Diamond City, NC History

The North Carolina Outer Banks l584-l958

by David Stick

DIAMOND CITY
p. l84-l94

Though it would be difficult to find visual evidences of it there today, one of the largest communities on the Outer Banks in the latter part of the last century was Diamond City, which was located a short distance west of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, just beyond The Drain.

People had been living in that vicinity since the early days of Banks settlement, but the life of Diamond City itself was a short one, with a strange and unhappy ending. It was not until about l885 that this community of several hundred persons acquired a name, yet in less than twenty years the name was about all that was left of it, for the people had moved, and when they moved they took Diamond City with them--except for the name, that is, and the little family graveyards where the houses used to stand.

The written records in the story of Diamond City begin as early as l723. On September 2 of that year two Carolinians, brothers- in-law Enoch Ward and John Shackleford, signed an agreement for the equal division of some 7,000 acres of Banks land they had acquired jointly. Their original holdings extended from Beaufort Inlet, around Cape Lookout, and up the Banks to Drum Inlet, an entire Banks island some twenty-five miles in length. In the division, Ward agreed to take the eastern half, the part known as Core Banks; Shackleford took the western half, from Cape Lookout to Beaufort Inlet.

Seven years later a man named Ebenezer Harker purchased Craney Island, containing approximately 2400 acres and located directly across the sound from Cape Lookout and less than three miles from the Banks John Shackleford had acquired in his division with Enoch Ward. These two pieces of land, Harkers Island and Shackleford Banks, were to figure prominently in the story of Diamond City.

Equally important were the New England whalers, who made an appearance on the coast about that same time (the first permit was issued in l726) and used Cape Lookout harbor as a base of operations as they attempted to intercept the northbound migration of whales in the early spring. They sometimes spotted the giant creatures from their anchored vessels, launched small boats for the attack, and captured the whales within sight of shore. This was not an especially profitable operation for the large whaling vessels, since the catch was spotty at best, but it set some of the Bankers to thinking. Before many years they were trying it themselves, going to sea after the whales in small pilot boats, specially designed craft which they could launch from the beach.

The extent of those early shore-based whaling operations at Cape Lookout is not known, though there are indications that one or more crews were whaling there almost continuously over a period of more than l50 years. In the l750's the heirs of John Shackleford sold several tracts of his Banks land, and in the deeds to Joseph Morss and to Edward Fuller in l757, for example, it was stipulated that the purchasers should have the privilege "to fish and whale it...and also to have a landing at the said Point Look Out Bay. At least one person, a man named Davis, had built a permanent house there by the l760's, and when Captain Lobb of H.M. S. Viper made a detailed survey of Cape Lookout in l764, he showed several buildings just west of the cape and identified them as "Whalers Hutts."

There are frequent references to these shore-based whaling operations in the Cape Lookout area in the century or so preceding the Civil War, but the New England whalers - who had never really made extensive use of the Cape Lookout grounds- concentrated their southern activities on the open sea off Hatteras after the whaler Edwin and Rienzi, searching for blackfish in that area in l937, discovered a new "sperm-whale cruising ground" which became known as the Hatteras Ground.

Since whaling was a seasonal occupation at Cape Lookout, limited almost entirely to the months of February, March and April, the shore-based whalers were engaged also in mullet fishing, and some of them operated porpoise fisheries as well. By l853 when the original U.S. Coast Survey of Shackleford Banks was made, the whales, mullets, and porpoises had attracted a sizable community. Several buildings were shown on the beach in that vicinity, and a larger settlement was located in an area designated as "Lookout Woods" a mile or so west of the lighthouse.

The New England whalers did not give up entirely until the l870's, when two of them returned to Cape Lookout. In l874 and l875 the Daniel Webster cruised for three months out of Cape Lookout harbor without capturing a single whale; then, in August, l879, the Seychille came into the harbor for the same purpose. The story is that the Seychille was commanded by a Captain Cook, who went ashore and asked the Bankers when he could expect to find the best weather in that area. He was told that, year in and year out, August probably brought the best weather, and, no doubt pleased that he had picked that very month for his first operations, he began to prepare for a whaling cruise in the vicinity. Before the vessel put to sea, however, a severe storm struck with hurricane-like winds and extreme high tides. The vessel broke her anchor chain and drifted across Wreck Point into the open sea; then the wind shifted and forced her back over Wreck Point again, across the open bay, and high up on the beach.

