Today we welcome a guest post from Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, co-author with Bruce Roberts, of the revised and expanded edition of North Carolina Lighthouses: The Stories Behind the Beacons from Cape Fear to Currituck Beach, just published by UNC Press.
Of the over four dozen lighthouses that once marked the jagged shoreline of North Carolina, only nine still stand, watching over 300 miles of coast. These beacons are cherished monuments of North Carolina history. In addition to warning ships to safer waters, they now draw thousands of visitors each year. With this book, co-founders of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts provide a well-researched, human-centered, and beautifully illustrated history of these towering structures. The authors offer stories—including the misadventures of Civil War spies and the threat of looming German U-boats off the North Carolina coast—that provide important context and meaning to the history of North Carolina’s lighthouses. From Cape Fear to Currituck Beach, every still-standing lighthouse is lovingly described alongside their architects, builders, and keepers and the sailors who depended on the lighthouses to keep them from harm.
North Carolina Lighthouses is available now in both print and ebook editions.
North Carolina Lighthouses
I have been visiting lighthouses since I was six months old, my mother has told me. Raised as a beach-going, tree-climbing, book-loving kid, lighthouses were a natural draw for me. In fact, some favorite things that Bruce Roberts and I instantly shared when we met in 1991 was love of travel, photography, and—yes, you guessed it—lighthouses. He had already completed Southern Lighthouses and was working on West Coast Lighthouses at that time while he was director of photography and senior photographer for Southern Living magazine. I was teaching full time, creating academically gifted curriculum for intermediate elementary students. Six months into our friendship, Bruce called me from a pay telephone at the McDonald Observatory when I was taking a summer graduate course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He had tracked me down to pitch the idea of helping him with his book projects. I could barely hear him due to noise on the phone lines between Virginia and Texas, and I caught only every third word he spoke. But I got enough details to determine that I was being asked if I would consider including him and lighthouses in my future. I think I said, “Yes,” because, since then, we have photographed lighthouses on both coasts of the United States and Canada, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf Coast while gathering research and oral histories with keepers’ descendants for more than a dozen books.
When I proposed a rewritten and expanded edition of North Carolina Lighthouses: The Stories Behind the Beacons from Cape Fear to Currituck Beach to UNC Press, I felt confident that my problem would not be any lack for material … it would be the time-consuming task of sifting through my extensive collections to choose the most important details and interesting stories to include.
When I began researching North Carolina lighthouses thirty years ago, I honestly had no idea of the scope of history to which I’d be treated. They are just brick and mortar, right? Not quite. To our delight, Bruce and I have learned more American history than in any other educational experience on our research trips to study lighthouses. Our explorations led us to two National Archives and yielded frequent communication with librarians in numerous states as well as photographers, authors, lighthouse friends’ groups, and oral history interviews with keepers’ descendants who were born and raised at light stations.
Consider this: What was the first American government-funded building constructed in the country? A post office? A courthouse? You might be surprised to know that it was a lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia, followed by one at Bald Head Island close on its heels in 1794.
One of the very initial acts of the first congress––the Ninth Act––was “for the establishment and support of light-houses, beacons, buoys, and public piers, August 1, 1789.” To pay for this plan, taxes were charged on goods arriving at American ports. This did two things: it provided revenue to pay off Revolutionary War debts and created steady funding for designing and building lighthouses.
And look who spearheaded the efforts to build American Lighthouses for posterity: George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Originally, the president approved keepers’ appointments and their salaries, and the secretary of the treasury wrote the checks.
Those early days of planning––how to unite a country and establish an economy to unify and create an expanding nation––starkly revealed the need for trained engineers. However, the best contemporary engineers were British and French; unfortunately, we had been at war with Great Britain, and we found the French engineers more interested in their titles and pay as officers than actually working with and for us. The logical solution was to establish an American college dedicated to training military leaders while they earned knowledge of architectural design and infrastructure construction. Henry Dearborn was tasked with this formidable job when he was put in charge of organizing the military college. President Thomas Jefferson traveled to the site in New York in 1802 and signed legislation establishing the United States Military Academy at West Point.
These engineers became military protectors of the nation; and, in peacetime, they built bridges, bulwarks, and lighthouses. They forged the great effort given to helping mariners and the unfortunate souls aboard ships that were little more than floating coffins at the mercy of a captain and the weather. Lighthouses offered guiding lights to increase the chances of reaching port safely. Lights welcomed new peoples to our shores to blaze the way west and build local businesses and a national economy. But for a few exceptions, Americans can trace their presence in this great country to at least one brave ancestor who arrived on our shores by boat. Many of us owe a debt of gratitude to a guiding light during potentially perilous journeys when only a sextant or primitive depth finder (a piece of lead at the end of a rope) were available to determine where in the world they were and if the water depth would allow them to pass through without wrecking on shoals.
Although a tremendous endeavor, it was not smooth sailing while creating successful lighthouse designs, or the kindling of each tower’s soul, its light; but, after thirty years of trial and many errors, a massive reorganization of the original U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in mid-nineteenth century created the Lighthouse Board. A new charge of West Point Army Corps and Topographical Engineers broke onto the scene and rescued the day to design and build some of the finest lighthouses in the world that stand today. In 1846, many of these young men graduated straight from West Point into the Mexican-American War, led by George McClellan, Stonewall Jackson, and A.P. Hill, to name only a few. Several of these military leaders also fought in the American Civil War, splintering the group like the rest of the nation.
The men in charge of deciding where each lighthouse was to be located during the mid-nineteenth century comprised the U.S. Coast Survey team, led by Superintendent A.D. Bache. He worked with his brothers Hartman and Richard and first cousin George Mifflin Bache. The Coast Survey carried out the perilous task of mapping uncharted coastal areas and scientifically assigning towers to places they were needed most. This Bache family group of talented engineers were all great grandsons of Benjamin Franklin, the man who had first charted the Gulf Stream in 1775. Richard perished in a storm while charting the coast off Cape Hatteras, and George Mifflin drowned surveying a site for the St. George’s Reef Lighthouse off the West Coast.
Take a look around at any lighthouse you visit, and you are sure to find some familiar names in history including General George Meades at Barnegat, New Jersey, Henry Dearborn at the (lost)1803 Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Inlet Lights, W.H.C. Whiting at Cape Lookout, Daniel Ledbetter at Sand Island, Alabama, and Peter Hains (of Hains Point, D.C., fame) at Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Currituck Beach Lighthouses.
Finally, while focused on the subject of lighthouses, our eyes have been opened to the importance of embracing our history, not only because we might be related to someone who fought for our freedom, but also because efforts to preserve history lie at the heart of our character. Destruction of any part of our past without efforts to document or restore it is betrayal to our heritage. During the last decade, restoration of existing American lighthouses and rebuilding ones lost to history have become more frequent due to the dedication of the National Park Service and individual organizations. It is a good feeling to look at before-and-after images of decaying historical structures that have been returned to their former beauty. Lighthouses are vessels of our nation’s great maritime history and the humanity they represent.
Cheryl Shelton-Roberts is a historian, author, and former teacher. Bruce Roberts is a photographer and the author of Plantation Homes of the James River. Together, they have authored several books on lighthouses in North Carolina.