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Motorcycle Ride to Lake Mattamuskeet
Story & Pictures by zbiker


Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in the state of North Carolina. It was forcibly drained in the mid 1800's and again in the early 1900's by commercial investors seeking to farm the rich boggy soil underneath. After three failed attempts to make money on the strange venture, the federal government purchased the property and developed a waterfowl sanctuary, complete with lodge that welcomed hunters from throughout the world. The area soon became known as the Goose Hunting Capital of the World.
My interest in the lake leads to a meeting with Richard Henry Lee this morning. We plan to ride our motorcycles to the famous lake, explore some of its history and see what the surrounding area looks like. Richard is a fellow motorcycle enthusiast from Wanchese, one of two villages on Roanoke Island.
I became acquainted with Richard in the summer of 2006 while on a motorcycle trip across the state of North Carolina to camp at High Country Motorcycle Camp near Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
While camping, I bring up the idea of riding to Lake Mattasmuskeet to explore the virtually unknown area surrounding the lake. Richard is always ready for an adventure and agreed it would be an enjoyable ride in the future.
We finally meet this Sunday morning, 3 days after Thanksgiving at TL’s Restaurant in Manteo. Richard arrives on his 1970 BSA Victor 411 Special. This is a last minute necessity caused by a slipping clutch on his 650 Moto Guzzi. I arrive on a 1981 BMW R100RS. The two vintage motorcycles seem appropriate for our ride through a part of eastern North Carolina that hasn't changed much over the last 50 years.
During coffee we talk about the route. We decide to ride south along 264 to Lake Mattamuskeet, ride north along 94, cross the lake and make a stop in Columbia before riding back to Manteo. Finishing coffee, we walk out to our parked motorcycles.

Richard starting the BSA
In the parking lot, Richard gives me a lesson starting an old BSA motorcycle without an electric starter. He depresses a button on the motorcycle’s carburetor until raw gasoline begins dripping down onto the motor. Next, he moves the compression release lever on the handlebar and slowly pushes the kick starter until he feels resistance. This indicates the piston has reached the beginning of its compression stroke. Richard pushes the kick start lever with his boot and the single cylinder motor roars to life. After the motor runs for a couple of minutes, he declares the motorcycle ready to go.
I push the electric start button on the big BMW and its twin pistons immediately spring to life.
We ride out of the parking lot at 10:30 and turn east. We ride to the new route 64 bypass and begin our journey riding across the longest bridge in North Carolina. The Croatan Sound Bridge is 5.2 miles long and leads us toward Manns Harbor and the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.

Crossing Croatan Sound Bridge
Created on March 14, 1984. It consists of 152,000 acres of forest land lying on the mainland portions of Dare and Hyde Counties. The refuge is home to Black Bears and a few Red Wolves that have been released in an effort to reverse their extinction in the wild.
Crossing the bridge, we ride through the small town of Manns Harbor. Three (3) more miles brings us to the intersection of route 64-264.
Turning south on 264 toward Stumpy Point, all we could see was an endless forest blanketing the sides of the highway. The canal along the right side of the road drains the area and provided some of the material for construction of the road bed.
This morning, I see what looks like a beaver mound in the canal. Further along the canal many large turtles are sunning on partially submerged trees as the BMW quietly carries me along the roadway.


Canal west of Manns Harbor
Two bombing ranges are located about eight miles west of the highway, however the only evidence of them today is an interesting sign along a solitary gravel road about 8 miles south of the 64-264 turnoff. The sign has a bomb mounted to it. We stop to take pictures and ride on.

Road to the bombing range
After 5 miles, we arrive at the village of Stumpy Point. It was formed in the late 1700s when brothers William Midyett, Samuel Midyett, and John Midyett and Edward Mann bought 2,200 acres of land and started the village.
Today the only industry in the village appears to be fishing. We ride along a four mile long dead end road through the small community and see fishing boats docked, crab pots carefully stacked but only one resident is out this morning.
Richard notices an idle problem on the BSA. The motorcycle ran fine at 55 miles per hour. It seems the stop and go through town has heated the carburetor up resulting in a high idle speed. This makes the bike hard to shift. We leave Stumpy Point and ride south toward Engelhard.

