History of the Roanoke River Lighthouse
The Roanoke River Lighthouse has survived for over 100 years despite hurricanes, ice floes, war, neglect, and being transported three times. It has seen lighthouse keepers come and go, known the sorrow of death and the happiness of safely returned ships. This, the last remaining screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina, has found a new, permanent home in Edenton Bay’s harbor. It is here the stories of her past will be remembered and told for new generations.
River Travel in Colonial Times
The Roanoke River has its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia — at Lafayette, Montgomery County, Virginia. Four hundred and ten miles downstream, after winding its way through rich agricultural regions of Virginia and North Carolina, it empties into Batchelor Bay on the western end of the Albemarle Sound. It was here in 1787, at the end of the Roanoke River where Arthur Rhodes founded the town that would eventually become known as Plymouth. He carved out 100 acres from his plantation and subdivided it into 172 lots. In the end he was only able to sell 16 lots. His attempt at municipal development was short lived — three years later he and his wife sold the remaining lots for a lump sum to nine trustees.
But, as any real estate agent will tell you, “location, location, location” is key to what becomes valuable, and Plymouth had stellar location — right where the agricultural products coming down the Roanoke River on flat boats would need to be offloaded and reloaded on to schooners destined for ports on the Atlantic coast, Europe, and the West Indies. The Roanoke River might not have been mighty, but it certainly was important.
But why the name Plymouth in this most southern of locales — why such a northern, even British name? No one knows for sure, but one theory is that sailors on ships from Plymouth, Massachusetts, often stopped there for cargo; thus it first was named Plymouth Landing, and later shortened simply to Plymouth.
And, a thriving port it became! In 1790, the federal Congress established Plymouth as a “port of delivery,” with its own customs house. Ships destined for the Caribbean set sail from Plymouth, loaded with tobacco, tar and pitch and turpentine, masts and spars, corn and rice. Continuing to grow in population and importance, early in the 1800s, Plymouth was one of the six main ports in the state — by then also designated a “port of delivery” — and ranked ninth in population in the state.
For such an important river and thriving port, the Roanoke at Plymouth was not situated as you might expect. First, the river’s mouth at the Albemarle Sound is only about 1,000 feet wide. And the town itself is seven miles upstream, where the river is even narrower. Sea-going ships had to navigate up the river to pick up their cargo, which could be a tricky maneuver, especially if a storm was brewing or fog shrouded the coastline. These were valuable ships — nothing a merchant would want damaged while trying to get up the river. And so, our story now turns toward the light.
First, a Lightship
Stationary lighthouses were not uncommon in the early 1800s however lightships were used more often since the initial construction costs were lower. Over time the durability of constructed lighthouses outweighed the expense of repairing and rebuilding lightships that were buffeted in a storm and severely damaged by waves and ice floes. By the end of the 19th century, the United States, with its long coastlines had more lighthouses than any other nation.
In 1832, Congress was asked to provide funding for a lightship to improve safety into the Port of Plymouth, North Carolina. Congress agreed and in 1834 budgeted $10,000 to construct a three-mast sailing ship, complete with whale-oil lights hung over 40 feet above the water, covered with red, green and blue lenses — visible for 13 miles in the Albemarle Sound. Put into service the following year, the lightship survived briefly: early in the Civil War, it was captured by the Confederate Navy, taken up the Roanoke River and scuttled in hopes of preventing the Union forces from travelling up the river to cut off the southern rail supply line.
Fire and Ice Dooms First Lighthouses
In 1866, with the war finally over and river commerce flowing again, the government built a one-and-a-half story “screw-pile” lighthouse — an ingenious design which secured the structure to the bottom of the Albemarle Sound by screwing threaded wooden piles into the bottom instead of the normal way of driving round or rectangular piles into it. This screw-pile design had gained popularity with lighthouse construction in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Fueled by whale oil, this new lighthouse was first lit in January 1867; but as with the lightship before, its life was short lived — this time destroyed by fire in 1885.
Because the government’s Lighthouse Board knew that a lighthouse at this location was critical, the dwelling and lantern for the new Croatan Shoal Lighthouse were used to speed up the replacement. This new lighthouse wouldn’t stand for long. In January of 1886, it was knocked off its pilings by large chunks of floating ice.