She was, one Banker said, "stripped clean by wind and water" and was in no shape thereafter for whaling. For many hears afterward the Bankers referred to that storm as Old Cook's Storm.

The Daniel Webster is credited with introducing the whaling gun to the shore whalers at Cape Lookout in l875, and in the years that followed the gun was used extensively. The plan of operation followed by the shore-based whalers was described by A. Howard Clark in l880, as follows:

When the season arrives for whaling, three crews of six men each, unite to form a camp, and proceed to build a house out of rushes in some desirable location near the shore, for protection against the weather. Their boats, usually three in number, and their implements, are placed in readiness on the beach, and a lookout selected, where one man is stationed, to give the signal if the whales come in sight.

At this season of the year the whales are moving northward, and in their migrations often come within a short distance of the shore, where they are pursued and often captured by the fishermen. As soon as the whale is harpooned the "drug" is thrown over, and when he turns to fight, the fishermen, armed with guns, shoot him with explosive cartridges, and after killing him with their lances, tow him to the shore.

According to Clark, "the number of crews varied with the season, it formerly averaging but two or three, of eighteen men each." In l879, however, four crews were engaged in the general area of Cape Lookout, and they captured five whales, while the number of crews was increased to six in l880 though only one whale was taken. Generally the yearly catch was "about four whales, averaging 1,800 gallons of oil and 450 pounds of bone each, giving the catch a value of $4,500."

The proceeds from the whaling activities were divided on a share basis, and in a typical crew in l880 each of the men would have received a single share, each boat one share, each gun two shares, each gunner an extra share, and each steersman an additional one-half share, making a total of between thirty and forty shares for an eighteen-man crew.

By then there was a veritable city in the Lookout Woods west of the cape, and a number of the people were employed in a porpoise processing plant which had been started there by a New Jersey man named Gardiner. The settlement had no name, being referred to simple as "the eastern end' - to differentiate it from the smaller community closer to Beaufort Inlet known as Shackleford Banks, or Mullet Shore, or Wade's Shore, and the settlement near the lighthouse known as Cape Hills - and some of the residents were of the opinion that a definite name should be adopted.

There was, however, disagreement as to what the name should be, and the matter was not resolved until it was brought to the attention of Joe Etheridge who was superintendent of the lifesaving stations in the area.

Etheridge was stranded in the community during a severe storm - afterwards they called it the Canadian blizzard - probably in the winter of l885. Noting that the distinguishing feature of the community was the l50-foot-high Cape Lookout Lighthouse which towered above it to the east and observing that the exterior of the lighthouse was painted in a distinctive diamond design, alternately white and black, he suggested that a logical name would be Diamond City. The suggestion is said to have met with immediate approval, and the name Diamond City was quickly adopted.

As this is written there are people still living in eastern North Carolina who were born at Diamond City and who resided there as children, who watched the menfolk put to sea in their small boats when the whales passed by, and who helped the women tend the fires when the blubber was boiled to extract the oil. They were there when the storms struck that literally frightened Diamond City out of existence, and they rode in the open sail boats across the sound, sitting on top of door openings and window frames, when the houses were moved away. There is something akin to reverence in their voices as they talk of Diamond City and a note of longing for the happy days in the whaling community on the Banks before the storm came. Let them tell the story of Diamond City, as they knew it as children in the l890's; listen to Jimmy Guthrie, and his wife Miss Cary, and her brother Dan Yeomans; and listen, also, to Captain Iredell Rose, Captain Joe Rose, and others who remember when Diamond City was something more than just a name.

