Today I want to share with you some of Sonny Williamson’s research on Core Sound sharpies. As many of you know, Sonny and his wife, Ginny, live just on the other side of the Straits in her hometown, Marshallberg. Retired from the Air Force, Sonny is one of Down East’s larger than life characters. He is a storyteller extraordinaire. He is the author of several wonderful books on Down East history and folk lore. For many years he wrote a popular local history column in the Carteret County News-Times.
He is also a founding member of the county’s notorious “Fish House Liars” and a long-time friend of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center. A few years ago, Sonny was one of Down East’s representatives at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington, DC.
He is also my friend.
Sonny may be better known as a teller of tall tales and fish house yarns, but I will tell you a secret right now: he is a very fine historian. If I want to know about the wreck of the menhaden boat Parkins in the ‘40s, the pivotal role of sawmills and log drives in Down East history in the early 20th century or a hundred other topics, I, like many other scholars, start with Sonny.
Some years ago, Sonny began to investigate the legacy of what was the region’s most classic and popular workboat between the Civil War and the coming of the gasoline engine in the 1910s and ’20s—the Core Sound sharpie.
He recently shared with me a written summary of that research and, at his request and with his cooperation, I will briefly share that research with you today.
No doubt many of you, like me, would rather hear this story from Sonny himself, but he has been having some health problems of late and he asked if I might stand in for him. I am honored to do so. Just remember that in this instance I am only Sonny’s voice, translating his research to fit into this symposium on Core Sound workboats.
Memories of Sharpies and Their Crews
I would like to begin by acknowledging that Sonny’s interest in the Core Sound sharpie is historical, but also personal. Sonny was born and raised in Sea Level and many of his neighbors built sharpies or worked on sharpies in their younger days.
Those vessels dredged oysters and hauled them to the big canneries in Sea Level and other Down East villages. They were also fishing boats and freight haulers. Many hauled produce, lumber, livestock and passengers up and down the sound.
Elegant, flat-bottomed boats well adapted to those waters and capable of being built by a backyard boat builder without the expense or requirements of a shipyard, sharpies are the boat that, when Sonny closes his eyes and imagines life in Sea Level in his father’s day, he still sees coming down Core Sound and into Nelson Bay.
Sonny grew up in Sea Level when the sharpie was still a powerful, lingering presence, even if its days as the leading Core Sound workboat had passed a generation earlier. He grew up playing in his Aunt Josie’s sharpie, the Chase, in the 1940s. In the 1950s, he went long-haul fishing with Capt. Jim Wallace Taylor, who was the master and owner of a sharpie, the Lorena D., before the Second World War.
Capt. Mike Hill, the owner of the Iowa, which Van Buren Salter built at Ward’s Creek, was Sonny’s uncle.
The Lillian, another local sharpie, was named after Sonny’s sister-in-law.
As a young’un, Sonny often heard stories about all those boats. He also heard stories about the Mary E. Reeves, a sharpie built by the legendary black shipbuilder and fisherman, Sutton Davis, at Davis Ridge, and later owned by the Salter brothers in Sea Level.
He also listened to stories about his next door neighbors, a local captain named Jim Hamilton and his three sons, the crew of the sharpie Dale. They all perished in the hurricane of ’33.
The Arrival and Evolution of the Sharpie on Core Sound
When Sonny did his research on Core Sound sharpies, he discovered that the records on the dimensions of local vessels were woefully incomplete until 1868, when the United States Government began requiring all commercial vessels over 5 tons be registered and the list published.
Being what they called “a registered commercial vessel” (RCV) was not just a bothersome bureaucratic requirement to be avoided at all costs if possible, either. The crew of every registered vessel was eligible for medical care at marine hospitals and that gave vessel owners a powerful incentive to register their boats. Consequently, with the publication of The List of Merchant Vessels of the United States beginning in 1868, a record was created that included practically every vessel of sufficient tonnage. Sonny used those vessel listings to get a sense of the sharpie’s evolution.
Here is some of what Sonny found in those records: During the period from 1866 to 1933, when Carteret County’s last commercial sailing vessel was registered, there were a total of 1,323 Commercial Sailing Vessels (CSVs) documented as being built in North Carolina. Of those, Down East boat builders built 237. The builders of the vessels listed as “Core Sound Sharpies” were concentrated in the Williston/Smyrna/Jarrett Bay area and in the Hunting Quarters/Atlantic/Sea Level area.
But local men built sharpies in almost every Down East community, including a number of communities that no longer exist—Portsmouth, Hog Island, Turnagain Bay, Cape Lookout, Cape Banks and Wade Shore. The only exception was Otway, which of course was primarily a farming community.
