Buffalo City, First it’s Here; Then it’s Gone.
The Outer Banks and history. The two words are relatively synonymous. The time clock on our country began in 1584 when the first Sir Walter Raleigh Voyages came ashore on the sandy shores of Roanoke Island. But the story told here comes much later. In fact, over 285 years later. And approximately 19 miles further west than the county seat of Manteo.
Buffalo City began shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. It was around 1870 when The Buffalo Timber Company from New York (hence the name Buffalo City) discovered the maritime forested lands on what is now mainland Dare County. Initially, an outpost was built by the Buffalo Timber Company on the north side of Mill Creek. Logistically speaking, the area was perfect for a logging town. There were rivers to take the harvested trees inland. Access to the Intercoastal Waterway, the sounds, and the ocean made moving the product relatively easy.
The town was constructed by African-American laborers and by Russian immigrants. The city was built, and railroad tracks were laid. Also produced were a sawmill, a hotel, church, general store, a schoolhouse, and rows of company homes for the laborers themselves. The rickety-looking houses were constructed with timber rejected from the mill. The Red Houses were for the white families, the White Houses for the Black Families. Each home with a simple three-room floor plan. It wasn’t much later (1889, in fact) when the town’s post office was constructed. According to National Archive Records, Charles A. Whallou delivered the mail to the town’s people.
Given that Buffalo City was a “company town” and never incorporated, there was no police enforcement present. Rather, timber company officials regulated the town’s “laws.”
Wooden poles and sawdust were laid over the peat-rich ground to serve as roadways.
Juniper, Cypress, and Pine Trees were the main harvest. The loggers were paid approximately 50 cents per day in script manufactured by The Buffalo Timer Company. The script that could only be spent in Buffalo City in the Buffalo City General Store. If a family needed coffee, sugar, tea, flour, or any household item, they simply gave back the script from which they were paid.
Working conditions were no doubt brutal. Hot, blistering summer months, complete with yellow flies and mosquitos. While the winter months brought its own miseries with chilling rains and icy winds.
Work was pretty non-stop in Buffalo City; by 1903, all foresting had stopped. There were no trees left to harvest. So Buffalo Timber Company halted all logging operations, and the post office closed. It was at this point the town nearly died and sank into oblivion. However, in 1907, The Dare Company purchased the forest and resumed logging operations. The post office even reopened on Leap Day, 1908, and for a while, the town changed its name to Daresville. Though the post office and the townspeople still called it Buffalo City.
Under the new Dare Company, the logging industry prospered, as did the town, growing to approximately 3,000 people. Making it the largest town in Dare County.
On October 28, 1919, the United States Congress passed the Volstead Act over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. Prohibition, as it was called, banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.
Following the passage of this 18th Amendment, nearly every family in Buffalo City operated a still or was otherwise involved in bootleg liquor. The moonshine put out by Buffalo City was some of the best in the world, earning the town the nickname “The Moonshine Capital of the World.” The moonshine out of Buffalo City was made with rye, not corn.
For the exact logistics that made lumbering perfect in the area, so was it so for moonshine. Soon moonshining became the primary revenue source for the citizenry of Buffalo City. The moonshine was used in speakeasies from Boston down to the North Carolina – South Carolina border. Even Al Capone made his way to the town during this point in history. Visit Nou Vines, the wine bar in downtown Manteo one day and have Garrett tell you the story of their bar that once cruised along on Al Capone’s yacht.
The moonshine boom didn’t last long until only 1933. When prohibition ended, it severely affected Buffalo City’s economy. With the manufacturing of moonshine now gone, the townspeople went back to focusing on logging as their means of support. However, most mature trees had been harvested, and the sawmill could only keep busy for another couple of decades.
The decade of the 1940s was particularly hard on the town. Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and the flu ripped through town. With the spread of the disease and the lack of work, the town’s population dwindled to approximately 100 residents. The sawmill finally fell silent in the mid-1950s, and the city was abandoned.
In 1984, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the land from Prudential Financial, which had run an agricultural operation on the ground near the original town. The land is now the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It is a haven for black bears and the endangered red wolf. The Refuge welcomes approximately 42,000 visitors yearly.
For more on the area, check out the Buffalo City Museum at the Bluegrass Island Trading Company in Manteo.
Greg Smrdel is the editor of Coastal Life Magazine.
Greg Smrdel, while his physical body lives in Ohio (for now), his soul will always remain on the Outer Banks.