by Julie Ann Powers

Its first mission, as a pump house, was to vanquish Lake Mattamuskeet. Its second, as a waterfowl hunting lodge, was to take from the lake's bounty. Now, the 82-year old Mattamuskeet Lodge has been cast in a third relationship with its environment: to protect and preserve the biological wonderland around it. And this role has saved the striking structure itself from destruction.

After sitting empty and decaying for two decades, the lodge still has plenty of peeling paint and chipped plaster. Nevertheless, the building is at work as a university research field station and environmental education center. The lodge also has resumed its place as the premier community gathering spot. Its neighbors couldn't be happier to see this eminence of Hyde County history find a future. The lodge, with its red-tiled roof and tall blue-and-white-striped tower, holds a place in the hearts of most local residents. A few remember its pump house days; many more recall when it was open for guests and events.

"There's hardly a person in Hyde County who doesn't remember a wedding reception or a prom here," says Annette Gibbs, a lifelong lakeside resident who danced as her own senior prom in the lodge's great hall. "It was heartbreaking to see it closed. You didn't even want to go past it."

The lodge shut down in 1974 and steadily declined until a cooperative rescue effort brought it new purpose. In addition to environmental research and education facilities, the lodge someday will house U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices.

Though a massive makeover has just begun, Gibbs, now the lodge coordinator, conducts tours and oversees the lodge's increasingly busy events calendar.

"I'm in love with my job," she says. "I've lived here all my life. I'm in love with the lake. I'm in love with the lodge."

Even under duress, Mattamuskeet Lodge is an unforgettable presence. A 12-story observation tower, topped with a flying goose weather vane, resembles a lighthouse, and the white building capped by its red roof, a grand manor. The central three-story section is flanked by smaller wings on either side, and the building is set against a backdrop of lush greenery. The quiet canal waters that form the lodge's front lawn and back yard mirror the tableau.

Inside, the dim corridors and many dusty rooms awaiting refurbishing still seem to emit faint echoes of their past vibrancy.

The work in progress is renovation, Gibbs stresses, not restoration.

"We have two histories, so it's hard to say 'restore,"' she explains. Owned by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, Mattamuskeet Lodge could not feasibly recreate its past personas.

When the building debuted in 1916 as a pump house, it contained gargantuan machinery that succeeded in draining Lake Mattamuskeet. This was not small task, as Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina. It covers more than 50,000 acres, though its depth averages only 2 feet.

Framed by woodlands and fringed by marshes, the lake's glimmering expanse is a watery magnet for migratory birds and other creatures. In winter, flocks of snow geese and tundra swans turn the water white in places. The swans' low whistles harmonize with the calls of geese and ducks in a winter symphony. Herons, egrets, eagles, peregrine falcons, black bears, otters and white-tailed deer are among the many wild animals that also abide in Mattamuskeet's wild embrace.

Whether enshrouded in morning mist or ablaze with a red and gold sunset, the lake emanates a sense of timelessness and a wisp of mystery. The story if its origin has been lost to the eons that have since passed.

The word "Mattamuskeet" is though to have roots in an Algonquain word for "dry dust." An Algonquain legend attributes the shallow lake bed formation to a long-burning peat fire. Other theories suggest wind and water created the depression or a meteorite shower pounded it into the soil.

Filled by rainwater and runoff, Mattamuskeet has no natural outlet. Attempts to empty it and farm the rich bottom soil began with the arrival of the first European settlers. Mattamuskeet was twice its current size until the 1830s, when a drainage canal and gravity reduced the lake to its present dimensions.

The canal was commissioned by the predecessor to the state Board of Education. As its financing mechanism for public schools, the board owned the lake, as it did all swamplands. The board and local landowners were planning to pump out the water remaining in the lake's lowest portion when private investors offered to take the project off their hands. The deal was done in 1911. The audacious idea of draining a lake was not original - it had been inspired by a similar, and successful, project in Holland. The North Carolina group adopted the name New Holland Farms for the undertaking.

New Holland Farms built the pump house and 130 miles of canals and, in 1916, switched on the world's largest pumping project. Powered by four coal-fired steam engines, the eight centrifugal pumps could move 1.2 million gallons of water per minute. Canals took the water seven miles south to Pamlico Sound. A model development was envisioned for the newly dry lake bed, with houses and farms fanning out from the pump house.

The first - and, as it turned out, the only - of four planned towns to be created was called New Holland. The town in some ways fulfilled its great expectations. Its 125 residents had running water, electricity and telephones in the early 1920s before the rest of the county. A shipping line on the canals and a railroad through the dry lake bed connected it to the world, while unpaved county roads were often impassable. New Holland had shops, a post office and the New Holland Inn.

But the investors themselves were not faring so well. Problems with the pumps and canals caused the lake to partially refill, and the resulting money troubles forced the first group to sell in 1918. The next owners went bankrupt five years later. The third owners forewent further colonization efforts to concentrate on commercial farming. They cultivated more than 12,000 acres of corn, wheat, flax and soybeans with record-breaking yields.

Then, in 1932, they shut off the pumps, and the water reclaimed the fields and streets. The owners had decided to sell the land to the federal government for a wildlife sanctuary. With the creation of what is now Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in 1934, a second lustrous era for the building began. The Civilian Conservation Corps - "the army without guns" - arrived, and the employment program's young workers converted the cavernous pump house into guest quarters and dining facilities. They trimmed the 125-foot smokestack to 112 feet and installed a spiral staircase to make an observation tower.