The story of the sharpie’s arrival on Core Sound is well known. About 1875, an oyster keg and barrel factory owner named George Ives and his family moved from Fairhaven, Connecticut (now a neighborhood in New Haven), to Morehead City, where they established a wholesale fish and oyster business. Before he left Fairhaven, George Ives had two Long Island sharpies built to order and shipped them by schooner to Washington, North Carolina, from where they were sailed to Beaufort.
The larger boat, the Lucia, was named for his daughter-in-law, and the Ella was named for a daughter. Ives used both vessels as oyster boats in the winter and to transport passengers to Beaufort and Bogue Banks. Apparently, the appearance of the new kind of boat inspired a local man, Mr. Daniel Bell, who owned the Sunny South, a much larger but still fast “round bottomed” vessel, to challenge the newcomer and his strange boats to a race.
The course was set from Harkers Island to Topsail Inlet (now Beaufort Inlet). Although there were high waves and a strong wind, the “flat bottomed” sharpie Lucia won easily. The following year, Mr. Bell had a larger sharpie built locally, named the Julia Bell, 32 feet long, 10 wide and open with two “mutton-leg” sails.
The Sunny South actually beat the Julia Bell in a race, but locals nevertheless realized that the “flat bottomed” sharpie was ideal for the local shallow waters. A sharpie revolution was on.
According to The List of Merchant Vessels of the United States, most Core Sound sharpies built before 1885 were less than 40 feet in length. They were used primarily as day boats.
But that soon changed with the rise of the commercial oyster industry here in the 1880s. Most of the best oyster grounds were located in Pamlico Sound and the Neuse River, so local boat builders started adding a cabin. Soon most boats were decked over and had living space.
They also required more power, which meant more sail, in order to haul the new oyster dredges imported from the Chesapeake Bay. (Local oystermen had always been tongers.) Those needs usually required the vessels to be larger.
In 1886, a larger version of the Core Sound sharpie began appearing, most of them over 45 foot. By 1888, the average size rose to over 50 feet. Local boatbuilders soon built several over 60 feet. Most builders seemed to settle for a length between 50 and 55 feet.
Of course, during this entire time, Down East boat builders and fishermen were adapting the sharpie’s masts and sails to the local winds. They experimented with many configurations, until finally the fore and aft, equal height masts were used almost exclusively, instead of the original mutton-leg rig. Both fore and mainmast stood at the same height. The bow stem and the masts rose perpendicular to the waterline. The stern was well tucked and a small cabin and cockpit were added aft. A heavy centerboard and large rudder also become standard.
That became the classic design for the Core Sound sharpie. Ultimately, the vessel evolved in a way that looked, sailed and worked very differently than the one that George Ives had brought from Long Island Sound in the 1870s.
The Last Days of the Sharpie on Core Sound
With the introduction of the gasoline engine early in the 20th century, the sharpie gradually lost popularity. By 1905, commercial sailboat construction was almost at an end here. Local boat builders built only 15 merchant sailing vessels here between 1905 and 1932, when the last one was launched in Carteret County.
(There might have been others built nearby: Tina Beacham, who was born and raised in Lowlands, on the other side of the Neuse River, told Sonny that a sharpie was built there sometime after the Second World War.)
The last known survivor of the golden age of the Core Sound sharpie was the “bateau” Valiant, which was still in commission, under sail, in 1956. I imagine that many of you remember, as I do, when the sharpie Alphonso was still on shore in front of the Beaufort Post Office, being used as a museum in the 1960s. The Alphonso was ultimately a victim of the Beaufort Historical Society, which, in a curious fit of pique, had her burned by the local fire department to be rid of the old girl.
When Sonny went looking for surviving remnants of the Core Sound sharpie 20 years ago, he located part of the keelson of his aunt’s boat, the Chase, at Cedar Creek, the anchor winch of the Ivy at Styron’s Creek and the rough outline of the Blondell in the shallow waters of Live Oak Creek, all at Sea Level.
“As I write this, 20 years later,” Sonny wrote me recently, when he sent me his research on Core Sound sharpies—and I quote him—“the elements have slowly eliminated these reminders, leaving only our memories…to recall the beauty of a sunset with those majestic white sails on the horizon racing for their respective safe harbor.”
This was originally a presentation at the Core Sound Workboat Symposium at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island, N.C., March 1, 2008. Sonny Williamson was in the audience at the time and joined me on stage to answer questions from the audience.
Sonny passed away a few years ago, but you can still find his books, including his delightful memoir, Salt Spots for Breakfast, at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center and at the History Museum of Carteret County in Morehead City, N.C..