Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-03-16.
History of the Roanoke River Lighthouse
The Roanoke River starts in Lafayette, Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and terminates in the Albemarle Sound near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Near that termination point sits the town of Plymouth.
Plymouth was founded in 1787 by Arthur Rhodes on one-hundred acres. Rhodes subdivided the acreage into 172 lots of which only 16 sold. He ended the planned development in 1790 and sold off the remaining lots to nine trustees with the exception of several lots which he kept for himself.
That same year, the North Carolina General Assembly named the town a "Port of delivery" with its own customs house and by 1805 it was named a "port of entry," one of only six in the state. Goods from the largely rural and agricultural areas upriver such as tobacco, tar, rice, and turpentine were floated down the river on flatboats and offloaded at Plymouth. From there, they were loaded on schooners bound for the West Indies.
The port of entry at Plymouth had proximity to the Atlantic Ocean; however, it was inland enough to be protected. This recipe proved successful for the town's continued to grow in the early 1800s. It reached the rank of ninth in population amongst towns.
Shipping traffic continued to increase in the area. On February 6, 1832, William Biddle Shephard petitioned the House of Representatives for a lighthouse at the mouth of the Roanoke River. It would take a couple of years, but on June 30, 1834, Congress appropriated $10,000 "For a light-boat to be anchored at a proper place at or the mouth of Roanoke River."
The following year, a three-masted, twelve-ton wooden-hulled lightship designated "MM" was placed into service about two miles from the mouth of the Roanoke River. The fixed white light displayed from a height of 41 feet above sea level and was visible from eleven-miles.
Example of what the 1866 lighthouse would have looked like.
The vessel served the post until April of 1861 when the south seceded from the union. The Confederate States government in Richmond assumed control of all lighthouses and navigational aids in the area and appointed Joseph Ramsey to the Roanoke River Lightship. In September of that year, Ramsey hired a steamboat to tow the lightship upriver to Williamston to prevent Union ships from using it as a navigational aid. It was later scuttled; however, the Union had no idea where, so they were never able to recover it.
With the vessel gone, a new lighthouse was constructed at the mouth of the Roanoke River in 1866. A screw-pile design, a style popular to the Chesapeake Bay area, was employed. Constructed was a one-and-one-half storey square cottage with a lantern on the roof, set atop a wooden piles screwed into the river bottom.
Disaster struck on March 21, 1885 when the lighthouse was destroyed by fire. As the station was deemed important by the Lighthouse Board, the dwelling and lantern for the new Croatan Shoal Lighthouse were used to speed up the replacement. Reconstruction started in July, and by August 15, 1885, the light was re-exhibited.
The lighthouse wouldn't stand post long. In January of 1886, the new lighthouse was knocked off its pilings by large chunks of floating ice. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1886 had the following entry:
406. Roanoke River, near the mouth of Roanoke River, North Carolina - The rebuilding of the frame superstructure upon the foundation of the old house was commenced July 13 and completed ready for the lens on July 30, and on August 15 the light was again exhibited. In January a heavy run of ice struck the foundation, breaking the connection of the cast-iron sleeves with the upper columns and shoving the house from its supports, so that it rested on one side about 18 inches above the water-line, and on the opposite side about 18 inches under the water. The structure is still in about the same condition. The light is furnished by a Western-river lens which was placed in position by the lampist soon after the accident. As soon as the necessary funds are available steps will be taken to rebuild the light-house.
After being damaged by ice in the January of 1886, a new lighthouse was needed. Plans for a new two-storey dwelling with an attached tower were drawn up in July of 1886, and put out to bid in September. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1886 had the following detailed entry:
413. Roanoke River, near the mouth of Roanoke River, Albemarle Sound, North Carolina - In July plans were made for a new structure to replace the one damaged beyond repair by the ice in January, 1886, bids were invited for furnishing the necessary materials, and contracts were made in September. The framing of the superstructure at the Lazaretto depot was completed in November. A pile-driver 50 feet high, for use at the site, was also constructed during that time. The tenders left Baltimore on December 3, with part of the material in tow upon scows. The iron-work for the foundation was loaded on a hired barge at Fort Monroe, and the vessels arrived at Edenton on the 17th, where the materials on the barge were stored until needed. The piles for the construction-platform, which were delivered in rafts at Edenton by the contractor, were towed to the site, the pile-driver scow was placed in position, and the driving of the piles commenced. The platform was in place and nine of the foundation piles were driven by the end of December, and on January 10, the rest of the piles were in position. The superstructure was completed, with the exception of the painting, on February 12, when the new station was put in charge of the keepers, and two workmen left to finish the painting. The old station was, meanwhile, removed, such portions being saved as would be useful in future constructions. The new light-house is a square frame structure, with a tower at one of the corners, on which the lantern is placed. The substructure is of iron, resting on 24 wooden piles, driven 8 feet apart and cut off at low-water mark. The iron-work is a part of the material originally purchased for a proposed buoy-depot wharf at Fort Monroe. The light is fixed white of the fourth order.
