A Winter On The Crystal Coast

Oceana Pier On Atlantic Beach, NC

Winter On The Outer Banks

Along The Crystal Coast

We arrived at Cape Lookout National Seashore in early November 2017. This would be our home for almost 5 months while we volunteered as Visitor Center docents for the National Park Service. The main Visitor Center is located on Harkers Island, North Carolina and the National Seashore  protects the southernmost islands of the Outer Banks: North and South Core Banks and Shakleford Banks. The  iconic landmark for the Cape Lookout is its black and white diamond painted lighthouse. The seashore is also well known as a shellers haven and for the wild horses that live on Shackleford Banks. This part of the North Carolina coast is called the Crystal Coast because of the beautiful beaches, ocean access and numerous bays and rivers. East of the town of Beaufort to Cedar Island (where you catch the state ferry to Ocracoke Island) is referred to as “Down East” with a unique culture and way of speaking due to being isolated well into the 20th century. We don’t have space enough to detail all that we did here but we hope there is enough so you’ll come visit yourself.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse And Assistant Keepers Quarters

A lot of people ask “Why do you want to go to the beach in the winter?” Our reply is because everyone else doesn’t! The pristine beaches you can walk for miles and rarely see anyone else, after a storm the shells are washed up and ready for the taking and in town you can walk in to a restaurant or find free parking without the hassle. One other reason: Steve hates heat and humidity so he’d never go in the summer! I lived in North Carolina for 20 years and had gone to the northern Outer Banks but never to this area. I couldn’t believe what I’d missed!

CALO Visitor Center In Beaufort


Oil Shed And Summer Kitchen Near Lighthouse










When we started work as volunteers both the Harkers Island and Beaufort Visitor Centers were open so we had days at both. The Beaufort VC is located in the old post office building with some city offices. The building was a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project in 1937 during the Great Depression. In the lobby are four murals painted by Russian born artist Simca Simikovich representing life and history of this sea oriented area. One shows range markers used to guide ships into Beaufort harbor. Because of the shifting shoals and sandbars Cape Lookout and the Outer Banks were called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”.

Mailboat Mural

Another mural shows a mailboat headed for Cape Lookout lighthouse. Due to rivers, bays and marshes the Down East area had no roads or bridges until the 1940s so all transportation and commerce came and went by boat. The mailboat was the link between the isolated communities and town.

Live Decoy Geese Mural

A third mural shows geese that were raised from eggs by the Ca’e Bankers of Portsmouth Village on North Core Banks. They imprinted on the villagers and stayed. The birds were used as live decoys to bring in migrating wild geese for hunters.

Shackleford Ponies Mural

Of course there is one of the Shackleford ponies. At an average of 44-48″ at the withers they are between pony and horse so both terms are used. DNA tests link these horses to Spanish horses but no one knows just how they got here.

The last mural depicts the famous wreck of the Chrissie Wright. It is placed over a doorway. When this ship foundered on the shoals  off Shackleford Island during a winter storm all but one of the crew froze to death while islanders watched helplessly from shore. This tragedy led to the establishment of a lifesaving station on Cape Lookout two years later. Even today locals will refer to a cold stormy day as a “Chrissie Wright Day”.

Chrissie Wright Mural

The town of Beaufort was the third town established in North Carolina and dates to 1713. History abounds all through the area and we took full advantage of learning as much as we could from tours, special events and lectures. 2018 is the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s capture and the sinking of his ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge, nearby. One of the most interesting locations was the Ann Street Cemetery. If you love old cemeteries this is one you need to see. The self guided tour brochure details many stories from the unmarked graves of settlers killed in the Tuscaroran War in the early 1700s to the little girl buried in a cask of rum when she died at sea to area privateer turned statesman Ottway Burns.

Chari At The Veterans Day Parade

Shortly after we arrived Cape Lookout was represented in the Morehead City Veterans Day parade. So we rode in one of the NPS boats and showered the kids with candy. We learned that because of the area being home to several military bases this parade is one of the longest in the country. We also did the Down East Christmas parade and served as Santa’s sleigh!

