As US 64 heads west after passing through Manns Harbor, an apparently impenetrable marsh and swamp seems to creep ever closer to the road. There are a few homes and buildings that mark East Lake, but other than that, there is almost no sign that civilization has ever encroached on the landscape.
However, at one time the cedar and juniper that grows so thickly along the road was the center of a logging industry and was home to Buffalo City, a town that now exists only in history.
About 10.5 miles past Manns Harbor, there is a sign on a dirt road that reads ‘Buffalo City Road’. Turning onto the road leads into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and at the end of the road, a trail that leads into the heart of the forest.
That trail, and the bridge crossing the ditch leading to it, is one of the few visible pieces of evidence that a town (which once had a population of 1500-1800) ever existed.
The bridge is an old railroad trestle, and the trail was once the train tracks that led into the heart of the town. Although the rails were taken up for the metal, the ties were left in place.
The history of Buffalo City begins before the 20th century.
Sometime in the 1880’s, the Buffalo Timber Company of Buffalo, NY purchased a huge tract of land in northeastern North Carolina along Milltail Creek, a slow moving creek that empties into Alligator River. To develop their new holding, the Eastern Carolina Land and Manufacturing Company was created, and approximately 200 Russian and African American laborers were sent to the site to begin developing it. By the end of the 1880’s, lumber from Dare County was on its way to local mills.
Logs were shipped down Milltail Creek to Alligator River, and would usually be barged to Elizabeth City.
For 15 years Buffalo City prospered, but over-logging doomed the town, and in 1903 Buffalo Lumber Company ceased operations. The town would have died, but local entrepreneurs, the Duvall Brothers—Claude, John, and Ephraim—bought the land and invested in a railroad system to more efficiently harvest the trees deeper in the swamp.
No one is sure how much track was laid down. There were certainly three lines created and possibly four running into the swamp, bringing trees back to the Milltail Creek landing.
Buffalo City again prospered, but its success was temporary as again the forest was decimated by logging operations.
But when it began to look as though there was no hope for the town, the US Government stepped in and provided Buffalo City with a gift.
On October 27, 1919 Congress overrode President Wilson’s veto of the Volstead Act and on January 1, 1920 the sale of any alcoholic beverage in the United States was prohibited…and Prohibition began.
A tight knit community relatively isolated from the outside world – it would have been hard to find a better location than Buffalo City to produce moonshine—and it seems, residents of the town embraced their new vocation with a passion.
Oral histories recall moonshiners producing corn and rye whiskey, although by all accounts the rye was the better drink. Although moonshine has a reputation for being a harsh drink, the rye had a reputation as a sipping whiskey. Buffalo City Rye was rumored to be one of the most sought after drinks in the speakeasies of the East Coast.
The whiskey was hauled out of the swamp in five gallon jugs tied to the back of the skiffs and fishing boats on trotlines. If the Revenuers—the federal agents—showed up the lines would be cut and the whiskey would sink to the bottom of the creek. When all was clear, boats would appear hoping to retrieve the cargo.
Prohibition ended in 1933, signaling the end of Buffalo City Rye.
The town, though, had one last gasp before it was finally abandoned.
Once again, logging became a part of the town’s future…and its demise. But the early 1950s the mill closed down and one by one, the residents left.
With no one to maintain the buildings, all of them constructed from local wood, the swamp reclaimed its own, and today there is no sign of the thriving town that once existed there.