The Lighthouse’s Last Keeper

 

I was recently a guest at the beginning of this official celebration for the Cape Lookout Light Station’s 150th year of service that ends tonight. That was three weeks ago and I imagine that many of you were there. For those of you that could not make it, I want to tell you that it was quite a day.

The celebration began at the Cape, where a large crowd gathered between the lighthouse and the old keepers’ quarters. We marked the day in speeches, poetry, prayer and song. We ate birthday cake and, before and after the official ceremonies, we had the opportunity to hear lots of storytelling.

That night the celebration continued here at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center with a reunion of the descendants of the men and women who served at Cape Lookout over the generations. We honored all those who served in the federal agencies that have been the lighthouse’s caretakers, including the United States Lighthouse Service, the United States Life Saving Service and the United States Coast Guard.

Hundreds of the old keepers’ descendants came to Harkers Island from more than a dozen states and from as far away as California.

The Calling of the Roll

For me the high point of the evening was the calling of the roll of all the old keepers. As their ancestor’s name was called, the descendants of each keeper rose from their seats and were recognized.

The ringing of a ship’s bell punctuated the roll call, the way ships at sea once signaled the changing of the watch. I doubt that I will ever forget that roll call. I will also never forget many of the stories that the lighthouse keepers’ descendants told us that day. Tonight I would like to share a few of those stories with you.

I want to tell you first about two gentlemen whom I met at Cape Lookout that morning. They were not part of the official ceremonies. I do not believe that the event’s organizers even knew that they would be here. They were both a little shy, in fact, and I do not think that either man would have made the trip across Core Sound if one of their family members had not put them into the boat.

One of them had not visited the Cape in half a century. When I first saw them, they were standing in the lighthouse’s shadow, looking rather astonished that so many people had gone to all that fuss and bother to honor the likes of them.

A Coast Guard rear admiral, several station commanders, the Atlantic Beach Fife and Drum Band, an honor guard and a big crowd were indeed there to honor them.

The Last Keeper

The first gentleman’s name was Alton Chadwick. Mr. Chadwick was, it turned out, the lighthouse’s last keeper. Then 81 years old, he served as the Cape Lookout lighthouse keeper from 1948 until the Coast Guard automated the light in 1950. He was only 20 years old when he was first assigned lighthouse duty. It was his first time away from his home in Marshallberg and his mother’s cooking. His nephew told me that Mr. Chadwick always said that the hardest thing about being at the lighthouse was staying away from Marshallberg.

When I asked Mr. Chadwick what a typical day at the lighthouse was like when he was a keeper, the first words out of his mouth were: “lots of shining brass.”

He made the climb up the lighthouse’s 219 steps every day. He shined the brass around the beacon, shook the bulbs and checked to make sure that they were all burning. All in all, he said, lighthouse duty was a lot like being a sailor: a great deal of scrubbing, fixing and shining, long periods of routine business in clear weather, then holding on for dear life in a storm.

“If you couldn’t find nothing else to do, they’d hand you a paintbrush,” he recalled, echoing the words of countless sailors and coast guardsmen before him.

That did not mean that he did not find time for a little fun. Mr. Chadwick told us about climbing out on the lighthouse’s dome, 160 feet above the sand dunes, and touching the weather gauge just to see if he could do it.

He also enjoyed talking with the day trippers who took boats out to the island. Many, of course, wanted to see the view from the top of the lighthouse. In those days, that was not a problem. “I’ve toted many a young’un up and down those stairs,” he told us.

His last day—the last day that anyone manned the lighthouse—was May 9th, 1950.

The ’33 Storm at Cape Lookout

The other gentleman that I met at the Cape was George Newton. Mr. Newton never served at the Cape, but his grandfather had been in the lifesaving service at Portsmouth Island and his father, J.A. Newton, served as the Cape Lookout lighthouse keeper for 15 years beginning in the early 1930s.

As a child, George Newton lived in Beaufort with his mother during the school year, but he spent his summers at the Cape with his father. While his classmates in town played baseball and went to movies at the Sea Breeze Theater, he chased wild ponies and wandered through island swales and salt marshes.

George Newton’s father was on lighthouse duty when the great ’33 hurricane came through here. During that storm, floodwaters covered Core Banks from sound to sea. The hurricane took 21 lives, sank hundreds of boats, took out bridges from North River to New Bern and killed thousands of livestock. For all practical purposes, the storm razed the villages of South River, Merrimon, Lukens, Roe and Lola to the ground. No Down East village was spared, though. Throughout that terrible storm, J.A. Newton—George Newton’s father—and his crew kept the lighthouse’s beacon lit.