Have You Been Naughty Or Nice?

Another holiday event was the Beaufort Candlelight Home Tour through private homes and buildings in the historic district. The Beaufort office was open that night. We worked a few hours and also had time to tour. On Christmas Eve we attended services at the Ann Street Methodist Church built in the 1750s and still in use.


Christmas On Harkers Island



Crab Trap Christmas Tree At Core Sound Museum

We enjoyed touring Harkers Island to see the holiday lights. Several of the homes displayed the area’s symbolic anchor outlined in lights. We decorated the interior of our Visitor Center and strung lights on the anchor from the Olive Thurlow, a shipwreck near cape Lookout, that greets visitors to the Harkers Island location. The Cape Lookout lighthouse is normally open for climbing mid May to mid September. So we were very excited when a New Years Day climb was scheduled and we were to be working. In preparation, we learned the history of the lighthouse, interpretive points and climbed it – all 207 steps! The view is fantastic! Unfortunately Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the climb was cancelled.

Hackers Island Visitors Center


View From The Top Of The Cape Lookout Lighthouse

For Thanksgiving we took a harbor cruise aboard The Crystal Lady around Beaufort Harbor and had Thanksgiving dinner. A great way to spend the holiday when you are in a new area. A special holiday celebration was our trip to New Bern, NC to take the city tram tour and visit Tryon Palace. We highly recommend the tram tour. Our guide was excellent and gave us insight into this historical city. It is said that houses have moved more in this city than anywhere else as the city expanded and developed. As we observed several times when the guide would say “This house used to be over there.”  One house has been moved 5 times! The original Tryon Palace burned down and the current structure is a replica built from the original plans. New Bern was the capitol of the colony of North Carolina and Tryon Palace served as the Governor’s palace. Each December for two weekends they hold a candlelight tour of the palace with living history skits done in several locations. Outside on the grounds are tents with period entertainment and in front of the palace black Americans perform the traditional song and dance of enslaved people called Jonkonnu.

Thanksgiving Day Dinner Cruise






















Tryon Palace Living History Dancers











Jonkonnu Singer




Jonkonnu Dancers







Performer Signora Bella Does A Comedy Juggling Routine

During the winter the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort holds monthly lectures on Wednesdays. Since we were off the lectures became a highlight of our time here. We attended four lectures on topics from Native people of the area and the Tuscaroran War, whaling on Shackleford Island, the story behind the sperm whale skeleton and heart on display at the museum and Churchill’s Pirates (a British fleet sent to the USA to patrol the Outer Banks against German U-boats). There are three NC Maritime Museums but the Beaufort location is the largest. It houses displays and relics from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, about the Civil Air Patrol in WWII, the Menhaden fishing industry and sea chanteys, and boating/recreation in the area.  After the lecture about the sperm whale Steve and I got to hold the plastinated heart which weighed in at 55 lbs. This museum is a must see if you visit.

That’s A Whale Of A Heart!

Speaking of must see brings us to another wonderful museum, the Core Sound Waterfowl and Culture Museum. The museum is dedicated to preserving the history and folkways of the Down East communities. The Core Sound is the body of water between the mainland and the Outer Banks. Each November the CSM and the Decoy Carvers Guild sponsor the Core Sound Decoy Festival. Thousands of folks attend. We worked one day at a NPS table with a kids fishing activity and one day in the VC but we did have time to see the festival for a few hours. I never realized there were so many types of decoys! Decoy carving is still active and the best carvers are true artists. The second floor of the museum is dedicated to telling the story of the independent and hardworking people who lived on the islands and mainland Down East communities. They were a self reliant, closely knit and religious people whose way of life is but a memory. Don’t miss this either.

Jellyfish Dancing

The Aquarium Dive Show












Other great places to visit are the North Carolina Aquarium in Pine Knolls Shores and Fort Macon State Park. Fort Macon has a wonderful beach area and provided a place for us to go when the ferries weren’t running. The Fort itself has a lengthy history from the mid 1800s thru WWII. Rooms are set up with interactive audio and displays of the various historical periods. The Pine Knolls Shores Aquarium features fish and reptiles of the NC coast. It is one of three NC aquariums. Both Fort Macon and the Aquarium have extensive programing so be sure to check the website before your visit.

