Russell Coles began to say good-bye to Cape Lookout in 1920. He was slowing down. The aging shark hunter, by then 55 years old, increasingly found it difficult to rise before sunrise and go out and do battle with sharks.
For many students of American history, the letters between Russell Coles and Teddy Roosevelt would be the most important historical documents that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill.
Russell Coles first learned about giant oceanic manta rays in or about 1900, when he began to spend his summers on a houseboat at Cape Lookout and started listening to the local fishermen's stories.
Around midnight on the night of July 1st, 1916, Russell Coles and his crew were returning from Cape Lookout Shoals when what seemed to them to be a strange glowing specter rose up in the sea before them.
In July of 1912 an extraordinary young scientist named Maud Menten visited Russell Coles at Cape Lookout, N.C. After spending a week assisting her with a research project, Coles wrote a colleague at the Smithsonian, saying “Dr. Menten is unquestionably the most wonderful human being in the world.”
Now, only a century later, those who study sharks-- as with so much of the world's fauna-- seem to spend most of their time like me, a historian: chronicling extinctions and warning of coming extinctions, as if Russell Coles' lust for conquering nature had spread throughout the world.
In Russell Coles’ day, many ichthyologists—biologists that study fish—had never actually seen sharks in the wild. Coles offered such scientists the twin possibilities of studying sharks in their native habitat at Cape Lookout and of expanding their collections for study in some of the most prestigious natural history museums in the world.
In a 1915 account, Russell Coles described his pursuit of great white sharks in the waters off Cape Lookout, N.C., in the years since 1900. I found his account strange and fascinating and more than a little chilling.
Every summer shark hunter Russell Coles took the train to Morehead City, and the first thing he always did when he arrived at the depot was meet Capt. Charlie W. Willis in the Promise Land.
In 1915 Russell J. Coles drafted an article on two kinds of manta rays that he had hunted at Cape Lookout. One was the lesser devil ray, and the other was the giant oceanic manta ray, a gentle, incredibly beautiful creature with fins that can be 18 feet or more across and which look like great black wings when moving through the sea.
A few years ago, a gentleman in Virginia, Walter Coles, Sr., invited my daughter Vera and me to visit his family’s private library of research materials related to his uncle, a world-renowned shark hunter named Russell J. Coles who did the large bulk of his shark hunting at Cape Lookout, N.C., between roughly 1900 and 1925.
Late one night in 1862, a slave waterman named Dempsey Hill slipped into the customs house in Beaufort, N.C., removed copies of the latest nautical charts and buried them in the local cemetery-- the one people now call the Old Burying Ground.
All these years later, Ed Pond and I are friends, brought together by a mutual interest in Down East's history and by an act of kindness a century ago on the battlefields of France.
The other day Ed Pond in Davis Shore got in touch with me. Ed grew up there in the 1940s and ‘50s and my recent series on the history of Southport’s shrimping industry had set him to remembering.
At the corner of Pollock and Cedar Street in this lovely historic town on the North Carolina coast, the Godette Hotel is a forgotten African American historical landmark that could have come straight out of the Academy Award-winning movie Green Book. Now the Town of Beaufort is making plans to demolish the hotel. “Why,” town councilman Charles McDonald asks, “are they trying to destroy all the black history in the community?”
In this photograph (above), we see the blackfish boat Margaret at an unidentified port probably in southern New Jersey in 1934. Standing in the bow is Capt. Einar Neilsen, a Norwegian immigrant. Capt. Neilsen was part of a largely forgotten enclave of Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch blackfish fishermen and their families that left New Jersey and made their homes in Beaufort, N.C., beginning in the 1910s.
The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has recently made available more than 20,000 photographs of America's commercial fishing industry that originally appeared in the pages of National Fisherman. Last week I highlighted several of the magazine's photos from Beaufort, N.C., in the 1930s and '40s. Today I want to share photographs that take us to Hatteras, Buxton, Harkers Island, Wanchese, Belhaven, Rockyhock and several other parts of the North Carolina coast.
The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has recently made available for the first time more than 20,000 historical photographs from America's fishing communities, including those here on the North Carolina coast. It is an extraordinary collection: the photographs from every issue of the National Fisherman, the leading trade journal of the commercial fishing industry.
On the other side of Union River Bay, just west of where I am staying on Mount Desert Island, in a village called Blue Hill, the menhaden oil and scrap industry was born, if one can say it was born anywhere.
Linda Garey, a teacher I met some years ago, recently sent me copies of some remarkable historical images of North Carolina lighthouses and lightships that were taken in and around 1899. They are from her great-grandfather Rear Admiral Albert Ross’s extraordinary collection of magic lantern glass slides that he made while serving in the U.S. Navy.
This is a portrait of an African American fisherman and saltwater farmer named Proctor Davis. He was born a slave on Davis Island, in the Down East part of Carteret County, N.C., ca. 1839. He escaped from slavery during the Civil War, but he and his family returned after the war and made a new home at Davis Ridge, a marshy hammock just north of Davis Island.
Yesterday The New Yorker magazine published an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism on Melvin Davis and his brother Licurtis Reels and their struggle to hold onto their family’s land in Merrimon, a historically African American fishing community in Carteret County N.C., not far from where I grew up.
I recently found this map in an old book called The Williams History: Tracing the Descendants in America of Robert Williams, of Ruthin, North Wales, who Settled in Carteret County, North Carolina, in 1763. The map describes a largely forgotten group of Quaker settlements that flourished on the North Carolina coast more than 200 years ago.
One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.
“I remember when the biggest joy of Christmas for me was getting to ride the mail boat over to Beaufort and just look at the five and dime and the drugstore. We'd go down on the shore, bundled up, head and ears, and the mail boat came from down at the center of the island. We'd get in the broom grass and watch for it, and they'd come pick us up.”