THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, October 2, 1994 TAG: 9409300159 SECTION: CAROLINA COAST PAGE: 16 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Cover Story SOURCE: BY LANE DEGREGORY, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: ALLIGATOR RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE LENGTH: Long : 251 lines
ABOUT 60 FEET from the main dirt road, faint, sandy tracks fade into a pine and sweet gum forest.
Joe Hassell slows his trek through the waist-high weeds, then squints and scans the undergrowth.
He's trying to find his family home.
Moist and marshy - blanketed thick with decaying leaves and pine needles - the forest floor offers few clues. Town streets have composted into nothingness. Houses and hotels have long since crumbled and rotted away.
Hassell works his way toward the roof of a former barn, or stables. An inch-thick copperhead slithers out.
Nature has reclaimed what once was Dare County's largest community.
Memories are all that remain of Buffalo City.
``It's kind of weird, really, walking around in here again and seeing it all gone,'' Hassell said after escaping the snake. The 63-year-old retired engineer now lives in Manns Harbor and owns a commercial cleaning company. He spent his first 13 years in Buffalo City.
``It makes me feel funny that there's nothing left at all. Nothing to show my grandchildren,'' Hassell said of the empty forest. ``At least nothing they would get out of the car to see.
``This is downtown,'' he explained, pointing into twisting vines and 40-foot trees. Even the train tracks which carried seven locomotive engines down Main Street have broken and become overgrown. Only a few rusty rails remain.
There is little evidence of the once-lively logging town.
But just 75 years ago, more than 3,000 people lived in Buffalo City.
Shortly after the Civil War, Buffalo Timber Co. of New York purchased more than 100,000 acres on the Dare County mainland.
About 19 miles west of Manteo, off what is now U.S. 64, company officials carved a path through the swampy forest stretching two miles south of the current East Lake Community Center.
There, in the wilderness, local black laborers and more than 200 Russian immigrants constructed a logging town.
Buffalo City was born.
Located on the north bank of Milltail Creek, the town was owned and operated by New Yorkers. Some Albemarle-area families moved there for jobs, and stayed. At least half of the workers were immigrants shipped by steamboat from up North.
The forest, back then, was filled with ancient trees. Juniper was the most profitable wood. Some trunks were more than six feet thick.
The operation became the largest logging industry in northeastern North Carolina.
On Oct. 11, 1889, Buffalo City's first post office opened. National Archives records show Charles A. Whallou distributed the mail. The post office closed in 1903.
``That Buffalo company logged the whole place clean out and left,'' said Hubert Ambrose, 73, who lived in Buffalo City from 1926 until 1939. He, too, now lives in Manns Harbor.
``Some of the people stayed and farmed on Sandy Ridge, nearby. Others went back North, I guess,'' Ambrose said. ``I didn't get there until it was already going again. My father worked on the railway line. Later, he and Mama ran the main hotel.''
In 1907, Dare Lumber Co. bought the forest and re-established the booming log town in the middle of nowhere. The post office reopened Feb. 29, 1908. It kept the name Buffalo City, although the new town was called Daresville.
Hassell and other later-day inhabitants, however, still refer to their hometown as Buffalo.
When I was a kid, seemed like sawdust filled everything,'' said Hassell, whose father and grandfather worked for Dare Lumber Co. in the 1920s and early '30s. ``They planked the outsides off trees and laid those down as streets. Filled in on top with sawdust. You had to, the ground was so soft. There's a lot of tricky walking through the swampy stuff. You're liable to slip into a 10-foot hole if you don't watch your step.''
The town was laid out along three ``pole roads'' running perpendicular to Buffalo City Road - the 10-foot-wide dirt stretch between East Lake and Milltail Creek. A fourth log-lined road curved around the community's north end to the pulp mill. That's where Hassell lived.
``Roads were about 150 feet long, if that, and lined with double-planked houses on both sides,'' he said. ``Houses were made from the lumber they couldn't sell, just slapped up so the folks'd have something to live in. When the boards dried, they had cracks all across the walls. Only heat was from a stove. We used the same one for cooking and heating. Fed it all day long with wood.