Who lived at Diamond City? Well, there was Tom Salter and his wife Jenny Lind. And the widow, Miss Carolina Salter, and her sons John, Tom, and Sam, and daughter Nicey. There was James Johnson, the Yankee soldier who married Sally Ann, and Charley Hancock who kept store, ad his wife Aggie, and their children Louie and Louisa. Then there were Willises - why, there were so many Willises, it would take half a day just to count them - and the Guthries were as thick as the Willises. There was one family of Nixons, and another of Wades; and two named Styron; and of course the Yeomanses, and the Roses.

How many people lived there? Two hundred; no, three hundred, maybe even as many as five hundred. Diamond City was big, spread over half the island, beginning at The Drain and spreading toward Beaufort Inlet. But Diamond City wasn't all. Maybe a hundred people or more lived at the other end of Shackleford Banks at Wade's Hammock then - and the Guthries were as thick as the Willises. There was one family of Nixons, and another of Wades; and two named Styron; and of course the Yeomanses, and the Roses.

How many people lived there? Two hundred; no, three hundred, maybe even as many as five hundred. Diamond City was big, spread over half the island, beginning at The Drain and spreading toward Beaufort Inlet. But Diamond City wasn't all. Maybe a hundred people or more lived at the other end of Shackleford Banks at Wade's Hammock; and four or five families at Kib Guthrie's Lump, and there was the colored man, Sam Windsor, with his family at the place called Sam Windsor's Lump. You could get some idea of the number of people who had lived there before by the graveyards; little ones, off beside the houses, and one big one - Ben Riles [Royals] Graveyard, they called it - right in the middle of Diamond City, with maybe as many as 500 graves in it.

There were other stores besides Charley Hancock's; Ambrose Lee Guthrie ran one, and Clifford Hancock another. They were small stores, carrying a little bit of everything, and a man named Johnson ran a boat from Beaufort to bring in supplies and the mail.

The people built a schoolhouse at Diamond City, a big one, though it was only used for a month or two months in the summer, usually in July and August. For a long time the teacher was a man named Tom Arrendel who came over from the mainland. They paid him twenty dollars a month, and at one time there were probably as many a hundred young folks going to him, maybe even more. Down at Wade's Hammock there was another school, but the big one was at Diamond City.

They used the schoolhouse for services too - Methodist, Baptist, Mormon, Pentecostal - not regularly, though sometimes a preacher would come to stay for a while. Then, usually down at Shackleford, the Pentecostals held their camp meetings, sometimes they lasted as much as three or four weeks. They met out in the open, "under the cedars" they called it, and people came from all over, not just Pentecostals but others too, as many as two or three thousand for a special day with "grub on the ground." The bigger boats couldn't get in close to shore, and one time they brought over a lot of smaller boats from the mainland and made a bridge out of them, from the shore out to deep water where the big boats had to anchor.

There were some Guthries over at Wade's Hammock, too, but most of the people there were Lewises and Myerses and Moores, and Davises. There wasn't a doctor there or at Diamond City either; and when people really had to see a doctor they went over to the mainland, to Beaufort or Straits. Most of the doctoring, though, was done by two midwives at Diamond City, Margaret Ann Willis and Rachel Willis. People lived a long time at Shackleford and Diamond City, longer than they do now it seems like, maybe what they ate had something to do with it, seafood they caught themselves, mostly, and garden crops they raised.

The porpoise factory the New Jersey man started lasted only a few years, but other people were always trying something like it. At one time there was an oyster house at Diamond City, run by a man named Druden; and then a crab-packing house, owned by a big company. The people caught the peelers and sold them to the plant, and when the peelers shed, the soft crabs were packed up and shipped away. Then in 1897 or 1898 some men came down from up the Banks and brought sturgeon nets and tried to work up that business. Their name was Hayman; easy to remember the name, because there was a cold spell that winter, froze up the sound, and afterwards people called it the Joe Hayman Freeze.

