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  • Machelhe Island
  • Bland Simpson (bio)

Any one viewing the Pasquotank from its wharf . . .
is apt to think that he is overlooking some bay having
immediate connection with an ocean instead of standing
on the banks of a river.

George I. Nowitzky, Norfolk and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina (1888)

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Figure 1.

"A mile or so long, very low, and in plain view straight out from the foot of Elizabeth City's East Main Street, Machelhe Island was, like the river itself, an inescapable daily sight in this old town, a swampy elongation stretching from Camden Way toward us in town, pinching the river at The Narrows and then letting it—maybe making it—spread out to the southeast and quickly widen and become a bay." Courtesy of topozone.com.

[End Page 7]

One summer day some years ago, my son Hunter and I sat out on the broad deck of a Pasquotank River restaurant at Elizabeth City's Narrows, upon a wide wooden planking stretched out over the dark waters from a brick warehouse where old-time produce agent R. C. Abbott once brokered potatoes and peas. A few slips, there to serve Betsy Town's transient boating trade, lay mostly empty nearby. As the August evening deepened and the red-lit summer clouds faded to ash and it grew dusky dark, across the black river that snakes down out of the Great Dismal Swamp lights in the apartments and the topdecked marina restaurant twinkled on and shone through the far shoreline's cypress trees.

I couldn't take my eyes off any of it, must have gone adrift in time and wandered off into a trance.

"What are you looking at?" Hunter finally asked.

"Oh, just that island over there on the other side of the bridge—it's one of the most familiar sights in the world to me—I can't remember a time when I didn't know it."

"What's it called?"

"Machelhe," I said.

"Mushelly?" he said after me, with just a hint of apprehension. "What do you see?"

The first of North Carolina's inner isles that I ever laid eyes upon and knew it was this one, Machelhe Island in the Pasquotank, lying inside a severe bend in the river long called The Narrows, where a ferry-flat once tied Elizabeth City to its eastern neighbors and where a bascule drawbridge like the one at London's Tower now did the honors, flowering open to the heavens to let through tugs, trawlers, the double-decked passenger yacht Bonny Blue. A mile or so long, very low, and in plain view straight out from the foot of Elizabeth City's East Main Street, Machelhe Island was, like the river itself, an inescapable daily sight in this old town, a swampy elongation stretching from Camden way toward us in town, pinching the river at The Narrows and then letting it—maybe making it—spread out to the southeast and quickly widen and become a bay.

Here, for me, the past was everywhere, and everywhere I could see it as clearly as if it stood alive before us, for Hunter in asking me about it might just as well have handed me a strange and wondrous telescope—for suddenly I was staring on down the long shaft of time. Machelhe Island once claimed local fame for its magnificent oyster shuckings, 100,000 gallons a year, and though the commercial oyster houses were long gone when I was a boy, their pilings along Machelhe's shore near several oiltanks in the river betrayed them and gave them away. Even as late as the 1940s a big three-masted wooden-hulled schooner lay dead in the water and a quarter submerged hard by the island just upriver of the bridge, the [End Page 8]


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Figure 2.

"Boat and man were rent in a moment's explosion of water and wood, blood and lacquer all admixed, a young racer's instant death and burial in the dark waters of the Pasquotank, leaving all of us spectators on the brick...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 7-17
Launched on MUSE
2007-02-20
Open Access
No
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