Renovated Roanoke River Lighthouse re-opens to the public

Aug 14, 2014

Credit NC Department of Cultural Resources

INTRO – A lighthouse that helped provide safe passage to river mariners for around 50 years now has safe harbor itself… the Roanoke River Lighthouse has been restored and is open to the public for tours this weekend. George Olsen has more.

Three seems to have been the magic number for the Roanoke River Lighthouse. The first lighthouse was built in Plymouth in 1866. It was destroyed by fire in 1885. Its successor was destroyed after less than a year in service by ice… yup, not a hurricane, but ice, before the third and last Roanoke River Lighthouse was built in 1886. It was decommissioned in the 1930s and it and two other lighthouses in the region were contracted to be removed from the river. The first two didn’t make it back to dry land. The third did.

  “It took Mr. Wiggins a full 36 hours to take it off the pilings and then another 32 hours to move it to land in Edenton. He said it brought a lot of attention to the harbor when he was pulling this lighthouse on his barge, that probably if the President of the US was drowning in Edenton Bay at that time it wouldn’t have received as much attention, those were his words from his oral history of his connection to the lighthouse.”

Karen Ipock, the site manager of Historic Edenton State Historic Site talking about Emmett Wiggins, who, after a friend’s failure with moving two other lighthouses, was successful in moving the Plymouth lighthouse to a site just west of Edenton. For the most part, it was Emmett Wiggins’ residence until he died in 1995. But though he modernized it to make it comfortable for everyday living, Emmett Wiggins was conscious of the lighthouse’s history and acted as much as a preservationist as he did a homeowner.

  “He was very true to what the building used to be and didn’t want to take away those characteristics of it. So the floors of it he covered with carpet but kept the original floors. The window shutters, several things he saved from the original structure and preserved, and he even worked hard to get a fog horn and fog bell and Fresnel lens for it.”

Which meant when the Edenton Historical Society was successful in purchasing the lighthouse more than a decade after Emmett Wiggins’ death, while there was work to do to restore it, there was no starting from scratch. Time had taken some toll on the building, and after the first two Roanoke River lighthouses were destroyed by fire and ice, water nearly did the structure in the summer of 2003.

  “Unfortunately, it did sit for several years after his death uninhabited which took its toll as you would imagine with any building. Then Hurricane Isabel did damage. It was right there at a creek on the land kind of exposed to the elements and the hurricane when it came through did a lot of damage to the Edenton area and sadly took away some of the porches of the outside porch of the lighthouse.”

It’s been about 10 years since the lighthouse purchase. That time has been spent making the repairs that 100+ years of history … and a couple of moves… will bring, as well as searching out and bringing to the lighthouse furnishings from its original 1886 period that are appropriate for lighthouse keepers use at that time. Among the highlights of that search… one done by the lighthouse’s last owner Emmett Wiggins… is a 4th order Fresnel lens.

  “It was tracked down through the Coast Guard. By that point the Coast Guard took over as the overseer for the lighthouse system. They were willing to donate it basically to the town and then the town in turn loaned it to Mr. Wiggins to have at the lighthouse. At his death it was removed from the lighthouse for protection back to the town. It does need restoration being over 150 years old so it is going to get some restoration done before it returns to the lighthouse.”

It’s not the same lens that lit up the Roanoke in the late 19th/early 20th centuries but of the same order. The lighthouse is ready for the public but still work remains to be done … the restoration and then return of the Fresnel lens, plus Karen Ipock hopes they can locate items like a lighthouse keepers uniform and the official U-S Lighthouse Service china and blankets of that era.

“So we have things we’re still hunting for, I guess you can say, but when you go to the lighthouse you’ll see it well furnished so it’s… it’s always an ongoing process when you have a historic lighthouse to keep it appropriate and to always update which sounds funny because you’re updating it with historical items but always keeping the collection as accurate as you can.”

Karen Ipock is site manager for the Historic Edenton State Historic Site. Guided tours of the restored Roanoke River Lighthouse are underway this weekend. They’ll be offered on a seven day a week schedule for the foreseeable future. I’m George Olsen.

(The grand opening takes place Friday morning 1000 August 15 at Colonial Park in Edenton.)