Fort Macon

We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the great restaurants in the area. Seafood lovers rejoice! Not only in the restaurants but we found fish markets galore. We ate our fill and then some of red and black drum, sea trout, shrimp, scallops and oysters. However once in a while we took a break and pigged out at Grumpy’s in Morehead City. Known for the in house cured corned beef, we highly recommend the corned beef hash and reuben sandwiches. Another seafood break spot was the Seaside restaurant at the Citgo station on Harkers Island for the best fried chicken. We toured areas up to two hours away. When we went to Kinston, NC to see a Civil War era ironclad we also dined at The Farmer and The Chef of Food Network fame. A higher class restaurant than we normally frequent, it was a superb meal. Another trip took us south to see Moore’s Creek National Battlefield. They were renovating the Visitor Center and we had postponed the trip hoping it would reopen before we left. That didn’t happen but we did walk the trail and read interpretive signs. That gave us an appetite (doesn’t everything?). We looked on the GPS and picked a spot called Something Fishy just based on its name. When we walked in we saw Guy Fieri’s poster on the wall. This was a DDD spot he’d been too just 3 weeks prior. The evening I am writing this blog we saw the episode including Something Fishy. Let’s just say we never had a bad meal!

Dinner At The Farmer And The Chef

Moore’s Creek National Battlefield

January and February are the slow months for the national seashore and we worked 2-3 days a week. This, according to locals, was the coldest winter they had had in 30 years. We had not one but two snowstorms albeit not more than four inches of snow. However for this area that was a lot and we got “snow days” off from work. There were several days when winds would be too high and the ferries to the islands wouldn’t run. On the days they did run we took advantage and enjoyed combing the beach without crowds. A home school group came and the equine biologist did her Horse Sense tour for them to Shackleford Island. Did we want to go along and take photos for the park? How fast do you think we said yes? Dr. Sue is so informative and gave a great tour. This tour is given monthly in the summer and fall. We highly recommend it. You need to sign up for it as space is limited. During our workdays Steve and I enjoyed doing research and read extensively. We were able to develop some outlines for Shade Shelter talks to be given by staff during the summer. Topics we learned about were the history of lighthouses, types of sailing ships, WWII along the Outer Banks, the Menhaden fisheries, the Winter of 1918 when Core Sound froze over and stories of Down East plus a great book called The Paper Canoe.

The Welcoming Committee

Banker Horse

Snow At The Seashore

That’s Not Sand!

When we arrived five months seemed a long time but oh, it went so quickly. We had a wonderful time and best of all the staff said we were welcome back anytime. OK, twist our arms! We take with us wonderful memories! So long Cape Lookout! So long Crystal Coast!

Worth Getting up Early To See

Steve At The Top Of Cape Lookout Lighthouse

South Core Banks Pier










Leave Only Footprints


Morehead City, NC Celebrates Veterans Day 2017

Just a quick post so that we are more timely than our usual posts. We have just begun a 5 month volunteer position at Cape Lookout National Seashore. As our first activity we participated with two park rangers and other volunteers in the Morehead City Veterans Day Parade. Some communities have big parades for July 4th or Christmas but in Morehead City the big parade is on Veterans Day. It is the type of parade where you are either in it or watching it. We were entry number 152 and I don’t know how many more there were behind us.

Yes, of course we took pictures! Steve made a short (4 minute) video of the event. We are both veterans and proud to have served even if we were not in combat situations. Thanks to all who have served.

Lighting The Way

Nothing indicates the Liberality, Prosperity or Intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities it affords for the Safe Approach of the Mariner to its shores. 

From the 1868 report of the United States Lighthouse Board

lighthouse, museum

Lghthouses As Art

With its long maritime history and spectacular but rocky coast Maine offers lighthouse aficionados a rare treat. You can purchase a lighthouse passport book and attempt to collect stamps from all of the ones open to the public. Or perhaps join the annual Lighthouse race when hundreds of people dash along the coast to see all of them in one 24-hr period. We spent time at a much more leisurely pace at four lighthouses: Owls Head, Rockland Breakwater, Bass Harbor and West Quoddy Head.

