Outer Banks Communities: Wanchese

fishing boat at Wanchese
Fishing boat at Wanchese

Over 400 years ago, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to colonize the New World for Elizabeth I. The first group of colonists landed in 1585 on Roanoke Island, but due to poor weather and lack of supplies, the first few settlements failed. By the mid 1600s, however, two permanent settlements were established, one on the north end and one on the south end of the island.

These settlements were designated as the Upper End and the Lower End, and kept those names until the mid 1800s, when post offices were built. In the Lower End, the post office was established in 1886, and given the name of Wanchese.

Like Manteo to the north, Wanchese was named for a Native American chief who befriended and assisted the original English explorers. Unlike Manteo, and the rest of the Outer Banks towns and villages, Wanchese is not much of a tourist destination.

Wanchese is a fishing village, and has been a fishing village from the beginning of time. Even before the English came to the shores of Roanoke Island, Wanchese was known for its fishing. Algonquin Indians and possibly other Native Americans before them went to the area around Wanchese to fish. This area, known as the "Thicket Lump", was a dry piece of land surrounded by marshes and the briny sound on the south end of Roanoke Island. The Native Americans could easily collect oysters and other shellfish from nearby beds.

Fishing has been and still is a major industry in Wanchese. The town is full of lovingly maintained homes from a century ago, owned by families who have fished for two or three generations. Backyards are filled with boats in various sizes and states of repair, and Wanchese Harbor is dotted with old seagoing vessels floating out their last days. Streets are named for captains of fishing families and early inhabitants of the town, including the Tillets, the Baums, and the Etheridges.

Also located in Wanchese is the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park. This industrial park was built with state and federal funds in 1980 to attract large-scale seafood processing companies. Because the Oregon Inlet was difficult to travel and continued to shoal, the Park remained fairly empty until 1994. At that time a few small commercial fishing businesses opened shop. Today, the 69 acre Park is supported by the state of North Carolina, and is nearly full.

The majority of fresh seafood in Dare County comes through the Park, with 24 million pounds of fish and shellfish processed annually. Products from the Park are sent all over the East Coast and all over the world via Norfolk International Airport. The Park itself serves as a learning experience for those interested in boatbuilding and sea harvesting. The Park invites visitors to walk or drive through the area and visit the boat docks.

Wanchese Harbor receives as many as 50 fishing trawlers from up and down the East Coast, as well as hundreds of smaller sports fishing and commercial boats. The harbor is also a spot for launching boats, too. Boatbuilding is the second large industry on Roanoke Island, with many sporting boats, yachts, and other types of ships being built here.

Boatbuilding is still a large industry on the island, and Wanchese plays its part well. Wanchese Harbor is the favorite launching site for many of these boats, from yachts to home made bateau boats. Come spring, these newly crafted ships are hauled from garages, boat sheds and boat shops down the highway to Wanchese for their first ocean test.

Today, Wanchese has a population of around 1,500 residents, is home port to Dare County commercial fishing boats, boatbuilding shops, a marina, and some of the best fresh seafood in the country.

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