Leaving Diamond City on foot early in the morning of December 31, 1897, two young visitors from Utah made their way to Cape Lookout across a narrow ditch that later would grow into Bardens Inlet. They spent the entire day exploring the lighthouse and life-saving station that were focal points of the village, and were plainly fascinated with what they saw and heard.
What they found, and how they described it in their journals, paints a vivid and unique picture of the Cape at the close of the Nineteenth Century. It remains important because their impressions were uncolored by any previous experience at the coast or among the seamen whose livelihood depended on both the lighthouse and the life-saving service.
When visited by Elders John Telford and William Hansen, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse had been in use for half a century, but the day-to-day routine of the keepers was almost exactly the same as it had been when the light first illuminated in 1859. Changes would come rapidly after the turn of the century, so their description might be among the last ones available of the original lighthouse and lifesaving routines.
Once at the Cape, and upon making the acquaintance of Mr. John Davis, the keeper of the Lighthouse, they were taken on a guided tour of the structure that still overlooks Lookout Point. William Hansen, ever the avid listener, vividly detailed what he learned.
“The Lighthouse was 156 feet high. The walls at the bottom were eighteen feet through, and at the top were four feet wide. The large lamp burned seven gallons and one quart of oil each night. When the nights were clear and no fog, this light could be seen forty miles out in the ocean. When the day was gloomy and foggy, this light was burning all the time. We climbed the long winding iron steps from the bottom to the top.
“When we went on the outside we found a porch, or walk, all around the tower about three feet wide. A heavy iron rail was around it too, which one could hold. The wind was blowing hard up on top of the Lighthouse but there was no wind below. We could see for miles and miles, and could also see small and large ships out on the ocean.”
Leaving the Lighthouse and heading toward the Life-Saving Station, the travelers encountered what they described as a sandstorm. In the course of their two-mile walk, the wind blowing in off of the ocean began to hurl the light, dry beach sand into their faces. By the time they reached the station their faces were sore, "… so much so that when [they] would wipe them with [their] handkerchiefs, blood would show on them."
At the Life-Saving Station they found eight men including the Captain and cook. All seemed happy to meet the visitors and the Captain, William Howard Gaskill, was particularly gracious and courteous. The Elders were impressed by the orderly nature of both the personnel and facilities at the station. "Everything was in its proper place. The men [were] all dressed in white, neat and clean, as was also the building, both inside and out."
After enjoying a fish dinner, "and all that went with it," Captain Gaskill showed his guests around the station. William Hansen's delight in that experience is readily evident in his description of what they saw and heard.
“The building had a tower on it that was sixty feet high. Here was a small room with windows all around it so that one could see in all directions. One man was stationed there night and day. The purpose of this man was to discover when a shipwreck took place. Then he would give the alarm to the entire crew and he with all the others would set out to give help to those in distress.
“They had a long wagon on which was a large long-boat. This boat was so built that it was waterproof, with a door on top which could be closed and would keep the water out. Then they had a large pair of mules already to jump under the harness… and was hitched to a wagon in a very few moments. Then it was up to the mules to take this wagon down to the shore in the direction where the wreck could be seen. To this wagon was also fastened a small cannon.
“In this cannon was loaded a heavy weight in the shape of a bullet with a rope attached to it. When shot out over the water it would go for miles. This would reach the boat or ship in distress and the life savers would be placed or fastened on this rope and drawn into shore. They had a practice every Tuesday and Friday afternoon at three o'clock.
“When night set in two men from the life-saving station would go to the shore and patrol from six to nine. Then two other men would take their places until midnight. Hence four changes were made each night. These men, when reaching the shore, had a distance of two miles to walk. At the end of each was a post with a clock fastened to the post. This clock would be adjusted by the man, thereby letting the Captain know that they had done their duty…
“During the day time, if a ship passed … and wished to commune with the station they would raise a flag on the highest mast. In turn, the man in the tower would raise his flag, and in this manner a conversation would be carried on. While we were there, a ship passed and the man in the tower informed the crew on board the ship that "two Mormon Elders" were at the station, giving our names and where we were from.
(From the Missionary Journal of William Hansen as quoted in my earlier book, “Strengthened by the Storm.”)
Harkers Island people and stories, as told to and by one of them.
"All the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life . . . the sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction.” Mark Twain - Tom Sawyer
For the last ten years or so I have been compiling a list of stories --- some sublime, and some ridiculous, and some in-between --- about the Island I grew up on. It remains my hope to arrange them into a coherent narrative that will convey some of what it was like to be a small part of a special place at a special time.