A great place to start your lighthouse education is at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. The museum consists of several rooms with exhibits and on demand videos. Whether your interest is in the technical and architectural area or in the stories of those who lived and worked at the light stations, you won’t be disappointed. Plan to spend at least 2 hours here. Of course we were there over four hours! Many people have worked very hard to preserve our coastal heritage but none more than Connie Scoville Small. She and her husband were lighthouse keepers along the New England coast from 1920-1948.  In her ‘retirement’ years she gave hundreds of lectures, appeared on television and wrote newspaper articles all aimed at preserving lighthouses and a way of life that no longer exists. She wrote a book called The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

The museum exhibits began with the history of the United States Lighthouse Establishment created by Congress when it federalized all lighthouses in 1789. The first man in charge of the service was Alexander Hamilton when he was our first Secretary of the Treasury.  We were fascinated by the story of Stephen Pleasonton.  Never heard of him? Neither had we. When you hear what he did you’ll wonder why. We’ve all heard about Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait when the British burned the capital during the War of 1812. Stephen Pleasanton was auditor of the Treasury in 1814. Among his numerous duties was overseeing and staffing lighthouses. Under instructions from Secretary of State James Monroe who saw the British land in Maryland, Pleasanton and his staff sewed linen bags and filled them with important documents and books.  The documents were taken by wagon to a mill in Georgetown for safekeeping. Then Pleasonton realized the mill was near a munitions depot and moved the documents a second time to a farmhouse in Leesburg, VA. He kept the documents secure while watching Washington burn on the horizon.  Just what were these documents? The bags contained George Washington’s letter of resignation as General of the Continental Army, the original Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights.  Throughout his 32 year civil service career Pleasonton  was known as a “tight wad”.   Eventually public outcry and congressional investigation put an end to his budgetary constraints.  In 1852 a nine member U. S. Lighthouse Board was created to take over the operation of our lighthouses.  The nation was divided into twelve lighthouse districts each with a Lighthouse inspector responsible for construction, operation and staffing of the navigational aids. The Board was proactive in construction and modernization of lighthouses. By 1860 Fresnel lenses had been installed in all lighthouses. The Lighthouse Board was dissolved in 1910 when the civilian run Lighthouse Service was created.  Under the leadership of George Putnam the United States went from sixth place in navigational safety to second place, surpassed only by the Netherlands. In 1939 the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for lighthouse operation by merging with the U. S. Lighthouse Service.

Another place where lighthouse history could have changed the world was when William Rosecrans was asked to be Abraham Lincoln’s second term Vice President. Besides a military career Rosecrans had invented the odorless oil lamp used in many lighthouses.  Rosecrans took an extended time to accept the offer. Lincoln thought the delay was Rosecrans way of declining and then asked Andrew Johnson to be his running mate. Had Rosecrans answered in a timely fashion, he would have been President after Lincoln’s assassination.

  Manticus Rock Lighthouse

mannticus Rock
Manticus Rock Lighthouse

There were stories about several women who made significant contributions to lighthouse history. One of the most widely publicized is that of 14 year-old Abbie Burgess when her family manned the remote Manticus Rock lighthouse in the Fall of 1856. The supply ship had not arrived on schedule and by December stores were at a critical level. Her father left to row the five miles to Manticus Island. A severe storm developed. Abbie moved her ailing mother and sisters from the wooden house to a granite building only minutes before the home was flooded. Then she scrambled along the rocks to rescue her pet chickens.  The storm raged for twenty days. Abbie kept the lights burning in the lighthouse, rationed supplies of one cup of cornmeal and one egg to each of her family members. The story ended happily with all surviving and her father’s safe return. Two books that might be of interest are The Original Biography of Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Heroine or a children’s book Keep The Lights Burning Abbie.  Three years later her father was replaced by another lighthouse keeper but Abbie stayed on to assist with the transition. She fell in love with the new keeper’s  son and was married in 1861. Except for a short period when they tried ‘civilian’ life the couple served in the Lighthouse Service. Abbie died just before her 54th birthday and is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Spruce Head, Maine where her grave is marked with an aluminum replica of a lighthouse.

