Editor’s note: the misspellings inside the quotes are from the original sources.
By David Mickey
Drive up the beach from Ocracoke Village and just before reaching the Pony Pens, you will cross a short bridge over Try Yard Creek.
This small tidal creek on Pamlico Sound bears an unusual name reflecting a distant period of Ocracoke’s history, a time when people on the North Carolina banks sought whales and dolphins for oil.
Three hundred fifty years ago, whale oil was the preferred fuel for lighting the homes of the well-to-do in London. In 1668, Peter Colleton, a proprietor of the colony, wrote from London to Peter Carteret in Carolina that “Oyle & Whalebone is at present a great Commodity here & and I conceive London is a better markett than Barbados.” Carteret responded by shipping “one hundred nynty five Barrells of Whale Oyle for London.”
Closer to home, the lighthouse at Shell Castle Rock (Shell Castle Island) used dolphin oil to guide shipping through Ocracoke Inlet. Shell Castle Light is shown on the 1806 chart by Price and Cole. Partners John Blount and John Wallace operated a porpoise (dolphin) industry on Shell Castle Rock with Wallace reporting in 1800 that “Our porpouse fishing I am told is doing very well.” Capturing dolphins for oil would continue sporadically at Hatteras and other sites through the 19th and into the early 20th centuries.
Oil was recovered from whales by “trying out,” a process that required large kettles where blubber and fat removed from the animals was boiled to release the oil.
On North Carolina shores, whalers set their try pots on the beach while New England whaling ships carried out the same activity offshore on board ships. When done on shore, the site is known as a “try yard.”
In 1894, H. H. Brimley, working for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, wrote a detailed account of trying out the blubber from a large whale killed off Shackleford Banks.
“The try kettles are large iron pots of about 50 gallons capacity, and in this case they had two in use set in brick-work over one fire.” Brimley adds, “On the leeward side of the kettles, the steam from the boiling oil, combined with burning crackling (residue from straining the oil), makes the smell one to be remembered.”
There are actually two Try Yard Creeks on the North Carolina coast. One is east of Harker’s Island on Core Banks and the other on Ocracoke Island.
In his presentation at the recent Whaling Symposium at the Maritime Museum in Beaufort, Benjamin Wunderly displayed a map of whaling activities on the coast. The two main areas are clustered around Cape Lookout to Beaufort and Cape Hatteras to Portsmouth.
As oil from the ground replaced oil from whales, shore whaling gradually declined. Whaling on Shackleford Banks ended a century ago in 1917, their equipment now displayed in Beaufort’s Maritime Museum and skeletons of their prey hanging in the NC Museum of Natural History. The porpoise industry on Shell Castle Rock and the island itself has disappeared into Pamlico Sound.
The right whales pursued by the shore whalers a century ago are now a protected and endangered species numbering only around 500. Dolphins swim freely along the beach without fear of porpoise seins.
Where try pots once boiled, there is an empty beach. Only the bridge over Ocracoke’s Try Yard Creek remains as a clue to an earlier time on Ocracoke.
For a more detailed description of whaling in North Carolina, see Philip Howard’s blog post on the Village Craftsmen’s Ocracoke August 21, 2015, Newsletter “Whales and Porpoise Fishing on the Outer Banks.” Click here.
David Mickey is a life-long resident of North Carolina. He first visited Ocracoke in the early 1950’s. After retiring from his work as a community organizer, he moved to Ocracoke with his partner Sue Dayton. Currently he spends his time on the beach, helping out at Roxy’s Antiques and writing an occasional article of local interest for the Ocracoke Observer.