The two-story structure with attached tower was put to use in 1887 and would serve until its deactivation due to declining river traffic in 1941. The lighthouse continued to sit abandoned off shore for several years until the government put it up for sale in 1955.
Elijah Tate, a local waterman and former Lighthouse Service employee from Coinjock, NC purchased three decommissioned lighthouses for $10.00 each. While Tate was moving the Roanoke Marsh Lighthouse, it slipped off the barge and ended up in Croatan Sound. The next lighthouse that he attempted to move was the Wade Point Lighthouse near the Pasquotank River. During heavy weather, it too ended up slipping off a barge.
Rather than attempting to move the final of the three lighthouses, he sold it to friend named Emmitt Wiggins who owned a marine salvage business. Wiggins used an old Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), a type of amphibious assault ship, to successfully move the lighthouse. It took Wiggins 36 hours to safely get the structure on the LCI, and then another 32 hours to move it across the sound where he placed it upon parcel of property near Filbert's Creek in Edenton. He then lived in the structure until his death in 1995.
In the early 1990s, local history buffs realized that it last remaining screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina. Rumor has it that Emmitt Wiggins wanted to turn it into a floating maritime museum, but the Port O' Plymouth Museum approached him and favored moving it to the waterfront in Edenton.
Wiggins agreed to sell the lighthouse to the museum, but died before signing the deed over. His heirs agreed to sell the lighthouse, but asked one million dollars for the dilapidated structure. The museum declined the acquisition and instead decided to move forward with the construction of a replica of the lighthouse.
The museum found the original plans for the 1866 lighthouse and in the fall of 2001 started construction of the replica. It took two years and $515,000 to finish. Inside the museum one will find history, photos, and local stories of the lifetime of the station as well as the maritime history of Plymouth. Another exciting facet of the Port O' Plymouth Museum is that the 1835 lightship was found in Roanoke River. Plans are afoot to procure the necessary funds to raise the ship and feature it at the museum.
By 2003, the original Roanoke River Lighthouse was abandoned and after weathering many storms including Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the structure was in poor condition. In 2007, the Edenton Historical Commission purchased the dilapidated structure for $225,000 and paid $75,000 to have it moved to Colonial Park in Edenton's waterfront. That move took place on May 23, 2007.
Once at the park, the exterior of the lighthouse was restored. Plans originally called for the lighthouse to stay on land, however complications arose and a new plan was devised to mount the lighthouse on pilings out over the water to show what it would have looked like when in Albemarle Sound. On May 1, 2012, the lighthouse was moved by steel rollers to its new home over the water. Plans to restore the interior of the lighthouse are now underway. Once restored, the fourth-order Fresnel lens made by E. Barbier and Co. of Paris will be re-installed into the lantern.
Please note that this is the original 1887 Roanoke River Lighthouse. It is not to be confused with the 1866 Roanoke River Lighthouse replica that is operated as a museum in Plymouth, North Carolina.
Also to confuse the matter more, there was a Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse that once stood in Croatan Sound near Roanoke Island. This lighthouse was accidentally destroyed in 1955 when an attempt was made to move it. There is a replica of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse on the waterfront in Manteo, North Carolina.
- Lighthouses of the Carolinas - A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- "Roanoke River Lighthouse Replica to be Built," Jeremy D'Entremont, Lighthouse Digest, February 2001.
- "Roanoke River Lighthouse is Moved," Timothy Harrison, Lighthouse Digest, July 2007.
- Edenton Lighthouse website.
- Roanoke River Lighthouse & Maritime Museum website.
- Visit Plymouth NC website.
- Edenton Historical Commission website.
- Visit Edenton website.
Directions: The lighthouse was moved in the summer of 2007. It now sits on the grounds of Colonial Park in Edenton, NC. It is currently being restored as part of a community initiative.
Access: Grounds are open. Tower is closed. More information is available at edentonlighthouse.org.
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