Barbara Mabrity

Barbara Mabrity

Stories are not limited to lighthouses in Maine. Barbara Mabrity became keeper of the Key West lighthouse in 1832 upon the death of her husband who’d been lighthouse keeper. She was one of the first women appointed to the Lighthouse Service. Later on it became common for widowed women to assume their husband’s position. In 1846 a severe storm destroyed the lighthouse and all who sought shelter there including the six Mabrity children. Mrs. Mabrity resumed her duties in the new lighthouse in 1847 and remained until her retirement at age 82. Then there is Ida Lewis who at age 16 assumed lighthouse keeper duties at Lime Rock in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island when her father suffered a stroke. She performed many rescues and was the first woman to receive the Congressional Lifesaving Medal.  Her fame spread and she received visits from President Grant, Susan B. Anthony and Mrs. William Astor.  Andrew Carnegie became concerned over her lack of funds for her later years and set up a retirement fund. The first Coast Guard bouy tender was named after her. The next time you think you’ve had a hard day at the office, think about Katherine Walker who at 4’10” and 100 lbs. assumed keeper duties at Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbor when her husband died. She performed over fifty rescues, operated the fog bell and lantern as well as rowing her children to and from school in Bayonne, New Jersey. Life at a light station was not always bleak as shown by Emily Fish at Point Pinos Light in Pacific Grove, CA. She became keeper at age 50 after being widowed but continued to decorate and entertain with style using antiques, paintings and fine china. This earned her the title of “The Socialite Keeper”. The last civilian woman lighthouse keeper was Fannie Mae Salter at Turkey Point, MD. She served from 1925-1947.

Last Woman Lighthouse Keeper

Last Woman Lighthouse Keeper

The Four Types Of Lighthouses

The Four Types Of Lighthouses

On the more technical side the museum has displays showing the four types of marine light alerts; lighthouses, lightships, beacons and lighted buoys. Lighthouses were constructed from wood, cast iron, rubble stone, dressed granite and brick depending on the location.  A 55-page manual listed the keeper’s duties beginning with the instruction “to be conversant with all apparatus.”  This was closely followed with the admonition that “Ignorance upon any point will not be considered as a reason for neglect of duty.” Keepers stood watches of 12 hours at night to make sure the lights operated properly. If weather conditions required it a foghorn was sounded manually and often required operation for several days at a time.  The keeper was responsible for all medical care at the station until he could signal a passing ship for assistance. Children were home schooled through the elementary grades unless they were close enough to attend shore-based schools. In the later years children would live with friends or relatives off island to attend school. After 1918 the Lighthouse Service paid teachers to go to the larger stations or built one room schoolhouses. An extensive display of Fresnel lenses, clothing, rescue equipment and artifacts will keep the technology oriented visitor interested.  Lighthouses are used as symbols by many organizations. A display of badges and patches using lighthouses was on display. One shown here uses The Statue of Liberty, our most recognized lighthouse. There’s even a bit of roadside humor in the Elvis patch.

Maine Lighthouse Museum Artifacts

Maine Lighthouse Museum Artifacts

Fresnel Lens

Fresnel Lens

How Fresnel Works

Statue Of Liberty Patch

Statue Of Liberty Patch

Elvis Has Left The Lighthouse

Elvis Has Left The Lighthouse

One of the last displays discussed lighthouses in other countries such as Canada, Great Britain, Russia and Japan. Japan has over 3300 lighthouses. The father and uncle of author Robert Louis Stevenson were lighthouse designers and builders in Scotland. They built the northernmost lighthouse in Great Britain, Muckle Flugga.  This ties in with the Wyeth exhibit as N. C. Wyeth illustrated many of Stevenson’s books.

If you aren’t overdosed on seafaring history also plan a visit to the Penobscot Maritime Museum in Searsport, Maine. We stopped one Sunday afternoon not realizing the extent of the museum. We saw about half of the exhibits that are devoted to shipbuilding, trading and seamanship. We look forward to another longer visit when we come back.