Mattamuskeet Lodge opened in 1937 with 10 rooms. The lodge was an immediate success with goose hunters, and nine more rooms opened in 1941. More than 150,000 Canada geese wintered on Lake Mattamuskeet then. The water was also thick with snow geese, swans and dozens of species of duck.

The lodge became the center of Hyde County hospitality, the setting for parties and proms. Not all of its guests were hunters. One who later became famous was Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring launched the national environmental movement. Carson began her career as a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service writer. She stayed at the lodge while composing a pamphlet about the refuge and told friends how she enjoyed the "constant, haunting music of the geese."

But the music faded in the 1960s as migratory patterns changed. The Canada goose flock dropped to about 20,000; today the average is about 6,000. The refuge was closed to goose hunting in 1974. The lodge, too, shut down and quickly slid into disrepair. Some say only its 1980 listing on the National Register of Historic Places prevented its demolition.

"When I got here, the building was a disgrace to the agency," say Donald Temple, refuge manager since 1989. "We were getting a lot of criticism."

It wasn't that the wildlife service didn't care about the building, he says, There simply wasn't enough money for both it and necessary wildlife projects. "You had to make some hard decisions," he says. As Temple and other began marshaling action within the service, community commitment, too, was growing. An emotional 1989 reunion brought together former new Holland residents, CCC members and others associated with the lodge, fueling the sentiment to save it. The Friends of Mattamuskeet Lodge Committee formed through the Greater Hyde County Chamber of Commerce and, with the federal wildlife service, sponsored work bees that attracted large and determined crowds of volunteers who pulled down vines, cleared brush, picked up trash, swept away dust, scraped old paint and plaster, painted and performed other cleanup duties. Scientists at East Carolina University in Greenville, drawn by the area's unexplored natural resources, proposed using the lodge as a research station. Political forces became interested.

Before long, ideas to put the lodge back to work as a research center and wildlife service office took shape. Studies deemed the building structurally sound, and with a trickles of state, local and federal money, the immense rehabilitation began. The work got a boost when the Partnership for the Sounds coalesced in 1993. The nonprofit group promotes ecotourism and environmental education as an economic base for the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula. In an agreement with the federal wildlife service, the partnership set as a priority renovating the lodge for environmental education, field research, wildlife service offices and community functions. The partnership money, from state appropriations, further increased momentum.

"They have really been the key to getting some things done," refuge manager Temple says.

The partnership also funds the lodge coordinator position. Meanwhile, the wildlife service forged an agreement with ECU on the lodge's east wing. The university's Field Station for Coastal Studies at Mattamuskeet opened in 1996, with 16 beds in six dormitory rooms and modest laboratory facilities. The rooms overlook tree-lined canals and are stocked with some of the sturdy cypress furnishings fashioned by the CCC. The station has since hosted not only ECU students, but scholars from universities as far away as Arizona and from a dozen environmental organizations.

"It's really opened this area up to research and environmental education opportunities," says ECU's Roger Rulifson, the field station director, who invested countless hours of elbow grease in reading the rooms. "It's kind of hard to work out of a hotel room with a microscope."

The agreements specify that the lodge's public areas are available for functions, and its popularity as a social setting is one glory of its past the lodge can revive. Its great hall, with an enormous fireplace and high ceiling, is impressive despite showing its age. Civic leaders hope the concerts, receptions and parties it once again hosts will imprint the lodge on young people, as it did their parents.

"And it'll go on and on," says Steve Bryan, executive director of the county chamber of commerce. Since its rebirth, the lodge has attracted an increasing number of tourists.

"When people find out that that building was built as the world's largest pumping station, they're just in awe," Bryan says. "And they want to go deeper."

Though the lodge is in use, the renovation has just begun. The west wing, which will house offices for three area wildlife refuges, has hardly been touched. So far, the old building has soaked up about $1 million.

"But it doesn't show," says lodge coordinator Gibbs.

The money, from the partnership and local, state and federal sources, has gone into fire escapes, lights. plumbing, heating and other largely hidden necessities. Future improvements should be more visible, albeit slow to appear. They will take at least five years.

"Realistically it will probably be more like 10," Gibbs says.

And it will be expensive. As envisioned, to finish the renovation and complete a museum and nature trails, the work is expected to cost $7 million. Partnership for the Sounds plans a fund-raising campaign later this year, but Hyde County's sparse population regularly registers near the bottom on the state per capita income scale. Still, supporters are hopeful the funds will come forth from the region and beyond for the beloved building.

"I think it's the one thing that unites our county," Gibbs says. "You can have your little differences here and there. But everybody agrees on the lodge. Everybody wants to see it fixed up."

Mattamuskeet Lodge is accessible from U. S. 264 and N. C. 94 in Hyde County. Follow the signs for Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Mattamuskeet Lodge is open 9 a. m. to 4 p. m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p. m. to 5 p. m. Sunday.

Friends of Mattamuskeet Lodge plans to open a gift shop in the lodge this summer. Renovation of the entrance hall and other construction work will take place during July and August. The lodge will be closed for events but remain open for visitors most days - visitors can call ahead to check. For more information or to schedule tours, call lodge coordinator Annette Gibbs at 252- 926-1422.

(Reprinted courtesy of Julie Ann Powers and of Coastwatch, a bimonthly magazine of North Carolina Sea Grant.)

Copyright  1999

Return to Hyde County Home Page