A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Clouds hang low over Edenton Bay, casting the waterfront in a hazy blue hue. In the dim afternoon light, the red roof of the Roanoke River Lighthouse is striking. The

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Clouds hang low over Edenton Bay, casting the waterfront in a hazy blue hue. In the dim afternoon light, the red roof of the Roanoke River Lighthouse is striking. The

Edenton’s Landmark Light

Clouds hang low over Edenton Bay, casting the waterfront in a hazy blue hue. In the dim afternoon light, the red roof of the Roanoke River Lighthouse is striking. The last screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina — and one of the last square-style screw-pile lighthouses in the United States — rests securely above the water on steel-capped wooden piles that have been screwed into the muddy bay bottom. Trimmed in dark green shutters, the building looks more like a quaint cottage than a beacon that guided ships during the height of maritime commerce in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a vestige of a way of life that would’ve surely been forgotten had it not been for the efforts of people like honorary lighthouse keeper Madison Phillips Jr.

With keys in hand, Phillips, 79, makes his way up the ramp that’s attached to the historic structure that’s he’s had a relationship with for most of his life. As a teenager, he mowed the grass around the lighthouse that Emmett Wiggins converted into a private residence after it was decommissioned in 1941. Phillips unlocks the “front door,” which faces the water, and explains how the interior used to look when Wiggins lived here.

Madison Phillips Jr and the Roanoke River Lighthouse

Madison Phillips Jr. has a connection to the Roanoke River Lighthouse that extends back to his days mowing the grass around the lighthouse-turned-home as a teenager. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

On the first and second floors of the lighthouse, there were two rooms and a hallway. In Wiggins’s day, there was a kitchen and living room on the first floor and bedrooms on the second. Wiggins installed linoleum flooring in the kitchen, but otherwise, the floor of every other room was covered in yellow shag carpeting. “People from the ’60s remember shag carpet,” Phillips says, smiling. Other additions Wiggins made included closets and a bathroom that he built off the second-floor hallway — the outline of where the bathtub sat is still visible.

Wiggins also nailed a metal sign to the back door that warned against disturbing property that belongs to the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The pride Wiggins had for his home was evident. Although becoming a residence wasn’t the structure’s intended purpose, Wiggins’s efforts likely saved it from meeting the same fate as most of the other river lighthouses in the state.

• • •

Wiggins was a man with many titles: Marine, tugboat operator, salvage diver, and aviator. In the 1950s, when the U.S. Coast Guard put three lighthouses on Albemarle Sound up for sale to anyone who could move them, Wiggins proved that he was the only man for the job. Although Elijah Tate of Coinjock bought all three lighthouses for $10 each, he lost two of them in the sound while trying to move them. Likely discouraged, Tate sold the last one, the Roanoke River Lighthouse, to Wiggins. Using a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) — a large ship widely used for amphibious assault during World War II — Wiggins knocked out most of the lighthouse’s pilings, sunk the LCI until it fit under the structure, pumped the water out of the LCI so it came up under the sills of the house so that it rested on the barge, and sailed it to Edenton. He then moved it to the Albania neighborhood on the west side of town. For a man who spent most of his life on the water, living in a lighthouse seemed to make sense to Wiggins.

The Roanoke River Lighthouse in its original location near Plymouth in the 19th century

The Roanoke River Lighthouse was originally stationed near Plymouth in the 19th century. Photography courtesy of Historic Edenton, State Historic Site

In the late ’80s, Wiggins expressed interest in selling the lighthouse. His hope was that it would become a floating museum, traveling by barge between Windsor and Plymouth — the town it was originally stationed closest to. For more than a decade, he negotiated a sale with Plymouth town officials and the Plymouth Historical Society, which wanted to transform the lighthouse into an interpretive center for the Port o’Plymouth Museum on their waterfront. Finally, in 1995, Wiggins agreed to sell the lighthouse, but before he could sign the papers, he died. When his heirs increased the price to a million dollars, Plymouth walked away from the deal. The Roanoke River Lighthouse seemed destined for ruin.