Here are the four lighthouses we visited:

Owls Head lighthouse is located just south of Rockland at Owls Head State Park. This is a day use park with picnic facilities and a beach. The lighthouse is managed by the American Lighthouse Foundation and staffed by volunteers. Many of the properties under their umbrella were badly deteriorated with the USCG doing only operational and structurally required maintenance when ALF stepped in. By using the funds from tours and gift shops they have restored them to period condition. We went on a Saturday but I’m not sure about operating hours on weekdays. There is a nominal charge to enter the lighthouse but no fee for the grounds or small museum. This is one of the few lighthouses that has an original Fresnel lens. Most of them have been broken or ceased working and were replaced with a plastic lens. Unlike lighthouses in the south that must be several stories tall for ships to see them, Owls Head is short and built on a rocky hill. This means an easy climb to the top. While there we met a couple from New Hampshire who asked us to take their picture and then reciprocated by taking ours. Later we met again at the beach. We sat and talked for an hour finding many things in common. They had their RV at Camden Hills too so we continued our conversation at our site that evening. We hope to meet them at a New Hampshire State Park in September on our return loop.

Maine, Lighthouse

Chari And Steve At Owls Head Light June 2013

Steve Inside The Lighthouse

Steve Inside The Lighthouse

View From Owls Head Light

View From Owls Head Light

Spot Lived Here

Spot Lived Here

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse is at the end of a granite barrier in a city park. The Breakwater is almost a mile long, seven stories high and is constructed entirely of granite (700,000 tons that is). It was constructed between 1881 and 1902. You really have to see it to appreciate the size of the blocks of granite. The closest thing I’d seen were the huge blocks used at the Pyramids in Giza. As you walk along the breakwater you must watch the uneven surface and the 6-12” cracks between the blocks. There is a campaign running between June and September 2013 to make this the 8th Wonder of the World. The lighthouse wasn’t open when we were there in the evening. We did see some shorebirds and our first eider duck. On the way back I’d put my camera in my backpack. Apparently I’d forgotten to zip one half. All of a sudden the camera fell onto the stone. Could I have picked a grassy spot…no. I held my breath as I picked it up. The polarizer was smashed but my new 18-300mm lens appeared OK. The camera worked. Yes, I did deserve the HOW COULD I BE SO STUPID AWARD that day. I think Nikon should use this like Samsonite used the gorilla to demonstrate the durability of their product.

A Long Way To The Light

A Long Way To The Light

Reflecting On Rockland Breakwater

Reflecting On Rockland Breakwater

A Working Harbor

A Working Harbor

While we were in the Bar Harbor area we drove to Southwest Harbor to see the Bass Harbor lighthouse. It was a foggy afternoon but this gave us a different view of the lighthouse probably one similar to that of fishermen in the area. This lighthouse is not open to the public and access is only by scrambling along the rocks. Steve’s always much braver than I am about going out to the edge.  As this was just before July 4th, there were lots of people crawling all over the rocks so getting a people free picture was a challenge.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse

Bass Harbor Lighthouse

The fourth Maine lighthouse we visited is West Quoddy Head. This is the easternmost lighthouse in the USA. So why is the easternmost lighthouse called West Quoddy Head, you ask? It’s because East Quoddy lighthouse is on Campbobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. We saw that too and will cover it in an upcoming post. Quoddy Head State Park offers 5.5 miles trails through forest and bog down to the rocky shore. and an interesting museum. Here we learned that the body of XXX, father of the Coast Guard was buried until his body was exhumed and moved to New London in XXX. The red and white striped lighthouse built in 1808 has been painted with six or eight alternating stripes at various times. Right now there are eight. It was the first to use a fog bell and later a steam powered foghorn. The light was automated in 1988. Unfortunately the tower is not open. The view of Grand Manan Channel and Sail Rock is worth a visit by itself. The black cliffs are a type of rock called gabbro. You’ll hear more about this when we post our Catching Up #2 about Saugus Iron Works.

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse