By Elizabeth DeVan
Solitary person – me. On a lonely lane for Off-Road Vehicles. But perhaps not lonely or solitary. I sense peace, freedom, a type of space not usually in my repertoire. Quiet noises only – cicadas, birds, distant ocean waves – not disturbing but natural. They belong here. I belong here. . . .
I just stopped on the path and turned to look 360 degrees around. The only things I see above the horizon are sea oats, the roof of a park shelter, some trees, the lighthouse in the distance, clouds in the sky. I see not one water tower, not one power line, not one microwave tower. Truly remote, truly solitary at this moment. No other person in sight right now. No sound of traffic, planes, or machinery.
I get to the beach, finally, a bit tired and hot. “Ramp 42A” No one is here but me. I see a few birds, the gentle waves, sea oats in the dunes, and sand, sand, sand. A few boats look small, anchored out in the distance.
Alone on the beach – this is like the end of the world. . . .
Or, is it the beginning of the world?
Almost 50 years ago, Cape Lookout National Seashore was created by Act of Congress. The law was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on March 10, 1966, authorizing the National Park Service to establish and develop the park on 29,000 acres of land, marsh and open water between Ocracoke Inlet and Beaufort Inlet.
The majestic jewel of the central North Carolina coast turns 50 in 2016.
Today, people in Carteret County think nothing of saying, “Let’s go to the Cape!” They enjoy the pristine beaches, see the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, the lighthouse and keepers‘ quarters; they fish, observe birds, breathe in the seascape. They experience the rarity of undeveloped, remote islands just a few miles from a busy mainland.
Other people travel short and long distances to visit Cape Lookout. Current superintendent of the park, Pat Kenney, estimates that half a million people visit each year. Because private boats – as well as ferries – bring visitors, an exact number is hard to determine.
“Part of the uniqueness of this place is that it’s hard to get there,” Kenney said. “You don’t just drive through the park. Some of the charm is the remote feeling you get. We’re a six-hour drive from Washington, D.C. Millions of people live within a day’s drive from here. Yet once you arrive here – you are really remote.”
People from all parts of North Carolina, and from all over the United States, own this place called Cape Lookout National Seashore together, because more than 50 years ago a few forward-looking people began to realize the value of preserving beautiful treasures which might otherwise be diminished or become inaccessible to the public.
As early as 1938, U.S. Interior Secretary Harold C. Ickes declared a need for more government-owned and managed seashores. Cape Hatteras National Seashore had just been authorized in 1937, but Ickes was aware that ocean-front properties, especially beaches, were likely to be privately owned more and more. Secretary Ickes noted that “people can no longer get to the ocean … I say it is the prerogative and duty of the federal and state governments to step in and acquire, not a swimming beach here and there, but solid blocks of oceanfront hundreds of miles in length. Call this oceanfront a national park, or a national seashore, or a state park or anything you please – I say the people have right to a fair share of it.”
The Wild Coast
Cape Lookout is accessible only by boat. There, people experience seashore and water and wind without distractions of human
developments such as shops, paved roads, condominiums, power lines or traffic noises. Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts, in their 2005 publication “Cape Lookout National Seashore: Exploring the History and Wild Coastal Beauty,” wrote “Standing at the edge of the ocean, the universe seems to hang in suspended animation. Time slips out to the far-away horizon and disappears beyond the breakers. We are, at that moment, part of nature, listening to a universal language.”
When asked about his favorite aspect of the Cape, author Carmine Prioli said, “It’s hard to pin it down to one or two things. I have to echo former park superintendent Bob Vogel, who said in a speech that it’s a combination of seascape, geography, geology, history and people. “Cape Lookout is a sacred place for locals – but also for me and my family – we’ve been going down there for 30 years. It will always be a part of my kids’ personal history, it’s in their genes now. It becomes rather metaphysical and spiritual. It’s a welcoming place, a challenging place, a hard place to live.”
Superintendent Kenney has noticed that “genetic” pull of Cape Lookout: “There is a ‘sense of place’ – people who come here regularly have it. One man brought his grandson to Cape Lookout recently, and told me this was the fifth generation of his family to come here. They’re from the Piedmont region of North Carolina. They come and fish, but it’s the time they spend here, more than the fishing, that draws them.”
Rene and Ed Burgess, residents of Burlington, have been volunteering at Portsmouth Village (at the north end of the park, just south of Ocracoke Island) for 15 years.
“We fell in love with the history and charm of Portsmouth,” they explained. Then, in January-February, 2006, they spent six weeks at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse to help watch over the buildings after they had been vacated by previous owners.
“Those six weeks were an awesome experience – walking the beach after storms, finding massive beds of shells … that the waves had brought ashore. Just listening to the wind as it howled around the keepers’ quarters and the light house was an unforgettable experience. At night we were overwhelmed by the number and clarity of the stars. They were so many and so thick, it was difficult to differentiate the common constellations we saw at home in Burlington.”