• • •

After Wiggins’s death, the Roanoke River Lighthouse sat vacant for 12 years. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel tore off its porches and significantly damaged its roof. In 2007, Wiggins’s heirs agreed to sell the house to the Edenton Historical Commission for $225,000. The commission paid to have it moved to Colonial Park, but then the Great Recession stalled additional funding that was needed to restore the lighthouse. The building was sitting in the park when Phillips intervened.

He came by the lighthouse every day, opened windows to let in air, and cleaned it out a little bit at a time. One of the first things to go was Wiggins’s shag carpet.

One day, Phillips was pulling up the carpet when he felt a strong bump against his backside. He thought he must’ve run into the stairwell’s newel post, but when he turned around, nothing was behind him. “I just looked up at the ceiling and said, ‘All right Emmett,’ ” Phillips says. “And he didn’t bother me no more.” Then Phillips whispers, “But I was tearing up his yellow shag carpet.”

Fourth-order Fresnel Lens from the Historic Edenton State Historic Site inside the Roanoke River Lighthouse

For anyone curious how big a fourth-order Fresnel lens is, the Historic Edenton State Historic Site has one on loan from the U.S. Coast Guard. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

For three years, Phillips set up his ladder during the day and climbed up into the house to clean it out. At night, before going to bed, he’d swing by the park in his 2002 silver Chevy Blazer and check on the house again. Even though Phillips has lived in North Carolina his entire life, he’s never visited any of the state’s other lighthouses. “I’m not a follower of lighthouses,” he says. “I just did this to take care of this one. That’s what I do.”

In 2010, after additional state funding came through, Edenton decided to move the lighthouse back to its rightful place — the water. On the day before the big move, Phillips walked into every room of the house, talking to Wiggins’s ghost. “I said, ‘Emmett, leave these guys alone. They’re going to take care of it, and they’re going to treat it good,’ ” Phillips says. “And that move went perfect. Perfect.” The move didn’t mark the end of Phillips’s care for the house, though. Once it was on the water, he continued to drive by — almost daily — to check in on it.

The lighthouse's kitchen inside the Roanoke River Lighthouse

The lighthouse’s kitchen cleaned up nicely — once the linoleum was removed. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

When the lighthouse was finally fully restored and opened to the public as a museum in 2014, Edenton presented Phillips with a certificate that named him honorary lighthouse keeper. He framed it using the glass from the kitchen door and wood from the baseboard.

The lantern room is his favorite part of the building. Many evenings before the lighthouse moved to its current location, he would eat supper in this room. Here, he — and anyone who tours the lighthouse — can imagine, for a moment, what life was like when keepers guided ships through the twists and turns of North Carolina’s waterways. Standing here looking out onto Edenton Bay sparkling in the sunlight, Phillips’ eyes seem to twinkle as he reflects on the history of the 138-year-old lighthouse. Then he says, quietly, “I want it to last forever.”

Roanoke River Lighthouse
7 Dock Street
Edenton, NC 27932
(252) 482-2637

Phillips holds framed photo of the Roanoke River Lighthouse

Phillips holds a 1910 photograph of the lighthouse, which shows contractors and the light crew on the porch preparing to make repairs to the then 13-year-old structure. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Roanoke River Lighthouse Timeline

1805: The Dismal Swamp Canal spurs construction of the Roanoke River Lighthouse.

1830s: Maritime traffic becomes so congested that Congress authorizes the stationing of a lightship in Albemarle Sound.

1867: After the Civil War, a lighthouse is installed at the mouth of the river, where it meets Albemarle Sound — one of about 15 screw-pile lighthouses along Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

1885: In March, the first Roanoke River Lighthouse burns down. Later that summer, a second lighthouse is placed near the same location, but it’s toppled by an ice floe several months later.

1887: In August, the third and final Roanoke River Lighthouse goes on station. Its fourth-order Fresnel lens holds a light that can be seen for 11 miles, its beacon flashing for half a second, every five seconds.

1941: Like most lighthouses, the Roanoke River Lighthouse is rendered obsolete by electricity. It closes and sits empty for nearly 20 years, until Emmett Wiggins makes it his home.

This story was published on May 14, 2024

Chloe Klingstedt

Chloe Klingstedt is an assistant editor at Our State magazine, a Texan by birth, and a North Carolinian at heart.