Away from the sporty fishing boats with teak decks and sportsman fishing chairs, and hidden from view from head boats that charter hopeful fishermen offshore, lies the village of Wanchese. Located on the south end of Roanoke Island, this village appears as a sliver of Outer Banks lifestyle that froze in time over 50 years ago.
Chief Wanchese gave the town its name. One of two tribal chiefs who went to England when the first Lost Colony ship sailed home, he returned disillusioned with European culture and civilization. The belief is that he was at the heart of the tribal push to force the colonists out, although Governor Lane’s heavy handed approach to these indigenous people contributed heavily.
The streets are lined with modest one story structures with an occasional two story wood frame home in the mix. There are no elaborate 10+ bedroom vacation homes dotting the shoreline which means very minimal vacation traffic is found in this area. Most front yards are likely to contain a pick-up truck and fishing nets strung out to dry.
Wanchese is a fishing village, and it always has been. There is archeological evidence that up to 1,500 years ago, Native Americans were visiting this site for fishing. The trade has become more mechanized and regulated, but there are plenty of fish still being landed in this community.
If there is an industrial center on the Outer Banks, it is the Wanchese Industrial Seafood Park. When it was created in 1981, it was projected that Wanchese harbor would become the center of a commercial seafood industry. Well-protected from storms and providing quick access to the Atlantic Ocean through Oregon Inlet, it has been the consistent battle to keep Oregon Inlet from shoaling that’s prevented the Park from reaching its full potential. Nonetheless, there is considerable commercial activity at its docks.
There are three fish houses that call the Wanchese home: Moon Tillett Fish Company, Etheridge Seafood and Wanchese Fish Company.
The history of Wanchese fish houses dates back to 1936 when Willie R. Etheridge opened the first fish house in the village, Wanchese Fish and Etheridge Seafood. His children and grandchildren have continued his legacy, and Etheridge Seafood is still owned by his grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Wanchese Fish Company expanded beyond Wanchese, and in 2015 the company was sold to Cooke Seafood, a family-run business who continues to run the operations.
Etheridge Seafood is by far the largest local fish house, and most Outer Banks restaurants and seafood markets serve up much of the local catch they handle. Although increasing regulations have made it more difficult to earn a living as a fisherman, it remains an important and viable part of the Outer Banks economy.
The Wanchese Industrial Seafood Park is more than just packing houses. There are charter boats that call their docks home. The quick access to the ocean through Oregon Inlet is a true advantage with the inlet lying 15 to 20 minutes from the docks.
There are also a number of boat builders in Wanchese with several located in the Park. Scarborough Boatworks has been around the longest, and Bayliss Boatworks is one of the larger custom boat builders on the Outer Banks. Patrick Harrison has been building custom boats for 20 years, and his shop is located on Old Wharf Road on the other side of Wanchese, but is a large part of the town’s traditional boat builder skills.