For a few brief hours, this island ghost town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was alive again with people this spring.
More than 100 guests, ferried in five boats, filled the tiny white frame Methodist church for the wedding of Rebecca Harriett and Rob Lamar. Both work for the National Park Service, which bought Portsmouth Island and restored several buildings after the last two permanent residents moved to the mainland in 1971.
When she worked here one summer, Harriett recalled, "I said if I ever get married, I want to get married in that church" on the deserted island.
For many years, the town at the island's upper end was North Carolina's leading seaport and its rival was Ocracoke, a village at the lower end of Ocracoke Island just north of here.
At its peak before the Civil War, Portsmouth Island was home to 505 people, including 117 slaves. It also had a marine hospital, a Coast Guard station, a menhaden fish factory and a fishing fleet during its heyday. There were stores, a post office, school and tavern and scores of homes throughout the island.
Today, it is an eerie place where rabbits, birds and mosquitoes far outnumber the occasional human visitors who cross the inlet from Ocracoke. The buildings are so spruced up that it looks as though everyone simply went to the mainland for the day.
Most of the islanders fled Yankee troops during the Civil War and chose not to return. Other families stayed into the mid-20th century, without electricity or a telephone link to the outside world.
Until the 1950s, several families kept cattle here, and horses roamed wild until they were "penned" during Independence Day and Labor Day roundups. The state ended that, arguing that horses grazing on dune grass helped hasten the erosion that is the fate of all coastal barrier islands.
"It's been over 20 years since any were over there, and I see very little difference," said Dallas Willis, whose family moved to the mainland in the 1940s and who was married in the Portsmouth church in 1978.
The state acquired the island in the 1960s. Since 1976, Portsmouth has been part of the federal Cape Lookout National Seashore.
While there are no full-time residents, Park Service workers occasionally inhabit the island. Four days a week, Lamar lives in an old house serving as a ranger station, and one house that belonged to the last postmaster is sometimes unlocked so visitors can escape the many mosquitoes.
The illusion of vitality is also maintained in the 62-year-old church whose donation plate is often filled. A guest book contains about 300 names of people who have stopped by since last July.
Behind the church is one of several intact family cemeteries, adorned with silk flowers. In one plot lie the remains of Henry Pigott, the last male inhabitant, who died in January 1971.
Pigott, a descendant of the island's slaves, spoke with the British brogue typical of this isolated area and is warmly remembered by Junius Austin, 69, and his son, Rudy, 42, of Ocracoke. "Henry was a real nice person, a nice clean fellow, always kept a neat house. He was a real good cook and a very sociable fellow," Junius Austin said.
In Portsmouth's twilight years, the mail boat from Atlantic, N.C., no longer stopped here, but Pigott poled his flat-bottomed skiff out of the shallows to meet it on the way to Ocracoke.
When Pigott's health was failing, the Austins brought him to Ocracoke to live with them during the winter. The day of Pigott's funeral was stormy, Junius Austin said, "blowing northeast, raining, cold. But quite a few from Ocracoke went over."
Pigott is buried next to his sister, Lizzie, who died in 1960. Despite segregation elsewhere in the South, the island's only black family had attended the same church as the whites and was interred with them. "In Memory of Henry Pigott. A Friend to All," the plaque inside the church says.
When Pigott died, the island's remaining residents, an elderly woman and her niece, moved to the mainland, where they still live in the Carteret County seat of Beaufort. They are allowed to live in their former Portsmouth homes, and the niece, Marian Babb, 64, usually spends a week each summer on the island.
Her aunt, Elma Dixon, 82, lives two blocks from Babb with Babb's sister, Jessie Lee Dominique, and her husband. Dominique was the last person born on the island, on Aug. 2, 1927.
She attended the island school until it was closed in 1943, when the Coast Guard transferred the father of the two other students and the state refused to keep it open for her alone. "That was it, because there was no more school there," she said. "I got cheated out of a year's education."
After World War II, she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., for 18 months, then back to Beaufort where she worked nearby as a waitress and met her husband. Her mother moved back to Portsmouth Island and died there in 1968.
Last summer, Dominique returned to the island for the first time in several years with a nephew from Staten Island, N.Y. Both signed the church guest book and wrote "Home Again" next to their names.
Junius Austin lived here irregularly for 18 years, as a caretaker for the hunting club that took over the Coast Guard station after the war. "As long as we had people over there, we stayed," he said. "We built the landing strip out of sand and grass. When the Park Service came in, I lost my job."
The Park Service still mows the runway, which has a windsock at one end, some weathered outbuildings and two picnic tables. The 1894 Coast Guard building is sometimes occupied by Park Service maintenance people.
The Austins have a Park Service concession to shuttle tourists to and from Portsmouth. On a recent spring day, Rudy Austin took two visitors on the 20-minute boat trip from Ocracoke Island to Haulover Point on the sound side of Portsmouth.
He set them on the path to the village and promised to pick them up at a sandy beach on the island's other side three hours later. Mosquitoes, meaner in the summer by all accounts, swarmed about the visitors as they made their way to the remaining cluster of houses and the church.
The road led past an abandoned and rusted car of 1950s vintage to the landing strip and Coast Guard station. From there, a path went to a vast tidal flat, under water only at abnormally high tide.
Over the years, sand driven by storms has changed the 22-mile-long island's contours. From his 20-foot Sea Ox motorboat, Rudy Austin pointed out the channel that had just silted in, the shoreline that washed away.
On the beach, two women sunned themselves and collected shells. Offshore were half a dozen sport-fishing boats. Earlier in the day, 35 were out.
Austin steered the boat back to Ocracoke, meeting Junius in the channel on his way to pick up others he had taken there. The wind was picking up, and soon the channel crossing would be impossible.
The Lamar-Harriett wedding, which involved the Austins and their craft, had been the biggest event on Portsmouth since a 1980 reunion drew 350 people. The bride had been advised to secure two marriage permits, just in case. Should the weather prevent the crossing, the wedding would have been held in Ocracoke, which is in a different county.
As it turned out, both weather and wedding were fine. The guests played croquet, an island tradition, and soon everyone was gone, leaving only the sounds of nature to break the silence.