Undaunted, the government, again using the screw-pile design, built a new lighthouse — this time with an atypical design: it had two stories rather than the usual single story, and the lantern housing the lamp, equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, sat on a tower arising from a corner of the building, rather than being mounted at the center of the roof and the screw-piles were made of steel.
Construction began that year, and in 1887 it was put into service. Unlike its predecessors, it survived. It served until it was decommissioned in 1941.
It is this structure, now fully restored, that we celebrate on this website, and Edenton, just across the Sound from where it served for so many years. The story of how it came here and was restored is just as interesting as how it first came into being.
End of an Era
Before the railroads, and certainly well before the Interstate highways, the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to move heavy cargo was by water. Port cities like Plymouth, and Edenton, thrived. As innovations to overland transportation, such as railroads and roadways, improved the colorful world of river commerce faded, as did the port cities.
Traffic through the Albemarle Sound area decreased dramatically in the early twentieth century, and in 1941 when the lighthouse was decommissioned, it was left in place — playing host to “only Sea Scout troop meetings and clandestine card games.”
Then in 1955, Elijah Tate, a waterman and former Lighthouse Service employee from Coinjock, North Carolina, purchased from the Coast Guard the Roanoke River Lighthouse, along with two other Albemarle Sound lighthouses, for $10 each. Tate was not up to the task of relocating them, however: he dropped two of the three lighthouses into the deep while trying. Before testing his luck with the third lighthouse — the Roanoke River Lighthouse—Tate sold it to his friend Emmett Wiggins, who often passed the lighthouse during his work as a tugboat operator.
Thus, we now have five structures that met an early demise — the original lightship, the two first lighthouses, and then the two that Tate dropped in the Sound. But our lighthouse, among them all, survived! Wait — the story gets even better!
Emmett Wiggins — Eccentric, Colorful, and Competent
Those of us who came late to this story and never met Wiggins will hear local old-timers speak of him as a truly unique personality — someone who, as a character in a southern gothic novel, would fit right in. He was a competent waterman and a sometime inventor. But back to our story …
Some say that Wiggins might have “assisted” Tate and surreptitiously contributed to the calamity of losing the first two lighthouses, but that’s never been proven. All that is known is that Tate sold the one surviving light to Wiggins.
Wiggins, who owned a marine salvage business, used an old Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), a type of amphibious assault ship, to successfully move the lighthouse. Wiggins gave the following account of his successful endeavor: “I had an old Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) that I used as a barge, so I went out to the light and knocked away all of the pilings except those at the diagonal corners. Then I sank the LCI down far enough to float under the lighthouse. When I pumped the water out, the barge came up under the heavy wooden sills of the main lighthouse structure. As soon as I cut away the remaining piles, everything floated free and I sailed back to Edenton with my new home.”
It took him 36 hours just to get the lighthouse onto a barge and then another 32 hours to move it across Albemarle Sound. If Wiggins had not moved the Roanoke River Lighthouse to the mainland, the historic structure most likely would not be standing today.
Wiggins owned a small parcel of land at the mouth of Filberts Creek in the Albania neighborhood west of Edenton. He floated the Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) on which he had moved the Lighthouse up next to the shore of his land and sank the LCI, then filled marshland around it with riprap, thereby providing a firm ground beneath his new lighthouse home. After being used as a rental property for a few years, the lighthouse became Wiggins’ primary residence starting around 1960. He lived in this Lighthouse until his death in 1995 at the age of 74.
What About Plymouth?
You might be wondering if the town of Plymouth at any point in this story expressed an interest in getting the lighthouse back. Why, you might ask, did it simply fall into the hands of private individuals? Well, the Town of Plymouth did approach Wiggins toward the end of his life to ask about purchasing it. The town was interested in moving the structure to their waterfront and turning it into a maritime museum.
The deal was almost completed, but Wiggins died before the deed was signed. Another twist of fate — to add to all the others this story has offered us so far.
Plymouth remained interested in the lighthouse and approached Wiggin’s heirs about finalizing the sale, but the Town withdrew the offer when his heirs upped the asking price to one million dollars!
