Diamond City, NC Occupations

Coast Guardsmen Tell the Story of the First Cape Lookout Lighthouse

by Joel G. Hancock

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse stands against a pale blue backdrop as one of the most lasting and beautiful maritime landmarks of the southeastern coastline. The distinctive diamonds that adorn its façade are visible for miles in either direction. It has become a symbol for an entire region and its image can be found on hundreds of signs, logos and in assorted advertising efforts.

It is as if it has always been there lookout out over Lookout Bight and Diamond Shoals. But it hasn’t been. It was built just prior to the Civil War, its lamp first lit on Nov. 1, 1859. It replaced a smaller lighthouse that had been built half a century earlier but that had proved woefully ineffective in protecting sailors and ships from the dangers of Lookout Shoals.

Cape Lookout’s first lighthouse was built in response to an increased maritime traffic up and down the Atlantic coastline following the successful American revolution. It was located some 70 miles to the south of Cape Hatteras and several hundred feet to the north of the present structure.

The older and taller Hatteras light historically has attracted more attention, but the Lookout shoreline has proved equally hazardous to wayward sailors. As early as 1590 it was called Promontorium Tremendum or “horrible headland” on the White-Derby map of coastal Carolina.

No one alive today can remember the first lighthouse as it was torn down well before the end of the 19th century. It had begun operation in 1812 but never quite fulfilled its purpose of serving as a beacon for ocean going vessels. The story of that first lighthouse, and much, much more has been recorded in vivid and meticulous detail by two retired Coast Guardsmen, T. Michael O’Brien and Dennis L. Noble. Their manuscript, “Soldiers of Surf and Storm, the Light and Lifesavers of Cape Lookout, NC” has never been published but is available at the ranger’s office at Cape Lookout National Seashore on Harkers Island.

Their account of the literal “rise and fall” of the ill-fated first Cape Lookout Lighthouse is particularly intriguing as the story is relatively unknown, even among those who are intimately familiar with it more successful replacement. For the benefit of those with an interest in its story, an edited version of their observations and findings about the original Cape Lookout Lighthouse is included:

…The land at Cape Lookout was so low that even in the best weather a ship might be on the shoals before the skipper realized his vessel was dangerously close to land. Still it was not until almost 15 years after the Congress had accepted title to a jurisdiction over lighthouses and other aids to navigation that an attempt was made to establish a light at Cape Lookout.

On March 26, 1804, Congress authorized erection of a lighthouse “as soon as land sufficient shall be obtained as a reasonable price for the purpose and the jurisdiction of the land so to be obtained shall have been ceded o the United States by the State of North Carolina… on or near the pitch of Cape Lookout.”

Congress appropriated $25,000 to be split with a lighthouse at the mouth of the Mississippi River for construction. Less than nine months later, on Dec. 17, the state of North Carolina ceded “exclusive jurisdiction of four acres lying near the pitch of Cape Lookout in Carteret County” for the lighthouse. Congress on March 1, 1805, appropriated an additional $20,000 to complete two lights.

On Nov. 30, 1810, the Secretary of the Treasury instructed the Collectors of Customs at Boston, New York and Beaufort to advertise for bids fro the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in their respective newspapers. Bids were closed on Feb. 15, 1811 and on March 13, a contract was sent to Benjamin Beal Jr., Duncan Thaxter and James Stephenson of Boston.

No records are available to indicate exactly when the work was completed but on June 2, 1812, President James Madison appointed James Fulford as keeper. The structure was completed at a cost of $20,678.54 and had one wooden and one brick tower. Congress must have been slow to pay for it carried varying balances of the sums appropriated for Cape Lookout and the Mississippi River lights every year until 1820.

