A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Prologue We climbed slowly the tower’s 220 steps not long before sunset, surrounded all the way up by its 650,000 bricks laid in one-to-three common bond, led by 19-year veteran

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Prologue We climbed slowly the tower’s 220 steps not long before sunset, surrounded all the way up by its 650,000 bricks laid in one-to-three common bond, led by 19-year veteran

Under the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Currituck Beach Lighthouse Lantern Room


We climbed slowly the tower’s 220 steps not long before sunset, surrounded all the way up by its 650,000 bricks laid in one-to-three common bond, led by 19-year veteran Currituck Beach Lighthouse Site Manager Meghan Agresto. “You can touch anything metal but nothing glass,” she said as she installed my wife, Ann, and me inside of the hollow first-order Fresnel lens at the 162-foot pinnacle. The lens was made in France and tested first in Parisian tunnels, shipped to New York and reassembled and tested again on Staten Island, then shipped down the East Coast. It was brought into Currituck Sound by way of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, all the glass and brass parts that, when assembled, would make up this polygon measuring six feet in diameter and standing just shy of 10 feet tall.

Meghan seated us on little green steps, surrounded by the lens’s small prismatic arcs that make up its whole circumference, warning us gently that we might become dizzy, as many do, from all the refracting and reflecting prisms around us. Yet I sensed that some might feel even more a sense of wonder, almost hypnotized.

Winding staircase of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Like its architectural prototype at Bodie Island, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was outfitted with marble floors, a spiral staircase, and semicircular landings to stop and rest on the way up. photograph by Tommy White

We were still inside of this tower’s great eye at the very moment — five minutes after sundown — when its light suddenly came on, a small source no larger than a stack of half a dozen quarters, yet projecting its vision and casting its brightness 18 nautical miles seaward, while allowing some of its surplus out soundward from the lower, western portion of the lens.

So there we were, with 50,000 candlepower — a whole lot of candles — not two feet away from our heads.

Mariners way out on the deep blue sea, duck hunters in skiffs and blinds on the sound, travelers on the Wright Memorial Bridge where the waters of Currituck flow into those of the Albemarle and, closer, from the sound waters between Pine Island and the Narrows Island Club — many people of an evening and a night can see this light emanating from the last brick lighthouse to be put up on the Carolina coast.

And the spindle’s eye of Currituck Beach Lighthouse, looking out over hundreds of square miles, can also see them.

• • •


Currituck Beach Lighthouse’s inaugural lighting came on the first day of December 1875, at once filling in a long-feared dark spot halfway between Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia and Bodie Island Lighthouse in the plains of marsh above Oregon Inlet. For just shy of a century and a half since, the light has had an 18-mile, unimpeded view of the ocean and its never-settled world.

The bark Nuova Ottavia, a small Italian sailing ship, wrecked on March 1, 1876 — three months to the day after Currituck Beach Lighthouse first shined — straight out on the seabeach before the lighthouse, pushed in by a southeast wind.

U.S. Life-Saving Station Jones Hill, just north of the light, responded at once, according to Outer Banks historian James Charlet, launching in heavy surf. But soon, oars, then the surfboat, then bodies came floating back in — and all of the surfmen of Jones Hill were lost. The bark itself was splintered by the next afternoon, simply vanishing, one big piece of her stern turning up down at Kitty Hawk. Only four Italian mariners from the doomed ship survived, and they told of how the Jones Hill station’s surfboat came under the ship’s bow and was swamped.

Since 1875, the light has had an unimpeded view of the ocean and its never-settled world.

Well worth noting: Though not their charge, Currituck Beach Lighthouse’s superintendent of construction, its clerk, and 20 other men — still working on the new structure — also rushed out onto the beach to help with the rescue efforts.

So it began, not the roll of untold thousands of ships that the light has steered away from the Carolina shoals and saved, but rather those few it could not, dozens coming in along its range — 18 miles to its north and 18 miles to its south — in its first 50 years or so. One month to the day after Nuova Ottavia’s wreck, the schooner Henry G. Fay wrecked three miles south of Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the ship and cargo of logs a total loss.

