History of the Roanoke River Lighthouse

The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse is open to the public. Please contact the Edenton State Historic Site on Broad St for the schedule.

Built in 1886, the restored Roanoke River Lighthouse now stands proudly in the harbor at Edenton, NC. The lighthouse first served as a guide for ships navigating the waters of the Albemarle Sound into the Roanoke River, and then, after being decommissioned in 1941, was moved by barge across the sound to private land, where it ultimately deteriorated as a neglected residence.

Its history, as one would expect, is filled with fateful events and colorful characters. After being acquired by the Edenton Historical Commission and then given to the state of North Carolina, a band of dedicated volunteers, public officials and preservationists brought it to its final home. With state funds, the structural restoration work was completed as volunteer donations and furnishings were gathered.

Note: The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse should not be confused with the replica of the 1866 Roanoke River Lighthouse in Plymouth, NC, or the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse that once stood in Croatan Sound, or the replica of Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse on the waterfront near Manteo, NC. Edenton’s is an original; the others are great replicas worthy of serious study.

 


 

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, found a new, permanent home in Edenton Bay’s harbor. It is here the stories of her past are remembered and told for new generations.

River Travel in Colonial Times


The Roanoke River Basin

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.

Plymouth is situated here — 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.

A flat boat on a river, as it might have looked outside Plymouth

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 one 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.

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.


A period newspaper illustration of a lightship

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.


A wooden screw pile on display at Edenton’s Barker House

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 would not 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.

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.”


The lighthouse in its original location with visitors on the porch

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 successful in relocating the lighthouses, and Tate sold the Roanoke River Lighthouse to his friend Emmett Wiggins, who often passed the lighthouse during his work as a tugboat operator.

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.”


The lighthouse being moved across the Sound by Emmett Wiggins

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.


The Lighthouse where Wiggins put it ashore in Edenton.

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.


Worth Hare’s crew moving the lighthouse from the Wiggins’ property.

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.

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.

Moving the Lighthouse on May 1, 2012

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?

Restorations to the interior began in March 2014.

Congratulations, Lighthouse: You survived!


The Roanoke River Lighthouse as it now stands in Edenton’s harbor. (Photo by Bob Quinn)

Lighthouse Chronology

1831
The US Congress approves money for a lightship in the Albemarle Sound to aid ships sailing to and from Plymouth, NC.

1835
The lightship was built and put into service about two miles from the mouth of the Roanoke River.

1857
The Light-House Board develops plans to replace lightships with lighthouses because of the frequent and expensive repairs needed for lightships.

1861
April: the Civil War begins and plans to replace the Roanoke River Lightship are halted. The Confederate government takes control of all light stations in seceded states.

1861
September: The Confederate Navy moved the lightship upriver to Williamston and scuttled it in order to prevent the Union troops from advancing up the river.

1866
The first Roanoke River Lighthouse is built about six miles downriver from Plymouth, on the east side of the channel in Batchelors Bay off the Albemarle Sound.

1885
March: Fire started and quickly destroyed it.

1885
Late summer: Replacement lighthouse put into service.

1886
January: Albemarle Sound freezes. Ice damages the lighthouse, partially submerging it. A temporary light is set up.

1886
September: Work begins on a second Roanoke River Lighthouse.

1887
February: Lighthouse put into service. This is the third Roanoke River Lighthouse in two years.

1941
This third lighthouse is de-commissioned.

1955
It is bought and moved across the Albemarle Sound to Edenton as a private residence.

2007
The Edenton Historical Commission purchases the Lighthouse, intent on restoring it and making it accessible. The Commission donates it to the state, which funds the restoration and will cooperatively manage it as a part of the Historic Edenton State Historic Site.

2010
Restoration begins.

2012
May: Moved to its final location, on piers in Edenton Harbor.


 

Restoration


April 2009 — Before restoration began

The Roanoke River Lighthouse restoration began with a ground breaking ceremony on February 25th, 2010.


Lighthouse Ground Breaking Ceremony

Phase 1 — Roanoke River Lighthouse Exterior Restoration

Exterior Restoration began on April 9, 2010. The old roof was replaced with a new roof made of the same type material as was used when the lighthouse was first constructed. The windows and doors have also been removed, individually restored and replaced. The Lighthouse’s exterior was restored by A.R. Chesson Construction Co.


Lighthouse roof restoration


Cupola — before restoration

Watch the exterior restoration in time lapse from June 7th 2010 through October 15th 2010

Phase 2 — Interior Restoration

The restoration of the interior, complete with period furnishings was finished in 2014, with the Lighthouse then opening to the public.


Stairway before restoration


Interior before restoration


Looking down spiral staircase before restoration