Robert Miles, in his 1832 work, “The American Pharos” provides this description of the then 20-year-old Cape Lookout Light:

“This light stands in latitude 34-36, longitude 76-36. It is stationary and elevated 95 feet above the level of the sea. Its situation is on Cape Lookout and may be seen from 16-18 miles at sea. It is painted with red and white stripes around it. As it is approached it resembles a ship under sail…

“The light, although clearly seen all night until near the approach of day, cannot then be discerned, owing, it is thought, to a mist which arises above the horizon between the vessel and the lamp. It is judged imprudent to approach the shoals of Lookout in the night nearer than 10 fathoms on the west side. Vessels passing the shoals in the night ought rather to trust to the lead than the light. These shoals are the most dangerous on the American coast and vessels cannot be too cautious in approaching them.”

The salary of Cape Lookout’s first keeper in 1812 had been $300. By 1867 it had been raised to $600. This was “…small compensation for the dedicated hard work required of keepers…”
For many years, the quality of men who manned these important aids to navigation was in a constant state of flux. Several factors accounted for this: low pay, political appointment and lack of proper training and instruction.

Prior to 1851, keepers received little, if any, written instructions outlining their duties. In that year a review board required detailed instructions on every facet of a keeper’s responsibilities and insisted that the applicant for keeper’s positions be able to read and write.

In the jet age, where life can become complex and confusing, the image of life at a light station holds some appeal. We tend to visualize the keeper’s existence as one of peaceful meditation and contemplation. In reality, it was an existence of loneliness highlighted by monotony. One early keeper remarked, “The trouble with our life is that we have too much time to think.”

The principal duty of the keeper was, naturally, to ensure that the light was lighted “punctually at sunset, and…kept burning at full intensity until sunrise.” If alone, the keeper was required to check the light at least each night and to keep a constant watch over it on stormy nights.”

The keeper stood watch from midnight to sunrise, cleaning the copper and brass fixtures of the apparatus and all utensils in the lantern and watchroom during his tour of duty. This constant attention to polishing brasswork, inspired Longfellow to dash off these lines:

Oh, what is the bane of a lightkeeper’s life,
That causes him worry and struggle and strife,
That makes him use cuss words and beat up his wife?
It’s brasswork.

The lamp in the tower, reflector and shade,
The tools and accessories pass in parade,
As a matter of fact the whole outfit is made,
Of brasswork

I dig, scrub and polish, and work with a might
And just when I get it all shining and bright.
In comes the fog like a thief in the night,
Goodbye brasswork

And when I have polished until I am cold,
And when I’m taken aloft to the heavenly fold,
Will my harp and my crown be made of pure gold?
No, brasswork.

Almost from the beginning Cape Lookout was beset with problems. In a July 19, 1817 letter to the Beaufort Collector of Customs, the Commissioner of Revenue complained that “the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is so badly attended by the keeper that no reliance can be placed on it….it is entrusted to the are of a negro girl, …and more oil has been wasted…than was consumed by lamps.”

The material used to construct the light had apparently been inferior for extensive repairs on the structure were needed n 1820 – a mere eight years after is completion. In addition to all its other problems, the lighthouse was plagued by blowing sand. A series of correspondence beginning in 1811 and continuing until 1829 addressed various solutions to the sand problem. Finally on March 4, 1840 the purchase of an additional 11 acres, 30 poles of land from the sand encroachment. On May 30, the land was obtained for $75 from Charlotte and Elijah Pigott, William, Anson and James Harris, Repsy and Levi Pigott , Mary and Josiah Willis, Sarah and Levi Bell, Abigail and Ambrose Jones and the Joseph Fulfords.

On July 1851, Lt. David D. Potter, U.S. Navy, commander of the U.S. mail steamer Georgia, responded “with great pleasure, as our lighthouse as at present arranged are so wretched that any seafaring man must desire a change.”

This young lieutenant, who, during the Civil War, would advance from that rank to rear admiral in a mere two years, seems to have dwelt with great relish upon Cape Lookout’s deficiencies.