That's the way things were remembered -- storms, and shipwrecks, and other important things, even whales -- by a special name, because of something that happened at just that time. There was the Sheep Storm for instance in the 1880s, when so many sheep were drowned; and in December, 1902, the Olive Thurlow Storm, when the barkentine "Olive Thurlow" was wrecked below the Cape; and just recently, in 1933, the Jimmy Hamilton Storm, the one when Jimmy drowned.

What about the whales? Well, there was the "Mayflower Whale," and the "Lee Whale," and the "Tom Martin Whale," and the "John Rose Whale," and the "Little Children's Whale." That one was named because most of the men were away when the whale was sighted, and a lot of young boys had to take oars in the whaleboats.

The way they did the whaling was like this: the old men were lookouts, and one of them stayed all day on top of Lookout Hill -- though the oldtimers said they used to build lookout cabins up in the branches of high trees near the water. The boats were kept on the beach, all the gear in place except for the gun, the gunner keeping care of that, sleeping with it practically, to be ready when the whales showed up.

The boats were about twenty-five feet long, lap-streak pilot boats with high pointed bows and sterns. They didn't carry sails, just four oars, and the steering oar; and some of those crews could get the boats launched and underway so fast you almost wouldn't believe it.
Usually, there were four to six boats on the beach abreast of Diamond City, and they all worked together, like a team, because they all shared equally in the profits. There were two whale guns at Diamond City, one was a half-pounder, the other a quarter-pounder, hand weapons both, to fire the harpoon spears. It was exciting enough with the whale guns, but then what it was like before they got the guns and had to hit those whales with a hand spear.

Sometimes they would get in close enough to hit a whale and it would still get away; sometimes they'd get too close and a flipper would strike one of the boats, turn it over, and tear it up. Once they harpooned the whale and killed him, the boats would all hook on and start towing him in to the beach, usually right abreast of Diamond City. They'd wait until high tide and then beach the whale, and when the tide went down, there he'd be, clear out of the water.

But chasing the whale, and spearing him, and getting him up on the beach was just the beginning. After that the real work started, with practically everybody in the community joining in. They had to work fast, too, for fear of a storm washing the whale away and to keep the blubber from drying out too much, but most of all because of the stink after a few days.

Even before the whale had been beached at high tide, the women and children and men who were left behind would be making the camp, hauling down the kettles, great big ones that would hold sixty gallons, rigging up shelters, bringing the knives and scrapers and other gear. Usually they'd bring down bricks, too, and make big ovens to hold the kettles, building hot fires of driftwood underneath. The men would get up on top of the whale with the big cutting spaces and start peeling off the blubber, would cut these into smaller chunks, about eh size of your hand, and dump them in the pots. Everybody had a job to do. Some would be in charge of fixing a bite of something to eat or getting fresh water; others gathered up the driftwood and kept the fires going. Then there were the dippers who used bug ladles to dip out the oil in the kettles when it was separated from blubber. Usually they poured it into a special trough, beside sort of strainer made of reeds, and then into a barrel which had been sunk in a hole in the sand. The barrels usually were old molasses barrels, sometimes as big as a hogshead, and when one was filled the men would lift it out and put another one in the hole at the end of the trough.

Uncle Billy Hancock's job was to cut out the bone in the whale's mouth. He wore a suit of oilskins, fitted tight so there was hardly a piece of him that wasn't covered; then he'd take his axe and go into the whale's mouth. Sometimes he'd disappear inside, and you could hear him cutting away with his axe, then he'd come out again, bringing a piece of mouth bone with him. The ones from the "Little Children's Whale" were seven and half feet long.*

Usually it took about two weeks to cut up a whale and boil out the oil, with everybody in the community taking some part in the business. Most times the bone and oil were sold over in Beaufort; the last few time they were sold to Guy Potter, who shipped them off to New Bedford. Then it was time to share up, and every man in each of the crews had a full share, with extra ones for the boats and the gear.

What happened to Diamond City? Well, everything went along fine until the late 1890s when a couple of storm s came over the beach and flooded some of the gardens and even got into a home or two. Some people then talked about leaving, and several of them went over to Morehead City and bought lots in a place called "The Promised Land."