Many of the ships lost in this range of space and time were schooners, though Nuova Ottavia was hardly the only one of her kind. The bark Harkaway wrecked out here in 1885, bark Vibilia in 1891, and bark Oriente in 1907. A pair of barges also fell to the unpitying sea: the N. Boynton in 1889 and the William H. Macy in 1915.

Black and white illustration of the Metropolis World War I ship lost at sea off the coast of Currituck

Metropolis illustration by Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-107250

Yet, before World War I, only one steamer.

And Metropolis was her name.

A Union blockader during the Civil War, by 1878 she was an enlarged, poorly kept merchant ship, and when she came in on January 31, she was wallowing in heavy seas, her cargo of long steel rails for a Brazilian railroad shifting hideously belowdecks. The captain steered toward land, grounding her on the outer bar three miles below the light, at a loss of vessel, freight, and 85 lives.

Metropolis’s wreck came hard upon the deaths of 98 sailors in the wreck of the USS Huron at Nags Head only a couple of months earlier and made a compelling case to the federal government. Having already built the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Congress now acted to place more U.S. Life-Saving stations along the Carolina coast, to shorten the distances between them — from 10 to 15 miles apart to about half that — and to lengthen their seasons of operation.

Yet we must remember: On most nights of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse’s first half-century, as ever since, ships have floated freely, miles out on the ocean’s horizon, because the light tendered them its beam and saw them safely by.

• • •


Though the full power of this light has always aimed seaward, on the soundward side, its glow has seen the late fall arrival of ducks and geese by the thousandfold, so thick that they darkened the Currituck Sound skies, giving the county, the banks, and even the light their names: Currituck, from the Algonquian Indian word Coratank, “where the wild geese fly.”

The light was under construction when the epic East Coast paddler Nathaniel Bishop floated down Currituck Sound in late 1874, noting in his classic book Voyage of the Paper Canoe, “Clouds of ducks, and some Canada geese, as well as brant, kept up a continuous flutter as they rose from the surface of the water.” Naturalist H.H. Brimley wrote in “Old Times on Currituck” of estimating a “line of flocks” of Canada geese in the 1880s at “well above the ten thousand mark.”

The lighthouse’s glow has seen the arrival of ducks and geese by the thousandfold.

When federal law closed down market-hunting in 1918, the light watched over the sporting side of things. The Currituck Shooting Club, Pine Island Club, and Monkey Island Club, just a few marsh islands away, had been around for years. Then magazine mogul Joseph Palmer Knapp invested in 7,000 marshy acres at Mackay Island in 1918, building a hunting lodge reminiscent of Mount Vernon. Here, he envisioned increasing North American waterfowl stocks by breeding them, his More Game Birds in America growing into one of the most successful wildlife conservation groups ever: Ducks Unlimited.

The eye of the great light saw all that, too, including the coming of the palatial, 21,000-square-foot Art Nouveau Corolla Island hunting club (later the Whalehead Club), built in the early 1920s by Marie and Edward Knight Jr., almost right at the watchtower’s feet.

Poet James Seay and I once came to see Whalehead and the light. We slipped along over Currituck Sound at dusk in his 13-foot Boston Whaler from Waterlily to Monkey Island to spend a few days there in June 1984, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

At night, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse illuminates Historic Corolla Park, which includes Whalehead Club

The lighthouse’s neighbors in Historic Corolla Park include the grand, 1920s-era Whalehead Club, as well as the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and the Currituck Maritime Museum. photograph by Emily Chaplin

Whalehead proved to be a ruin, largely abandoned and having faced the elements for 25 years. We slowly walked through this Currituck castle, touching the worn keys on its wreck of a Steinway grand, which still had enough action to make haunting sounds like something out of the horror film Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Considering the state that the old pile was in back then, its modern restoration is breathtaking.