The museum and the Washington County Roanoke River Commission could build a lighthouse replica for much less than the million-dollar asking price and a newly constructed replica would not require the further cost of restoration that the Wiggins structure needed. In late 2001, construction began on a replica of the original 1866 Roanoke River Lighthouse—that is, the first one that was destroyed by fire, not our extant one. Over the next two years, with much of the project cost covered by $515,000 in federal funding, the lighthouse replica construction in Plymouth was completed following the original plans from the National Archives.
Meanwhile, Across the Sound in Edenton
In 2003, with Plymouth out of the picture and Wiggins’ heirs wanting a king’s ransom for the rundown and deteriorating structure, along comes Hurricane Isabel. The worst storm to hit the region in decades, Isabel produced a storm surge so strong that several homes near the lighthouse were condemned and had to be destroyed. The lighthouse barely survived and at this point one wonders why this structure seems to be like a cat with nine lives!
Local history buffs realized that it was the last remaining screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina. The structure indeed had historic value and should not be left to be consumed by the coastline vegetation—photos from that time show the beginnings of that process. Lighthouse groups began to put it on their “doomsday” lists — meaning that they believed it was in danger of being lost forever.
The Edenton Historical Commission Saves the Lighthouse
In May 2007, the Edenton Historical Commission purchased the lighthouse for $225,000 and paid Worth Hare House Movers $75,000 to load the lighthouse onto a barge and move it to Colonial Park at Edenton Harbor, which they did on May 23.
In 2009, the State of North Carolina provided $1.2 million for the restoration of the lighthouse. Then, in the spring of 2010, employees of the A. R. Chesson Construction Company, who were preparing the new site for the lighthouse, smelled an odor later determined to be petroleum. The contamination, likely from an oil company that had previously occupied the site, led the Town of Edenton, the property owner, to file for permits to permanently reposition the lighthouse over the water instead.
Before the final move to its perch above the Bay, Chesson and others restored the lighthouse exterior, starting in early June and finishing in mid-October of 2010. You can watch a condensed time-lapse video of the work by clicking HERE.
The lighthouse fog bell, which was operated by a weighted, clock mechanism, was not put back in place as part of the exterior restoration. The bell (or one like it) now is on display in Edenton’s Queen Anne Park.
The Final Move
If the lighthouse had any consciousness and memory, it would have been wondering why all of a sudden it was getting “prettied up” after being neglected for so many years. It would have thought back on its early days when the light keeper and his assistant, but not their families, lived in it. Then when they abandoned it, the only visitors it had were occasional card players or scout troops. It certainly would remember when Wiggins came out and seemed to be about to sink it and instead floated it on the old surplus infantry carrier. And, it would remember the exciting trip across the Sound to its new home. Finally, it would think of its most recent trip to the Edenton Harbor.
It is left to the people who love the lighthouse to care for it. On May 1, 2012 the town gathered in Colonial Park to watch as Worth Hare — the same company that moved it from Wiggins property to the park — with the help of Waff Contracting (both local companies) gently and carefully slid the 58-ton structure onto its new pilings in the harbor. It took a few hours, and some of the hundreds of onlookers left but, many stayed until the old lighthouse was sitting where it will stay now for a long time; after all, what are a few hours in the life of an old lighthouse?
There it Sits, but How do I Get Up There to Look Inside?
Out over the Bay and perched several feet above the water, the next task was to provide a way to get into it. The whole idea was to eventually open it to visitors, especially the throngs of lighthouse enthusiasts who would undoubtedly want to visit the only remaining screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina.
Stairs would not suffice so a ramp that could withstand the coastal weather needed to be built. The ramp in place today was built by Chesson Construction and completed in early 2013. Happily, visitors can now tour the lighthouse any day of the week, 10am until 4pm.
Restorations to the interior began in March 2014, and the lighthouse opened for visitors in August, 2014. Come visit!
A 4th degree Fresnel lens, similar to the original, is in safe keeping by the Town of Edenton, and will be mounted in its original location, and in the future, we hope. Hopefully, the fog bell and its clock mechanism for automated ringing will be restored. Maybe they will ring the bell when the school system has a morning fog delay. Who knows?
One thing for certain, the Roanoke River Lighthouse will be enjoying its new life, welcoming visitors, young and old, showing them an important part of our heritage.
Congratulations, Lighthouse: You survived!