The story of Buffalo City can be summarized with two words: logging and moonshine. But really it was more than that, and while the town has been written about extensively, this epic saga of local history is not widely known.
It’s a unique tale of a hardscrabble existence in a logging town carved from forested North Carolina swampland more than a century ago. It’s set in Dare County in what is now the vast Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, but this story begins nearly 700 miles north.
In the 1850s, Buffalo, New York, developed a substantial lumber trade. Businessmen Frank and Charles Goodyear concocted a brilliant plan: buy large tracts of isolated forests near water transportation, build sawmills, then connect to shipping centers by waterways and railroads.
This is exactly the formula they employed in 1888 with the Buffalo Timber Company in North Carolina. They purchased 100,000 acres of forested swamp land just 20 miles west of present-day Manteo. The timberlands were extremely isolated – they remain so today – but Mill Tail Creek was nearby, traversing much of the mainland and flowing into the Alligator River. That provided access to the Intracoastal Waterway and the entire U.S. East Coast became their marketplace.
The Buffalo Timber Company brought its own labor force, which included African Americans and Russian immigrants, who built the town in the middle of the wilderness by hand. Plain, simple houses were constructed on opposite sides of Main Street using rejected company lumber. Rows of identical structures were divided by a railroad spur down the middle.
“We lived in a three-room house built right straight with kitchen, living room and bedroom all in one line,” recalled former resident Iona Basnight Padgett in Suzanne Tate’s book Logs & Moonshine: Tales of Buffalo City, N.C. “There was no front or back porch. Mama made a flour paste and stuck up papers on the inside walls to keep the wind out. One time, I looked up at a piece of wood nailed up on the wall and saw a snake slithering there. I screamed.”
The city was modeled on a combination of two classic designs: the New England mill town and the Southern plantation. The company provided housing and food as well as a school and hospital. By paying in “script,” or currency that could only be used in the company store, profits from the timber operation stayed with the owners.
There was no electricity or plumbing. No plumbing meant no running water. For every drink, bath and cooked meal, residents had to fetch water from the community pump by the post office, hauling it in buckets back home. Toilets were nonexistent so outhouses were used.
Buffalo City had a series of owners and at one point in the early 1900s, the town’s population of 3,000 made it the largest city in Dare County. It belonged to the Buffalo Timber Company until 1903. It was abandoned for four years until the Dare Lumber Company bought it in 1907. Later, the Duvall brothers – Claude, John, and Ephraim – took over for a decade. By 1928, those operations dwindled.
The men of Buffalo City worked for the lumber company. They left home before sunrise and returned after sunset. The work was labor-intensive. They logged and milled cypress and juniper trees, also called Atlantic white cedar, which produced weather resilient lumber that made excellent roofing shingles and shake siding. Later, they harvested pine.
There were several different jobs: felling trees, cutting logs, loading skiffs, working on locomotives and boats or at the mill or transfer station. Pay ranged from 30 cents to $2.50 per day, depending on the job, and was distributed in the form of aluminum coins called “pluck,” which could only be spent in the company store. Laborers were also assigned days to maintain an artificial thoroughfare called Pole Road; absentees were fined $2.50.
Women’s roles were as wives, mothers, housekeepers, cooks and washers. They also lent their husbands a helping hand when they could. A lucky few were the postmistresses. From Tate’s book, Padgett recounted that her mother married young, “and when her first husband died, she had to farm out her children – give them away. Wasn’t nothing else she could do about it because she couldn’t feed them. She always said, ‘You never know what dog’s ass you got to kiss before you die.’”
There was a small company school for children. Families paid $2 per month per child for the schooling, but most only finished a few grades. Children often helped with their parents’ work. Playtime excursions included hunting bears, snakes and bullfrogs, or fishing, or riding homemade seesaws, several former residents recalled in Tate’s book.
It was a hard life in the swamp. Literally outside their doors were black bears, wolves and alligators, not to mention mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, roaches and rats. The boggy land was so soft, roads were made by laying down poles and branches that were then covered in sawdust. Anywhere else, you sank in the mud. Justice was handled internally. Many Buffalo City residents lived like that for years. They weren’t trying to make a living as much as trying to survive.
Since the work was hard and the pay virtually nonexistent, residents sought ways to make real money on the side. “Though it’s tempting to think of logging and bootlegging as two distinct industries that operated during different eras of Buffalo City’s history, the truth is that they overlapped,” writes Amelia Boldaji’s in her article, Ghost Town: The Forgotten Story of Dare County’s Buffalo City. Most accounts explain the turn to moonshine as the result of the national prohibition of alcohol in 1920; however, North Carolina had already passed a referendum in 1908 making it a “dry state.”
Stills were easy to make and operate, and the town’s extreme isolation made a perfect environment for illegal activity. Highly profitable, large-scale bootleg operations flourished in Buffalo City. Shipping routes and markets from Florida to New York were already well-established by the lumber trade. Jesse “Gus” Basnight told Tate that the ingredients were always the same: “Our recipe for making moonshine was 400 gallons of water, 100 pounds of rye, 300 pounds of sugar and five pounds of yeast. We made 35 gallons of 107-proof rye whiskey per week.”
Probably every home in Buffalo City had a still. The moonshiners employed tricks to evade the “revenooers,” as they called the tax men from the Internal Revenue Service. They posted lookouts and used verbal cues that required a correct response. When transporting a load of moonshine by boat, they tied the jugs together on a line that was dragged behind the vessel. If revenuers appeared, they cut the tether and retrieved the sunken containers later.
The moonshiners didn’t just want to be the biggest, but also the best. Instead of corn, they used rye for a smoother, tastier whiskey. Some added hickory chips or burnt sugar to enhance the flavor, while others stored the moonshine in charred kegs. “It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill homemade whiskey either; this was the good stuff … demand was high for this carefully crafted liquor, particularly in big cities such as Washington, D.C. and New York,” Boldaji writes. It even made it as far as Europe.
A boat called the Hattie Creef already had a history in Buffalo City as a mail carrier. The little Carolina Sharpie became most famous for carrying Wilbur and Orville Wright to Kitty Hawk in 1900. But it became infamous for helping Buffalo City moonshiners. “The Hattie Creef often came in fully loaded with sugar,” recalled Gus Basnight in Tate’s book. “Tons and tons of it came into Buffalo City.”
When Prohibition ended in 1933, the demand for illegal liquor dropped severely and most Buffalo City moonshiners were soon out of business. With the lumber harvested, and no stills to operate, the town slowly faded away. By 1950, it was completely abandoned. It’s tempting now to call it a “ghost town,” but there’s nothing left for spirits to inhabit. With the exception of its unique history, all that remains are a few buried railroad tracks.