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CURRITUCK LIGHTHOUSE LEGACY
KEEPERS' KIN TO GATHER HISTORY OF THOSE WHO TENDED THE LIGHT HAS BECOME A BOOK
(The Virginian-Pilot - October 21, 1999; pg. B1 by Jeffrey S. Hampton)
The 162-foot red brick
Currituck Beach Lighthouse is well preserved, but the stories that go with it
spanning the past 124 years still need saving.
The hope is that the first reunion of the 300-plus descendants of Currituck's lighthouse keepers Saturday will take care of that.
At the reunion, descendants will be treated to a small book of recently collected oral histories from keeper relatives, a tour of the seldom-seen keepers quarters, free T-shirts and good food. In return, the festivities should stir up some story-swapping among the cousins that will expand on the oral history book.
Since descendants with first-hand memories are aging, the opportunity was too important to wait until next year for the 125th anniversary of the commissioning of the lighthouse, said Lloyd CHILDERS, executive director of the Outer Banks Conservationists and current keeper of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
"I realized we were losing the descendants quickly, and if we didn't do something it could be lost forever," she said Wednesday from her office on the restored lighthouse grounds. "We lost three or four of them last year."
The Outer Banks Conservationists hired historian Jenny EDWARDS, a native of Manteo, to come here from her Wilmington home to collect 25 interviews on 75 hours of tape and spend 320 hours writing a brief history of the lighthouse keepers and their families, all in three months. The card-stock, bound book is "little more than a work in progress," EDWARDS says in a note to readers. Every descendant will get a copy. Saturday and over the next couple of years, more memories will be added and any mistakes corrected so that a larger hardbound book can be published, CHILDERS said. "In every family there's somebody who is into genealogy and is writing down stuff," she said.
The descendants are flattered over the attention, said Norris AUSTIN, the 61-year-old grandson of keeper William Riley AUSTIN. "We're really looking forward to it," AUSTIN said from his apartment above the Corolla post office. "We've never had a reunion like this." AUSTIN had not been born when his grandfather retired in 1928, but he remembers stories his father told - the kinds of stories that go into the history book. "When he moved here, he had three sons, Edgar, Pell and my daddy," AUSTIN said. "My daddy was 3 months old."
Children and grandchildren of Riley AUSTIN kept the grass from growing through the brick walkway by trimming it with a pocket knife, AUSTIN said. They were also given the duty of picking up the dead ducks and geese that had crashed into the lighthouse the night before after being blinded by the flash. The children were instructed to deliver the wildfowl to the older folks, who might need some meat for supper, AUSTIN said.
The 70-page book is full of similar stories that go back to the early days of the lighthouse. The federal government paid $225 for 36 acres to build a lighthouse that would fill in a dark spot along the coast between Cape Henry Lighthouse 34 miles north and Bodie Island Lighthouse 32 1/2 miles south. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was commissioned in 1875 after two years of construction and included 214 steps and approximately 1 million bricks.
The first lamp burned mineral oil, which was subsequently changed to kerosene and finally to electricity and automation in 1939. The light still operates on the sequence of three seconds on and 17 seconds off.
In the early days, the lighthouse keeper had a tough daily routine carrying oil up to the lamp, cleaning ice or soot from the lens, trimming the wicks and every 2 1/2 hours rewinding the turning mechanism that allowed the light to flash toward the ocean every 20 seconds. It worked much like a grandfather clock.
The lantern, and later the light, was surrounded by a Fresnel lens that with its prism-like surfaces harnessed the full impact of the light until the right moment. When the clear or red glass opening in the lens faced the ocean, the brightest possible flash was sent seaward up to 18 nautical miles.
The story is told in the book that Riley AUSTIN climbed the steps so many times that he walked with a high step even when he was on flat ground.
After automation, the lighthouse keepers didn't have to stay on site anymore. During the next 30-plus years, the keepers quarters and other buildings fell into disrepair. The site was nearly overgrown with thick brush. Snakes and other creatures lived in the house.
The restoration idea began in the late 1960s and 1970s when John WILSON, a great-grandson of keeper Homer AUSTIN, visited the site, was saddened at the disrepair and began work to raise money and get government support, according to an account in "To Illuminate the Dark Space", the collection of oral histories by EDWARDS. WILSON contacted CHILDERS, who was with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources at the time. The restoration began in 1980. Ten years later, the Outer Banks Conservationists, formed by WILSON, leased the grounds from the U.S. Coast Guard and began charging a fee for visitors to climb the lighthouse. The fees help with further restoration and maintaining services. Up to 900 people a day come to the lighthouse during the height of the season.
Old lighthouses and the people who lived and worked with them are in vogue now. "Suddenly, you know, people realized that here was something that was going to be gone one of these days," said Dorothy Gaskill SULLIVAN to her sister Erline Gaskill WHITE in a conversation recorded by EDWARDS in July. SULLIVAN and WHITE are the daughters of former lighthouse keeper Lloyd Vernon GASKILL.
"And they compare our lighthouses to Europe's castles," WHITE said.
"Yeah," SULLIVAN said.
"That's our big deal," WHITE said.
"Suddenly everybody's into lighthouses," SULLIVAN said. "People look at me like, 'You're a lighthouse keeper's daughter?' I say, 'Yeah'. And they look at you like you're . . . you're either some sort of insect or you're royalty or something."
© 2004 Kay Midgett Sheppard