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, has found a new, permanent home in Edenton Bay’s harbor. It is here the stories of her past will be remembered and told for new generations.
The Roanoke River Basin
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 you 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. And so, our story now turns toward the light.
Fire and ice doom 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.
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 wouldn’t 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.
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.
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.