George Newton never served at Cape Lookout, but he did follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps by serving in the United States Navy during the Second World War. He was a signalman in the Pacific, but he also trained as a hard-hat undersea diver. One of the things that he was assigned to do was remove bodies from the U.S.S. Arizona after Japanese planes sank her at Pearl Harbor. One thousand, one hundred and seventy-seven men were lost in the Arizona. It was his job to bring up from the deep as many of them as possible.

World War II at Cape Lookout

That night I heard more stories at the reunion of the lighthouse keepers’ descendents here at the museum. I was especially excited to meet Bonnie Royer and her first cousin, Steve Kenyon. I found them standing next to a collection of old photographs of Cape Lookout that they had brought with them from their homes in New Mexico and Missouri. Their mothers—a pair of sisters from Buzzards Bay, Wisconsin—both lived at Cape Lookout during the Second World War, when German submarines preyed on Allied shipping just off our shores. Their fathers had been stationed at the Cape and Bonnie Royer was born there in 1942. She was the last child to have been born on Core Banks. Though she left when she was still a baby and does not really remember the island, she and Steve grew up listening to their parent’s stories about Cape Lookout and had always wanted to return here and see the lighthouse.

The stories that Bonnie and Steve told me were not about hurricanes or shipwrecks, but war. Their mothers told them many times how fearful they were on those nights at Cape Lookout. With Allied freighters burning offshore—the victims of German submarines—and rumors of German spies and invaders in the air, they got spooked by the littlest things.

Norma Kenyon—Bonnie’s mother—always said that the whinnies of the island horses at night used to frighten her. The wind, she said, made the horses sound like something diabolical. The island’s cattle also rubbed up against their cabin at night, and in the dark she was afraid that they were enemy soldiers who wanted to hurt her and her baby.

We can understand her fears: During the war, military authorities required that all of the island’s lights be blacked-out so that the enemy’s submarines could not use them to make out the silhouettes of American ships offshore. Unless there was a clear moon, the nights were pitch dark. The only light was the fires offshore—burning oil slicks left by the ships torpedoed by the Germans.

The whole island was scary on those nights, Norma Kenyon always told her children. For one thing, Allied freighters snuck into the Bight after dark like ghost ships, their lights off, not a voice or a radio to be heard on their decks. Norma and her sister Peggy never forgot how eerie it was to see their dark, silent shadows looming just offshore. The freighters anchored there all night, then disappeared before dawn, when naval escorts guided them back through the inlet and out to sea.

By the summer of 1942, Bonnie’s mother always said, the island servicemen and their families already knew where to expect the bodies to wash ashore.

As soon as they heard an explosion offshore, military officials restricted access to a long section of the island’s ocean beach. Army patrols found the bodies on the beach alongside driftwood and seaweed.

A Coast Guardsman named Odell Guthrie—“a real sweet man, and a real character,” Mrs. Wanda Willis, his niece, told me—had the job of collecting the corpses. He was from an old line of Core Banks fishermen, whalers and boat builders and knew those shores well. When he was growing up, he had heard his family talk about the 1886 wreck of the Chrissy Wright and its poor frozen souls who perished just down the beach from the lighthouse. He was also living at Diamond City during the hurricanes that drove the islanders off the Banks, but he had never seen or heard of anything like the Cape during the war.

Mr. Guthrie carried the bodies to the island’s army post, the headquarters for the 193rd Field Artillery. Bonnie Royer told me that the sound of his truck in the middle of the night haunted her mother. Mr. Guthrie tried to remove the bodies at night, so that the sight of them did not upset the civilians at the army base.

However, he could not hide all the other things that Norma Kenyon found along the beach during the day: tins of cocoanut, clothes and, around Christmastime, children’s toys, some of them gift wrapped.

A Light for Lost and Troubled Souls

I suspect that anybody that is not from Down East or does not have family roots out there on those islands can fully appreciate the depth of feeling here in eastern Carteret County for the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The reasons behind that fierce attachment are not always easy to put into words. All I know for sure is that it goes beyond the ordinary, everyday stuff of life.

The lighthouse is only bricks and mortar—169 feet tall, 24 feet in diameter, 9-foot thick at the base and 150 years old today. Yet somehow it has worked itself deep into our hearts.

Walk around the cemeteries on this end of the county. You will see what I mean: one headstone after another with an etching of the lighthouse, or a statuette of the lighthouse standing proudly at the foot of the grave.

The lighthouse has become a symbol of many things. It is a symbol of refuge, of care and watchfulness, of community and homecoming, of service to our country and giving of oneself to help others. It is a symbol, too, of an age when wind and tide shaped the rhythms of our lives and, finally, of God’s own mercy and a light that is always held out to lost and troubled souls.

 

This was originally the keynote speech at a community celebration of the 150th year of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. It was held at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center at Harkers Island, N.C. in November 2009.

 

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