Cape Lookout National Seashore is not just about what we see or do now. It is also a place with a history and a cultural identity, both of which are valued and protected by the law of the land. Before 1500, Native Americans who called themselves the “Coree” tribe, were drawn to the bountiful fishing grounds of the Cape. They paddled boats on Core Sound (their namesake), the waters between the southern Outer Banks and the mainland.
In the 1500s, European explorers happened upon these barrier islands when they were looking for “a great western sea.” Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano actually mistook Pamlico Sound (north of Core Sound) for the start of the Pacific Ocean.
North Core Banks, referred to as Portsmouth Island by some, became the home of Portsmouth Village, chartered in 1753 by the North Carolina General Assembly. Portsmouth grew to be a thriving “lightering” village, where goods were taken off large ships coming across the Atlantic and stored or transferred to shallow draft boats for delivery to mainland seaports. After the Civil War, and the effects of storms and changing inlets, Portsmouth declined in size. Only three year-round residents remained when the seashore was authorized, and they left in 1971. There are still 20 buildings standing in what is left of Portsmouth Village; park staff and volunteers maintain some of the buildings and welcome visitors, while private leases are held for the remainder.
In 1812, the first Cape Lookout Lighthouse began shining a light to help seamen navigate the dangerous shoals near the Cape. The tower was 96 feet tall, and the light shone 104 feet above sea level. Even so, mariners complained that the light was not tall enough or bright enough to be seen 20 miles out to sea, and that they could run aground trying to locate it. A village grew near the lighthouse, made up of fishermen, U.S. Coast Guard personnel, U.S. Life-Saving Service employees, and others.
The present-day lighthouse began working in 1859, with a light shining 150-feet above mean high water. Its signature black and white diamond pattern was painted on in 1873. Among the villages that grew up west and north of the lighthouse was “Diamond City,” a busy fishing and whaling community on Shackleford Banks. Until 1933, South Core Banks and Shackleford were one contiguous island, connected at “The Drain,” a low area between the Cape and Shackleford that was covered by water during high tide. A strong hurricane in 1933 washed out The Drain, opening up what became known as Barden’s Inlet between South Core Banks and Shackleford.
Shackleford Banks is now considered a wilderness area (not yet designated by law, but proposed). It has no buildings left on it and is inhabited only by a legendary herd of wild horses, very likely descended from Spanish horses brought across the Atlantic by early explorers and mariners. Strong hurricanes in the 1890s took a toll on the people and terrain of Shackleford, eventually forcing everyone to move to mainland areas. Some people moved their houses to nearby Harkers Island, floating them in pieces atop two boats, then reconstructing them elsewhere. Other groups settled in Morehead City’s downtown Promise Land neighborhood and Salter Path along Hwy 58.
A major draw for visitors, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks are protected by law, and managed by a unique partnership between the National Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc., a nonprofit organization. They are “high-tech wild,” because they are managed carefully through genetic testing and immunocontraception to keep the herd size to 120-130, and to keep the horses genetically viable. But they are wild – visitors to the island are instructed to stay at least 50 feet away from the animals, (“Picture the length of a typical school bus,” Supt. Kenney suggests) in order to protect the horses and the visitors from each other.
Forming the Park
The state of North Carolina recognized the importance of preserving and protecting the southern Outer Banks, and in 1959 the legislators passed a resolution to establish an Outer Banks state park, just south of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Steps were then taken to purchase land on Core Banks and Portsmouth Island, and also at least enough of Shackleford Banks to include Barden’s Inlet.
State officials began to realize that the job of actually developing a state park on the Outer Banks would be more daunting than they realized, and beyond the financial capabilities of North Carolina. In 1963, the NC Seashore Park Commission requested the governor and the council of state to take what steps were necessary to transfer state-owned Outer Banks property to the National Park Service. With state and federal agencies working together, there would be funds for a proposed Cape Lookout National Seashore.
On Oct. 17, 1963, U.S. Senate Bill 2244 was introduced, calling for the establishment of a national park at Cape Lookout to “preserve for public use and enjoyment an area in the State of North Carolina possessing outstanding natural and recreational values.”
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on Nov. 22, 1963, stopped the momentum of the park’s development. The state continued to purchase land from private owners, however.
U.S. Senate hearings were held in 1965 to consider the proposed national seashore. Some of those making statements, either in person or by letter, were: N.C. Congressman David N. Henderson; Gen. James R. Townsend, chairman of N.C. Board of Water Resources; Alfred Cooper, chairman of the Carteret County Board of Commissioners; and Gov. Dan K. Moore. All of the officials urged the establishment of the national seashore. Except for a few questions about how to finish procuring the remaining privately-owned land on Core Banks, the support appeared to be unanimous, and legislation passed both the Senate and the House easily before being signed by President Johnson on March 10, 1966.
There were a few hitches, however. This idyllic park almost wasn’t.
Carmine Prioli’s fascinating essay, “The Stormy Birth of Cape Lookout National Seashore,” published in his book “Life at the Edge of the Sea: Essays on North Carolina’s Coast and Coastal Culture,” provides a detailed story of the challenges that had to be overcome.
Briefly, what delayed the development of Cape Lookout for almost two decades after it was authorized involved claims of private ownership of some sections on Core Banks. Prioli writes, “The 18 or so members of the Core Sound Gun Club thought their 900 + acre tract on the sound side of Core Banks, about fourteen miles north of Cape Lookout, was worth more than the $20 an acre the state had paid for land adjacent to theirs. Apparently, hoping to sidestep the issue at least temporarily, the  bill’s sponsors excluded the gun club property from the bill.”
The 1966 legislation also excluded a 230-acre tract owned by a businessman who planned to create a residential development with almost 800 lots on it. Court battles dragged on for years over the two exclusions, and final settlements ended up being much more expensive than had been expected originally.
Once North Carolina transferred ownership of Core Banks and Portsmouth Island to the federal government in 1974, work could start on adding Shackleford Banks to the National Seashore, and developing a management plan for Cape Lookout. It took another 11 years to fully acquire all of the desired land. Eventually, all buildings were removed from the island, and only the wild horses remained.
Those who gave up their private stake in what had become national property had no easy time of it; they had built family memories and traditions on the ever-shifting sands of these barrier islands, survived storms and weathered floods. Although cooperation between local and federal interests is now the norm, it is not surprising that tensions and conflicts arose at times in the beginning.
On Core Banks, the National Park Service faced an interesting challenge when they began preparing the park for public use. Over the years, many fishing parties on Core Banks had brought vehicles over by ferry, to transport themselves and their equipment (and their huge catches at the end of the day) across the island. When vehicles broke down or rusted out, they were often abandoned where they lay. This was no small challenge to clean up. Even after removing more than 2,500 vehicle remains, the park service had to leave some behind, because their “sense of place” deep in the sand would have required heavy equipment to move them, causing too much environmental damage.
Interestingly, the issue of Off-Road Vehicles on North and South Core Banks is in the news currently. Environmental groups brought litigation against the National Park Service, because park regulations were not in compliance with federal laws. The NPS settled the cases, and have developed a new plan for ORV regulation. According to the superintendent, details of the plan will go out to the public this fall and winter, public comments will be invited, and the finished set of regulations will be implemented in 2017.
Cape Lookout National Seashore belongs to all of us. Joint ownership has its challenges.
“This is public land. There are a lot of different perspectives on how we should manage the park,” said Kenney. “We deal constantly with the ongoing realities of the maturation of the park. Rules are necessary to protect this place for future generations. The bar is set pretty high. To protect these treasures for the future – it is a big task.”
That generational thing again. Cape Lookout National Seashore’s foundational purpose was to preserve a beautiful place for generations to come, and for all people who seek recreation, history, and undeveloped spaces for their joy and renewal. Just knowing that this place – and others like it – exists, even when we are not physically there, may well contribute to a sense of hope and health.
With the 50th anniversary of the Seashore’s authorization coming in March 2016, as well as the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service’s founding, it is exciting to know that children in Carteret County are increasingly visiting the Cape. This past school year, the park’s goal was to treat all of the fourth grade classes in Carteret County, from all eight schools, to a Cape Lookout excursion. The costs of ferry ride and lighthouse tour were covered by grant from the National Park Foundation (a philanthropic organization), and more than 500 children were reached through this effort. Five of the eight schools were included, which was less than the goal set, but a good start. With funds left over from last year, the park hopes to extend “Ticket to Ride” excursions to some Boys and Girls Club children as well.
Superintendent Kenney is committed to the park’s educational role with children as well as adults. Park staff and the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum (which is next door to Cape Lookout’s visitor center on Harkers Island) have developed six curricula for grades K-12, to be used by teachers for field trips to the national seashore. These curricula are available on-line, and include the necessary variety of components (math, language arts, science, etc.) to satisfy educational standards. The park’s education coordinator, a former teacher, contributed to this project.
Of course, you don’t have to be a student to visit. Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks are accepting guests daily, throughout the year, a secret many residents along the Crystal Coast know all too well. Primitive camping is allowed on both islands, although adventurers are reminded that there are no resources in either location. Everything campers need must be brought in and carried out when they depart. Throughout the summer months, visitors have the opportunity to climb the lighthouse on prescheduled days and special events and programs are held throughout the park’s busiest months, including nighttime tours of the keepers’ quarters and lighthouse. Ferry access is available from both Harkers Island and Beaufort for a fee. Those arriving by personal vessels do not pay a fee to use the park.
To learn more about Cape Lookout National Seashore and to make plans for a visit during its 50th anniversary year, visit www.nps.gov/calo.