Cape Lookout National Seashore

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse, like all lighthouses on the east coast, has a distinctive “daymark.” In the case of the Cape Lookout lighthouse, it is a diagonal checkerboard, elongated checkerboard by some accounts, and the locals just say it has diamond shapes. It is 163 feet tall, one of the tallest on the coast, built in 1859 to replace an older and shorter version. The lightkeeper’s house stands at the base of the lighthouse, now a museum and temporary guest quarters for volunteers who work with the National Park Service. The Visitors Center is the Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Headquarters on Harkers Island.

Just inside the visitors center lobby, a telescope is trained on the lighthouse, magnifying it to expanded proportions somewhere in the range of two to three inches tall. Behind the lobby is a children’s room with loads of stuff that sneaks in that educational component while appearing quite innocently to be fun and games. An interactive computer talks and makes animal sounds. A touch table identifies the different things one might find on a beach. A colorful wall puts forth questions, their answers concealed behind a flap, and magnets are provided so that kids can stick animals in the places where they live (i.e. in the marsh or in the ocean.)

Moving down the hall, a display about Portsmouth Village illuminates more about this coastline than the lighthouse ever did. In case you missed the PBS special, Portsmouth Village was established in the 1700s as a “lightering” station. At that time, Ocracoke Inlet was the deepest inlet on the South Core Banks, and big ships from the Old World showed up there. Not that they could navigate these shallows, but so that the residents of Portsmouth Village could meet them with smaller boats that possessed the innate ability to make it up the Cape Fear River to New Bern without running aground.

The river was a two-way street, so that the big ships loitered until the small ships returned, laden with timbers and tar and such from the western region of the state, and the good people of Portsmouth Village pitched in once again to transfer cargo from ship to ship. It was not labor unions, not technology, not outsourcing that put this entire cottage industry out of business. It was a really big hurricane in 1846 that plowed a deeper and wider inlet through North Carolina’s barrier islands, at Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks.

The last residents of Portsmouth Village left in the 1970s, and visitors are now welcome to tour and inspect the crumbling remnants of the Theodore and Annie Salter House, the Lifesaving Station, the Washington Roberts House, the Post Office, the School, the Methodist Church, all of them now owned and operated by the National Park Service. Descendants of the village residents come to the village once a year. Friends of Portsmouth are helping with the restoration project and also with the annual homecoming celebrations.

Speaking of Friends

A bulletin board in the front hall of the Visitors Center describes what it is going to take to open the lighthouse to the public again. With its unique submarine hatch-style opening for an entranceway and its 216 winding steps and accompanying cast-iron railing, every inch of them 150 years old and in serious structural disrepair due to a century and a half of high winds and salt air, the renovation of the lighthouse will be quite an undertaking.

Friends of the Lighthouse are raising the funds for that monumental task, but this could be an exercise in futility. Unlike the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that was moved to higher ground a few years back, this one has nowhere else to go. If the waves begin to lap at its foundation, there are no options other than to allow it to succumb to the Atlantic Ocean.

At Cape Point, three miles south of the lighthouse, another small enclave of buildings is all that’s left of Cape Village, its provenance a bit more recent than Plymouth Village. Most of the houses are leftovers from the 1940s, when it was the rage to build a fishing shack and spend weekends or the entire summer on the island. By Down East standards, at some point Cape Village was highly populated, with a school and several stores. Then, however, the National Park Service took over the island’s leases and steadfastly refused to renew any of them. Some of them were lifetime leases issued back in the 1960s, and even those are now expiring.

The debate is on regarding what will be done, but definitely some rehab work in the village, at a minimum the Coast Guard and Lifesaving Station. Most boat and ferry services deliver visitors to the lighthouse, and during the summer season a truck tour will pick them up from the lighthouse and truck them down to Cape Point, where this village once thrived, and which also happens to be one of the better places in the region to go shelling, snorkeling and fishing.