“…Cape Lookout Light, elevated a hundred feet above the level of the sea, is a most important one. Blunt’s Coast Plot says that it can be seen sixteen or eighteen miles; which is not the case, as I always pass it at night, then and half mile off, shaving the outer shoal, and it is only in very clear weather that I can be discerned. Towards morning, particularly, it is difficult to be seen, owing it is thought to the mist which hangs over the land; but I rather attribute it to neglect on the part of the keeper, in not rubbing off he reflectors during the night. Cape Lookout Shoal runs off S. by E. ½ E. ten miles and a vessel will only clear the end of it in seven fathoms of water. I have found myself tow or three times inside the shoal and looking for the light and have been obliged to haul out without seeing.”

Such criticism was corroborated by Lt. H. J. Hartstene, U.S. Navy, commander of the U.S. mail steamer Illinois, who, on July 18, 1851, wrote, “the lights on Hatteras, Lookout, Canaveral and Cape Florida, if not improved, had better be dispensed with as the navigator is apt to run ashore looking for them.”

The effectiveness of the light apparently was not the only problem. According to one report, it had been several years since the tower was painted and the paint is nearly all off…the copper on the lantern deck wants repairing…it is leaky. Many of the shingles are off the tower and the plastering inside of the dwelling needs repairing. The keeper is obliged to keep wheeling away the sand from the front side of the house to prevent sand from covering it up. The sand banks are now higher than the tops of the windows on the sea side, to the kitchen of the dwelling, is ninety yards, it has washed away about 100 feet last year by abrasion and sea flows.

In all fairness to the keeper, William Fulford, his light was no worse than anyone else’s. In their 760 page report to Congress, a board of inquiry found nothing good to say about any of the lights – they examined and reported that most keepers were untrained and did not know how to tend the lighting system.

All 49 American lighthouses in 1820 used the Argland lamp and parabolic reflectors. The Superintendent of the Lighthouses was Stephen Pleasanton, a personal friend of Winslow Lewis, developer of the system. The system and its patent had been sold to the United States for $60,000.
Pleasanton was a “dedicated economizer” who pointed with pride to his economic operation of the lighthouses. Unfortunately, thrift at the expense of efficiency can be costly when men’s lives are at stake and Pleasanton eventually lost his job.

Perhaps the major downfall of Pleasanton was his steadfast reliance of Lewis’ patent systems and refusal to adopt the Fresnel system. Augustin Fresnel had developed a system so superior that many of his lenses remain in use even today. A French physicist, Fresnel had been born in 1788, six years after the Argland lamp was invented. He perfected his lens in 1822. Basically, the Fresnel lens is a glass barrel resembling a huge beehive. Its outer surface consists of prisms and bullseyes. A single lamp sits in the center and emits light beams which are refracted by the prisms and bullseyes into concentrated beams of parallel rays and intensified by a powerful magnifying glass in the lens’ center. This resulted in a significantly brighter light than that provided by Lewis’ system of numerous (as m any of thirty) lamps and reflectors. In the Fresnel lens, 60 percent of the light was rendered useful whereas in the Lewis system, much of the actual light was waste din directions of no use to the mariner.

The disadvantage of the Fresnel lens, at least here in the United States, was that it was initially quite expensive - $5,000 for a first order lens. For this reason, and because of his reliance on Lewis’ advice, (Pleasanton) acted as a stumbling block to any movement to acquire the Fresnel lens except those purchases mandated by Congressional curiosity.

It was not until 1841 that a Fresnel lens was even tried experimentally in the United States and it took another decade before Congress mandated their use in all American lighthouses. Cape Lookout, however, would continue to use its 13 Argland lamps and 13 21-inch parabolic reflectors until the tower was rebuilt.

On Macy 3, 1857, Congress appropriated $45,000 for rebuilding and refitting with a first order lens. The new tower, a red colored brick structure was lit for the first time on Nov. 1, 1859.
The old lighthouse would continue to stand for several years after it was not longer operations. The keeper’s quarters are still standing in a photograph of the area taken just before the turn of the century. Getting rid of the old tower was not as easy as one might suppose. In fact, the story of its fall is almost legendary among some of the old people in the are and is one that will be included in the next issue of the Mailboat.

Mailboat, Fall 1990, Vol. 1, No. 3

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