``We had outdoor wells for water, no electricity, and used outhouses. Oil lamps gave us light. Most folks rode horses. Granddaddy had one of the only cars in town, an old Model T. During the Second World War, when they rationed gas, he ran that thing on whisky and kerosene. It'd keep on chugging 10 minutes after you shut it off,'' Hassell said.
``For play, us kids used to climb this 50-foot pile of sawdust behind my house. Called it `Sawdust Mountain,' 'cause it was the tallest thing any of us'd ever seen.''
Small garden plots yielded fresh vegetables. Pigs, cows and chickens provided fresh meat. Pike, bass and ``humongous'' catfish swam all through the creek.
A railroad cut through the center of Buffalo City and ran along 100 miles of track. The locomotive engines were shipped in on barges. From logging camps deep in the woods, mules dragged timber through the forest to the railroad. Then freight cars carried 100,000 feet of pine a day to loading docks at Milltail Creek. At a huge transfer station spanning the waterway, workers dropped the logs onto barges. Boats transported the lumber - including about 50,000 feet of juniper weekly - to Elizabeth City mills.
Workers made about 50 cents a day.
``They paid you in plug money. Made it out of aluminum in 5-cent to 5-dollar pieces. And it only worked in town,'' Ambrose said. ``There was no way in or out of there except by boat. Didn't need money for anywhere else, really. All the supplies were brought back by the barges.''
Lumber company officials owned most of the houses - and the country store, sawmill and hotel. So workers' wages went right back to the people who paid them.
``They'd give you a piece of brass with a hole in it to wear on your key ring. Called it a check. Said `Dare Lumber Co. (NU)5' on the side. That was your voucher at the community store. You had to buy groceries there, so that came out of your pay. Sometimes, at the end of a week of work, you'd wind up owing them money,'' Ambrose said. ``The company store really owned you.''
Although there was only one store, the town was split into two sections, Ambrose said. Black, Russian, Japanese and other immigrant workers lived in white-washed houses and had a separate hotel and church. White workers lived closer to the center of town, in homes painted red.
One school on Main Street served all of the children until 1926, when a cigarette caught it on fire. Then, classes were held in the church. By the 1930s, Hassell and about a dozen other Buffalo City youth were hiking two miles to East Lake school.
``You'd sink to your thighs in muck along the way. But we always had clean clothes for school,'' Hassell said. ``Someone would drop them off for you at the beginning of the week and leave them in your locker: a wooden box nailed to the wall. Then you'd change before class - and for the long hike home.''
About 30 children attended the one-room school in the current East Lake Community Center. A single teacher taught 10 grade levels. Pupils were promoted by moving closer to the front of the room.
``There were no doors or nothing. But no one stole. And everyone behaved,'' said Hassell. ``Buffalo City didn't have police, a mayor or elected officials. But it had rules.''
In the center of town, Hassell said, a wooden stockade awaited violators of the community's rigid moral standards. Once, as a boy, Hassell said he watched a man get locked in the stockade and ``whipped by a cat-o'-nine-tails.''
The crime was cussing in front of a child.
``That was a Saturday afternoon thing, watching people get punished,'' Hassell said. ``They'd whip 'em 'til the blood ran down their backs. Leave them locked in there for up to two days. Make a 250-pound logger cry.''
Hassell said he never saw a woman whipped, although one was driven out of Buffalo City.
``Men were stopping by her place afternoons,'' he said. ``The wrong husband dropped by on his way home from the mill. All the women chased that lady out of town, running behind her shaking sticks.''
More uplifting entertainment could be found at town square dances on Saturday nights; street dances where fiddlers, banjo players and jew's-harp musicians entertained; or along the waterfront where showboats sometimes docked for weekend performances - and men came from miles around to drink the homemade moonshine.
Buffalo City's logging industry continued to strive through the 1920s. When prohibition went into effect in 1920, the town had more than 2,000 residents. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the town barely noticed.
Moonshine made on the Dare County mainland was sold in speakeasies from New York to Chicago.
``More whisky was made in Buffalo City than anywhere else in the country during the 1930s and early '40s,'' Hassell said.
Ambrose agreed. ``There weren't no Depression in Buffalo City. I remember that Black Friday, hearing about it,'' he said. ``But as long as bootlegging went on, there weren't no Depression.