We strode on, laying our hands upon the rusty-red bricks of Currituck Beach Lighthouse — all we could do, so locked-up tight was the spindle and so overgrown were its grounds. Over on the seabeach, we let the Atlantic and the light take stock of us, and then, through curtains of rain, we boated back to Monkey Island. That evening, the lighthouse eyed us as we recalled all the hunters who had once been out here, returning to camp from the marsh blinds, freezing yet exhilarated beyond belief, my young father among them.

Perhaps Jim and I spoke that evening of how jealously the marsh guards of those old hunt clubs protected their territories. One of those marsh guards, the Pine Island Club’s St. Clair Lewark, was arrested and tried for shooting over the waters of Ark Cove and mortally wounding a young goose-hunting mainlander, Durwood Gallop, with a shot through the side of Gallop’s boat just after sunset on Thanksgiving Day 1920.

Though Gallop swore on his deathbed that Lewark had shot him, a Currituck jury in the spring of 1921 — upon hearing Lewark’s testimony with an alibi that he was nowhere near the scene — acquitted Lewark.

How could the lighthouse not have seen what really transpired that tragic Thanksgiving dusk? Even the light’s great vision had its limits, and the moment may simply have fallen outside its soundward shine. The real truth behind this where-the-wild-geese-fly mystery from more than a century ago may have gotten lost in shadow, in an umbral darkness in its own time.

• • •

A Benediction

The sea has forever had its unfathomable rhythms and turns of course, its eternal secrets, yet sometimes that which has been long obscured may be revealed again. In early 2022, out on Currituck Beach three miles south of Corolla, the light again saw a section of decking — possibly from Metropolis — unsanded by a nor’easter and graciously awaiting a handful of maritime archaeologists from East Carolina University to measure and speculate over.

Was this really Metropolis, a piece of her, back under the spindle’s eye after who knew how long? ECU researcher Matthew Pawelski judged it “likely” though not “conclusively” so. If the lighthouse knew and could tell, it did not speak, and in the balance between seeing yet not telling hung both straight-up fact and incalculable mystery.

Flotsam at the Ray Midgett site in Corolla, potentially decking from the Metropolis

According to researchers from East Carolina University, flotsam at the Ray Midgett site — named for the beachcomber who discovered it — may be decking from the steamer Metropolis, which wrecked three miles from the Currituck lighthouse in 1878. photograph by Caleb O’Brien, Courtesy of ECU/Matthew Pawelski

We cannot help but admire this tower, though, and far be it from us mere mortals to believe we can divine all that the tall, silent spindle has taken in during its time here, baked by the sun, sand-blasted by the winds, touched by sea spray, mists, and driving rains, by mild breezes and hurricane torrents alike, with the endless Milky Way, on fair nights, vaulting above it all.

The light is a marker, a monument, a cautionary tale. In a capricious world, it is abiding, steady, impartial, and clear, set in place with great faith, like the bright-shining, all-seeing eye atop the pyramid on our dollar’s reverse side, annuit cœptis: “Providence favors our undertakings.”

Nothing is negative, destructive, or martial about this solid spire — its purpose is entirely altruistic, positive, a creation of admonition and hope through all seasons.

View of Whalehead from the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

As the community of Corolla has grown, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse has remained a vital part of the landscape, inspiring a shared sense of ownership among villagers. Photography courtesy of Currituck Outer Banks Tourism

May Providence have mercy on the mariner, upon all who see and must believe in this light.

May those at the offshore helms trust it and be guided by the captain’s sight of it.

May the very sight of the spindle’s three-second flash out of 20 help warn and steer all the coastwise ships as they go sailing up and down our long strand of sandy banks to their homeports and harbors, and may our gratitude and respect be with all who built and all who have maintained to this day the bright, ever-watchful eye of Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse
1101 Corolla Village Road
Corolla, NC 27927
(252) 453-4939

This story was published on May 14, 2024

Bland Simpson

Bland Simpson is the author of The Coasts of Carolina: Seaside to Sound Country, Into the Sound Country, The Inner Islands, and North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky. A longtime member of the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers, he regularly appears on UNC-TV’s “Our State.” He is Kenan Distinguished professor of English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.