for you, when your turn came; only the person whose house was being moved was supposed to provide something to eat — a lot of something to eat, too, for 30 or 40 hungry men.”

Camella Gaskill Marcom, who organized a memorial service that was originally set to be held at Wade’s Shore, was one of four generations of her family to attend Saturday’s gathering.

Marcom recently made arrangements for her Harkers Island property to be placed in a trust when she dies, so her children and their children will always own a piece of the land their ancestors fled to.

As Florence neared last fall and she prepared to leave home, Marcom stood on her back porch, looking across Back Sound to Shackleford Banks, where her ancestors were living in 1899 when, with no warning, the worst storm in living memory came from the Atlantic.

“Not only was it a storm, but it was bad enough they’re going to have to uproot themselves,” Marcom said, later adding that after Florence, “I remember thinking, ‘If they could do it, I can do it. I’ll come back and whatever’s here, we’ll rebuild.’ It’s just important to bounce back and be resilient and be a part of that.”

‘This place and these people’

Saturday’s reunion marked the first event at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center since Hurricane Florence blew off parts of the roof, leading to water damage and mold that Amspacher estimates will cost $3 million to fix.

The education center doesn’t have a carpet, hollowing out the room’s acoustics and leading Saturday’s speakers to ask for as much silence as possible. On a day with driving rain, though, it offered a dry place.

“It’s still important to be here because of the heritage that’s here. It’s not the finest building you’ll ever see, and it’s full of sheetrock dust and all kinds of dust and no carpet on the floor,” Marcom said. “But it’s home, and that’s the most important.”

Down a side hallway from the education center where the Diamond City reunion was held Saturday is an exhibition hall. When Hurricane Florence reached Carteret County last fall, the exhibit showing was Rising, about the impact of sea level rise.

The museum’s repairs will include replacing much of the sheetrock in that hall. But one strip of the back wall stands untouched, with three words painted in red on white backing: Response, Recovery and Resilience.

Those concepts, Amspacher said, are something the descendants of Diamond City can help newcomers to North Carolina’s coast understand.

“If you’re coming to buy land as an investment, buy it in Cary. Everything there’s square, everything is controlled, everything is planned, it has a much larger possibility of a return on your investment,” Amspacher said. “If you’re coming here, then come because of this place and these people, and be part of this community, be part of the dynamics. Understand that. Know that you’re going to have to deal with storms on a regular basis, you’re going to have to deal with tide.”

Amspacher continued, “You’re going to have to learn to work with this environment, because there’s not enough money on the planet to keep an ocean back.”

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control.

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