``Logging started dropping off just about the time the government made liquor illegal. Men were hunting deer, keeping bees and shipping geese and duck up North. But they had to do more to make money,'' said Ambrose.
``They made barrels and barrels of moonshine.''
Almost every family had its own still, said Hassell, whose grandfather and father shipped some of the largest loads of liquor from Buffalo City's creekfront landing. Clear, strong moonshine was distilled from corn, sugar and other materials - mashed into a pulp and filtered through copper tubing and charcoal beds. ``Granddaddy'd pour that stuff onto the ground and strike a match into it,'' Hassell said. ``If it didn't burn blue, it weren't no good.''
The moonshine was made deep in the woods, near former logging camps, transported on mules and by barges - same as the lumber. It was stored in 5-gallon glass jugs sealed with corks and wax. Bottles had to be air tight for transportation.
Women watched the woods and roads for revenuers.
``There was a 30-foot boat carried that whiskey to Elizabeth City, then brought back all the sugar it could hold,'' Hassell explained. ``If they got caught by revenuers, everybody in the community had put their name in for 100 pounds of sugar. That way, no one would get found out.''
Moonshine jugs were tied on ropes and dragged beneath Milltail Creek's surface, behind barges. About 20 jugs tied together were called a raft. Barges carried two to three rafts per trip, making one or two trips per week. If law enforcement officials showed up, loggers would cut the ropes. Liquor sank to the cypress swamp's dark bottom.
``There are still rafts of them, I know, down there,'' Hassell said. ``If you could find just a few of those jugs, they'd still be good. You could retire.''
In the 1930s, Ambrose said, each jug fetched about $6 cash.
``I never could figure out why it took Daddy and them three days to get to Elizabeth City and only one to get back,'' Hassell said. ``Then, I found out they were moonshining.
``It was the best liquor in the world, sold in 80 to 110 proof,'' Hassell said. ``If you didn't make whiskey back then, you starved to death. Instead, a lot of moonshiners ended up getting rich.''
Some, however, also got caught. Revenuers eventually got wise to the liquor-making loggers. At least three town men were tried, convicted, and sent to federal prison.
Liquor became legal again in 1933.
Although most good timber had long since been felled, Buffalo City's sawmill continued processing shingles, posts to prop up mines and other special orders through the 1940s.
Cholera, typhoid, smallpox, the flu and an increasing lack of work caused the population to drop below 100 by 1950. The sawmill closed a few years later.
Richmond Cedar Works purchased the land, but soon sold it to a farming company. Prulean Farms - a subsidiary of McLean Farms and Prudential Life Insurance Co. - owned a 5,100-acre agricultural operation through the 1970s.
Few artifacts survived the decades of decay. But a 1980 Exxon map depicts ``Buffalo City'' as if it were a destination on the dead-end dirt road. Today, only two privately owned hunt camps remain standing.
In 1984, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the 118,000-acre area as a tax donation from Prudential. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge now encompasses the forest and former logging community. Last week, two hiking trails and more than 15 miles of marked canoe/kayak trails opened along Milltail Road beside and in the wide cypress swamp.
Bayberry bushes dipped into the coffee-colored water. Lilies bloomed from murky depths. And a few rotten pilings - almost overgrown with lichens and sphagnum moss - are all that are left of the huge railway transfer station. Buffalo City is nowhere to be found. Even broken bottles and boards from crumbled buildings are difficult to discern in the decaying debris. The forest has completely reclaimed the former logging town.
``I'd like for the public to be able to come out and see what was Buffalo City,'' Hassell said sadly. ``But I guess it's too late. Everything is already gone.
``I'm glad the government got this land, though,'' he said. ``I'm glad this forest won't be clear-cut no more. I'm tired of seeing all those big trees go. And I know I won't live long enough to see them all grow up again.'' ILLUSTRATION: Cover photograph by Drew C. Wilson.
Photos courtesy of the Hubert Ambrose Collection
Logs loaded on railroad cars once lined the wharf at Buffalo City
during the heyday of its lumber business.
Crewman for Dare Lumber Company's Engine No. 1 hauled logs from the
forest and loaded them onto barges at Buffalo City to ship to
Staff photo by DREW C. WILSON
Joe Hassell, 62, looks over railroad tracks one of the last remnants
of Buffalo City's existence.