Digest>Archives> March 2007

Long Lost Beacon Still Stands

James Charlet is the Site Manager of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site, North Carolina

By James Charlet


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The North River Lighthouse as it appeared in 1946 ...

Almost everyone who lives in North Carolina’s Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo community — a village formerly called Chicamacomico — is familiar with the Community Center. Many of those same folks know that before the building was converted to the Community Center it was the Rodanthe School House. Some of the residents still living on Hatteras Island attended that school. What hardly any of them know, if any, is prior to that it was the North River Lighthouse, one of North Carolina’s lost screwpile style beacons! What a great story its evolution makes.

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The former North River Lighthouse looks quite ...

As the Site Manager of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site, I am particularly pleased that we have the opportunity to break the news of this little-known story. The reason for that is simple: in their day, all Life-Saving Stations were located in small remote villages and were the center of village life. They usually had the only means of communication in the village to the outside world; they had the first telegraphs, radios, and, later, telephones. The Stations had the only medical supplies and personnel trained in first aid. They had “government food” not available to the average citizen. The Life-Saving Stations shared this bounty with their village and were the social and entertainment centers of their time. We at Chicamacomico are endeavoring to continue that tradition of reaching out to our community through the preservation of the site, the community, and the entire Hatteras Island way of life and its culture and history.

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Mr. Willard Forbes (left) and his neighbor Mr. ...

The story of the screwpile lighthouse “came to light” with a very gracious phone call to me from my friend, KaeLi Spiers, Curator of the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo. She informed me that two gentlemen, one quite elderly, were at the History Center conducting research on the North River Lighthouse, built in 1866. Its legs collapsed in 1917, Spiers had discovered, and the Coast Guard sold it in 1920. The purchaser was Mr. R.C. Evans, Superintendent of Dare County Schools, and the structure was moved to Rodanthe to be used as the school house. That was all I knew at that point, but I was definitely intrigued.

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Mr. Willard Forbes of Old Trap, Camden County, NC ...

I could not wait to meet these folks and discover more. Arriving bright and early from Old Trap, Camden County, NC, on Monday, October 30, 2006, I was honored to meet Mr. Willard Forbes and his friend Mr. Alex Leary. Mr. Forbes was a pleasant and hospitable 90-year-old. He immediately began unloading his van with lots of goodies — pictures, albums, documents, and a spectacular surprise — a huge scale model of an exact replica of the Wade Point Lighthouse. The model was made from a large piece of wood from the destroyed lighthouse. That lighthouse and Mr. Willard’s construction of the model are two more stories unto themselves, but the pertinent point is this: the Wade Point Lighthouse was identical to the North River Lighthouse and located only a few miles from each other. There are no known photographs of the North River Lighthouse.

Willard’s grandfather, Mr. Joseph Forbes Mercer, was Keeper of both lighthouses at various times and was the last Keeper of the North River Lighthouse. Keeper Mercer began working with the U.S. Light-House Service in 1898 and retired in 1932. The North River Lighthouse, a screwpile type common in shallow waters, was located in the Albemarle Sound just south of Camden County’s southern-most peninsula, also near the mouth of the North River. On December 31, 1917 (the year Mr. Willard was born), the Sound around the lighthouse froze. It stayed frozen for the following two days. The ice cracked all of the supporting steel legs. The following is a direct quote from a Western Union telegram:

The lighthouse soon fell into the Albemarle Sound, but the water was shallow and the lighthouse settled so evenly that it was continued in use for about another year. Eventually it was condemned by the Coast Guard. Keeper Mercer was transferred to the Wade Point Lighthouse. The Service wanted to sell if for $300 but only received one bid. It was from Mr. R.C. Evans of Manteo for $150. Mr. Evans was the Superintendent of Dare County Schools. The bid was accepted and “the lighthouse superstructure was then moved to Rodanthe where it was a school house for a number of years”, according to the Pasquotank Historical Society, Yearbook No. 3. It was moved in 1920 to its present location and used as the Rodanthe School until 1951. Originally it contained two classrooms, covering grades One through Ten. (Kindergarten, Eleventh, and Twelfth grades were non-existent then.) Later a north wing was added. The school now had three classrooms, a library, various closets and storage areas, and still covered only grades One through Ten. Nellie Midgett Farrow, 93 years old and a current resident of Waves, started school there in the sixth grade in 1926 and completed the tenth grade. She had to go to Manteo for the eleventh grade in order to complete High School.

The Rodanthe School was closed in 1951 and children from all villages of Hatteras Island then went to Buxton to the first consolidated school. The old schoolhouse soon became a community center — a familiar concept only found in small, rural, isolated places, which Rodanthe certainly was then and now. “Old Buck” made many an appearance in this building over the years in celebration of Rodanthe’s unique ‘Olde Christmas’ celebration. In 1993 the building was expanded again and finished quite nicely, the designers being very clever and considerate. The new addition’s exteriors were painted a dark gray and the old school house portion was painted a light gray. Thus the casual visitor can quickly distinguish between the two.

Over the years the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center, as it is officially known, has had many gatherings held there. Today it is an especially busy place with a great diversity of events: weddings, receptions, dinners, club meetings, pig-pickings, political meetings, and official agency presentation of all sorts - in short, almost anything you can think of involving a community. The use of this well-equipped building is free to residents of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo, but it must be booked in advance. It is available for rent to others.

A very interesting building indeed, with quite a unique history. Think about this: it is now a community center, somewhat of a rarity itself; previously a small school house teaching grades One through Ten, even rarer; but previous to that time, a screwpile lighthouse — undeniably very rare! Somewhere in that building today is the heart of the North River Lighthouse built in 1866.

What a great situation Rodanthe has here. The U.S. Light-House Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service were sister organizations, one trying to prevent shipwrecks and the other saving their victims. Now Rodanthe has one of each, and they are directly across the street from each other.

There are already a number of ideas about where to go from here with this discovery. This is a very exciting development with huge possibilities. However, there are still gaps in our knowledge so the research continues. Anyone with additional information, documents, stories, or photographs, please contact James Charlet at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site. Phone (252) 987-1552, Fax (252) 987-1559, or email chicamacomico@earthlink.net

This story appeared in the March 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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