Fishing boat in Stumpy Point
The BMW is a good choice for today’s trip. I am insulated from the brisk morning temperatures behind the motorcycle’s factory fairing. The fairing was the first one ever designed with the help of a wind tunnel.
Twelve (12) miles south of Stumpy point, we cross the Hyde County line and begin to notice huge tracks of land under cultivation. Cotton plants cover the fields as far as the eye can see. Occasionally, there are huge rectangular packs of raw cotton the size of semi trailers resting next to the highway ready to be sent to markets far away.


Freshly picked cotton ready for market
Farming in this area is a large industry. Barns or small farm houses are not in evidence as in most other areas in the country. Huge Corporations or wealthy farmers cultivate the land. Those that live in the area either work for them, fish for a living or drive to the Outer Banks for work in the tourism industry.
We enter the small fishing village of Engelhard at 12:30 PM, about 50 miles from our starting point. Founded around 1650, the town has a population estimated at 1400 people. There are several 100 year old stores built next to the creek with their rear doors facing the water for loading and unloading freight. This hints at the importance of waterways to the town when the buildings were constructed.
A bank in town became a footnote in history when it became the "the bank that didn't close." This happened when President Franklin D Roosevelt signed a proclamation closing the nation’s banks during the great depression; however Engelhard was such a remote place that it took several days past the closing date before word finally reached the bank. The community is also famous for its annual Seafood Festival held every year during the month of May.
We stop and plan our next move. We have the choice of going directly to the Mattamuskeet Lodge near New Holland or taking a few small back roads to an area first explored in the 14th century. We opt on the latter and ride along Jarvis Road toward Middletown. The small narrow road wanders past old wooden homes, often with livestock grazing in their front yards. There is little evidence of new construction, rather a preponderance of small frame houses built in the 1950s or earlier.

Geodesic home near Middletown
Jarvis Road turns into Gas Plant Road and we ride into the village of Middleton. The village of Middletown became Hyde County’s first incorporated town in 1787 as well as an important seaport in the area.
We ride south along Nebraska Road and arrive at the crossroads of Nebraska. There are several old buildings here but more importantly, the nearby canal is known as the “Great Ditch.” This canal was dug from the southern shore of Lake Mattamuskeet to Wyesocking Bay by slaves before the Civil War. It was the first big effort to farm the soil under Lake Mattamuskeet. An old general store in Nebraska is still used for public meetings
The Indian village of Pomeiock, as illustrated by the English Artist John White is reported to have been in this area. In 1585, John White and a party of English explorers sailed from the Ocracoke area and landed near here on Wyesocking Bay.
While visiting Pomeiock, the Indians speak about a great body of water to the north called “Paquippe.” The Englishmen decide to hike to the lake. They walk along a natural creek that many believe is the location of the present day “Great Ditch.” They became the first Europeans to gaze upon the lake; a lake covering about 120,000 acres, about three times larger than its present size. We pause to think about what those men, forever associated with the lost colony at Roanoke Island, thought about this wilderness, thousands of miles from their homes and families back in England.
We ride alongside a section of the “Great Ditch” on our way to Gull Rock. Richard becomes concerned about running out of gas. The BSA fuel tank only holds 2 gallons and gas stations seem to be rare in the area.

On the road to Gull Rock
We ride back to Engelhard for gas before riding on to Lake Mattamuskeet.
Leaving Engelhard for the second time, we ride west toward New Holland. The area features several historic structures that are included in what Hyde County tourism officials call the “Talking Houses Tour.” Each historic structure has its own AM radio frequency broadcasting information to listeners. One of the most famous homes on the tour is the Octagon House built in 1857. It is also known as the “Ink Bottle House.” Today we skip the tour and ride straight to New Holland.
Harlan P Kelsey, one of the most famous landscape architects in the early 1900s designed the town. His plan called for the streets of the farming commercial center to be like the spokes of a half wheel, extending outward from a giant pumping station that kept the lake dry. However, after the third effort to farm the lake failed to make any money, the project was abandoned.

Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge
One mile north of the crossroads of New Holland, we find the impressive Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge. Built in 1915, it started life as the world's largest pumping station. The building housed four coal fired steam powered pumps with a pumping capacity of 1,200,000 gallons of water per minute. However, after private investors failed to make any money, the US government purchased the property in 1934.
Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps spent several years renovating the pumping station into a guest lodge and developing the local area into the Mattamuskeet and Swan Quarter Migratory Waterfowl Refuges.
The remodeled lodge opened for business in 1937 as the Mattamuskeet Hunting Lodge. During the following 37 years it served as one of the most popular hunting lodges in the country.
In 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service closed the doors to the lodge permanently when corrosion to the building’s supporting steel beams made it unsafe for public use.
Riding ride east on Rt. 264 another 5 miles, we turn north on Route 95 toward Columbia. This part of the road is actually a causeway across the giant lake, giving us a true perspective of its enormous size. It’s hard to believe the lake was once three times larger than it is today.
Located along the Atlantic flyway, the lake is still the annual migration home for thousands of tundra swan, Canada geese, and more than 200 other species of waterfowl.

Looking east from the causeway
The origin of the lake is unknown. There are no fresh water springs feeding the lake. The average depth of the lake is 3 feet. All of the water in the lake originates from area runoff. The bottom of the lake is actually several feet below sea level. Some scientists believe the giant depression was created by a meteor. Others believe a giant fire burned into the peat soil creating a depression. We soon cross the lake and find ourselves in the town of Fairfield.
With the completion of the nearby Fairfield Canal to the Albemarle Sound in the late 1800s, the town became a major shipping center for the area’s agriculture products. As you ride through town stop and see the Fairfield Methodist Church. Constructed in 1877, it is an example of the area’s once ornate 19 century architecture.

Fairfield Methodist Church c1877
Just outside of Fairfield, the landscape turns into an endless series of giant farm fields. We decide to ride directly to Columbia, about 30 miles away. We notice a place called Frying Pan Landing while studying the map and decide to stop out of curiosity. Minutes later we speed by the small sign pointing to the town. We make a u- turn and ride along an empty road towards the town marked on the map.

Road to Frying Pan Landing
Riding five miles to the end of the road, we see nothing resembling a town. There are several old homes near the end of the road and a Freewill Baptist Church where we decide to stop and take pictures.
A forest near the end of the road contains about 100 acres of Atlantic White Cedar trees, believed to be the largest natural strand of these types of trees remaining in the country.

Frying Pan Freewill Baptist Church
Back on the main highway, we turn north and ride into Columbia around 2:30 pm. Established on the banks of the Scuppernong River in 1793, it became the county seat of Tyrell County in 1799. We drive by the court house and check out a Civil War Statue honoring confederate Civil War veterans. A quick ride through downtown reveals many restored buildings and public structures decorated for Christmas.

Downtown Columbia
Feeling hungry, Richard suggests we stop at Andy’s Restaurant, located on the eastern edge of town. In the parking lot we meet Reber and Vicky Crawford on two Harley-Davidson’s. Reber is riding a beautiful full dress yellow 2005 Road King. Vicky is on a bright Red 1999 Low Rider with straight pipes that's very loud. They live in East Lake, a small community about 18 miles west of here. They spent the day riding around the lake and spotted us earlier in Engelhard.
L-R Richard Henry Lee, Vicky & Reber Crawford
After an old fashion cheese burger and shake, we discuss the ride. Richard tells me the BSA has been a handful and tiring to ride, especially from Fairfield to Columbia where we went fast and didn’t stop much. We decide to head straight back to Manteo.
Mounting our motorcycles, we notice a new chill in the air. The sun is low in the sky and November nights are chilly on the Outer Banks.
 
We ride east on Rt. 64, cross the Alligator River into the community of East Lake. The forest creeps back toward the highway as we near Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. We ride straight to Manns Harbor, however this time we cross the old William B. Umstead two lane bridge to Roanoke Island. We reach our starting point at 5 pm. I glance at my odometer and calculate we have ridden 180 miles today. roger jarrell
For More History See:
THE MATTAMUSKEET DOCUMENTS:
A STUDY IN SOCIAL HISTORY
OBX LINKS
outerbanksfreepress.com
sharktimes.com
obxmotorcycle.com