Then, in August of 1899 a real hurricane hit --- the worst one the old folks could remember. There was water over everything, with just few of the bigger sand hills sticking their tops out, and the houses mostly looking like house-boats, surrounded by sea water. It washed over the stones in the graveyards and uncovered the bones of the folks buried there; it killed most of the big trees, and flooded the gardens with salt water and cut the beach down so low in spots that almost every high tide would come over. And it washed a lot of the houses off their foundations, smashed up boats, blew down outhouses, and "mommicked up" just about everything else in Diamond City. Most people, when it was over, would live long enough to tell about it, and some of the older folks, began talking about moving away.

The people at Diamond City had built their own homes, or their ancestors had, and many of them had, and many of them had moved there from other places. Eugene Yeomans, for example, had built a house on Harkers Island about 1897, then tore it down, and moved it to Diamond City board by board, where he set it up again about 1888. Another man had built at Diamond City, moved up the Banks to Guthrie's Hammock, then moved back to Diamond City again, taking his house with him each time he moved. The moving that went on after that August storm in 1899, though, was something else again.

William Henry Guthrie was the first one to leave. He went over to Harkers Island - there were only about thirteen families at Harkers Island in 1899 - and bought sixty acres of land, and early the next spring, 1900, he tore down his house and moved it across the sound. Several neighbors went to William Henry, bought lots out of his sixty acres, made arrangements to move over with him. After that there was hardly a week went by that some house wasn't torn down at Diamond City, loaded on sailboats, and moved across the sound to Harkers Island. It kept up all through 1900 and 1901, and by 1902 there wasn't a house or a person left at Diamond City, only some old deserted shacks and what was left of the graveyards.

Some of the houses were torn down, board by board, and rebuilt over on Harkers Island. Others were cut in half, or even moved whole, using a couple of boats joined together by big planks, sort of twin-hulled barges. It only took two or three days to move a house, and thirty or forty 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 who house was being moved was supposed to provide something to ear --- and a lot of something to eat, too, for thirty or forty hungry men.

A few of the Diamond City people moved to the lots they had bought in the Promised Land, a few others went to Marshallberg, and some moved up the Banks to the more sheltered section at the Cape Hills. Most of the folks on the other end of Shackleford Banks went down to Bogue Banks, to a place called Gillikin, now known as Salter Path, and their children live there still. But two out of three of the families from Diamond City moved to Harkers Island, and by 1902 the population there was several times what it had been before. These were the same people who had lived a Diamond City and the same houses they had lived in there; and when it came to something for them to do, these people who had moved to Harkers Island from Diamond City, why they just naturally kept right on doing what they had done before. They fished for mullet and for porpoise off the beach at Diamond City and, in February and March and April, set up lookout on top of one of the high sand hills with an old man on the watch for whales. The men would camp there, sometimes for several weeks at a time, nearby where their houses used to be. But the whales seemed to stop coming up the coast past Cape Lookout, and there were several years that none at all were sighted. The last one was killed in 1909.* After that even the fishermen stopped going back to Diamond City, and only the stock remained to graze along the winding paths that once had been the streets of the city; but today even the paths are gone, and over on Harkers Island there are young folk who've heard of Diamond City but can't rightly tell you where or what it was.

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* Eugene P. Odum (ed.), "A North Carolina Naturalist - H. H. Brimely: Selections from His Writings (Chapel Hill; the University of North Carolina Press, 1949). A very interesting account of whaling operations at Cape Lookout has been preserved in Odum's work, pp. 97-115 including quotes from John E. Lewis as saying that a whaler named Absalom Guthrie, who was in one of the boats which took the "Mayflower Whale" about 1874 after a fight of half a day, kept a record of the whales he helped kill, and the total figure was fifty-two.

From "Our Shared Past" prepared for the Diamond City & Ca'e Bankers Reunion, August 1999 as a collection of writings, research and recollections to tell the story of the Banks communities.
Copyright 1995, Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
All rights reserved.

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