THE COMMUNITY OF Cedar Island is another location in Carteret County that deserves a North Carolina state historical marker … to designate “John Day’s Ditch” that connects West Bay to Rumley Bay in the extreme northeastern tip of the Down East portion of the county.
The NC Highway Historical Marker Program should plant one of its famous “history on a stick” signs on Hwy 12 near the John Day’s Ditch Bridge that crosses over the ditch.
The story goes like this: John Jarvis Day was a wealthy sea captain who bought land on Cedar Island, intent on raising cattle – up to 1,000 head of cattle. The cattle were prone to invade neighbors’ gardens, however.
Day considered building a wire fence but calculated that a ditch would be a more practical solution to contain the cattle, given the salty air environment. In 1927, he hired a man and his three sons to dig a straight-as-an-arrow, 6-foot wide ditch from bay to bay, a distance of more than two miles.
However, since both ends of the ditch are open to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the sea has over time stretched the width of the ditch to 40 or more feet in places, according to John Green, whose blog is known as “Southern Greens.”
Cedar Island is home to the largest marsh on the East Coast, and it is termed “world-class” by geologists – among the most productive habitats in the world for marine life, birds and other critters.
More than 270 species of birds live on Cedar Island or stop over during migration seasons, ranging from osprey to wrens. The black rails love the black needlerush vegetation. These are very secretive birds that rarely flush, preferring to slink and dart through the grass like (and as quiet as) a mouse.
Carteret County’s most celebrated storyteller and historian Rodney Kemp says: “Cedar Island is not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”
You can meet Kevin Keeler, the man with boots on the ground at the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, which spans about 15,000 acres and is maintained by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Keeler has worked with Dr. John Weske, a renowned ornithologist (scientific study of birds) with the US Geological Survey, on bird banding programs involving terns and brown pelicans. Keeler has earned the reputation of being a bit of a “tern whisperer.”
“The trick is that you’ve got to find the tern that does the talking, the one who is the leader, and look it straight in the eye and let it know who’s boss,” he said.
The refuge office is now located at a former US Navy facility off Lola Road at Cedar Island. The Navy occupied the site as a key radar tracking station for a time during the Cold War, because the views looking east to south are unobstructed. The 30-foot Navy tower is still there, serving as a navigational aid to local mariners.
“We welcome visitors,” Keeler says. “If the door’s unlocked, come on in. I’ll put your name in my monthly report.”
Yet to come: The Promise Land.
By Mike Wagoner, President
Carteret County Chamber of Commerce