I am from a family of lighthouse keepers. Our history is found among the remains of the skeleton tower that was once known as the Cape Fear Light Station. And it is also found among the bricks of the majestic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is located on the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The list is just about endless when it comes to these beacons, dotted up and down the coast, where my ancestors kept a vigilant eye.
Throughout my childhood, I sat and listened to my father and other family members tell stories of those who were lighthouse keepers. So it is no wonder, that as an adult, I have found the lure of these aging structures, to be almost an addiction. But without this addiction, my father, Kenneth H. Dickerson Jr., my cousin, Edith Jennette Bradley, and myself, would have never had the experience of traveling to Bald Head Island, North Carolina. Bald Head Island, was once known as Smith Island, and is where the remains of the Cape Fear Lighthouse, reside.
The Cape Fear Lighthouse was built in 1903, as a replacement for the Bald Head Lighthouse. It was used as a navigational aide to lead mariners through the Cape Fear and Frying Pan Shoals areas. It’s steel skeletal frame, stood one hundred and fifty feet into the air. And as my lighthouse keeping Great Grandfather, Devaney Farrow Jennette, found out, it was quite a climb. And probably one that lead to his death there, on the 5th of December, 1932.
As a small child, my father and several other family members, spent time with “Pop”, Devaney Jennette, on the island. Dad was accompanied by his older sister, Ella Nora and their parents, Gladys and Kenneth Dickerson Sr. and of course, there was my Great Grandmother Ella, who was the wife of Pop. Their two sons, Elwood and Ross, also joined them. Elwood and Ross attended school in Southport. And as with a lot of local boys, they joined the Coast Guard, which took them far away from their home.
Pop received his appointment to the Cape Fear Light Station on March 6th, 1919. One can only imagine the beauty of the island way back then. The only structures there were the three keeper’s quarters and several storage buildings. Well, that and the Coast Guard base. It was a far cry from what I found when stepping off the ferry in February of 2008. But still, the island’s beauty is one I will never forget. And the chills that ran up and down my spine as I stepped through the doorway of Captain Charlie’s II, were accompanied by a sense of pure awe.
The keeper’s quarter referred to as Captain Charlie’s II, was home to Pop and the family from the time of his appointment, until the time of his death. And, as usual, the inquisitive nature of my Father and myself, led us all over the property. In front of the cottages and under some brush, we spotted concrete pillars, which through the knowledge of Captain Charlie Swan’s son, Reese, we were made aware of; a storage building sat upon them. Captain Charlie, for whom the keeper’s quarters are named, was the head lighthouse keeper there from 1903 through 1933.
The family of Charles Norton Swan, resided in the light keeper’s quarters
located to the left of Captain Charlie’s II. And the housing for the second assistant light keeper, was located to the right. From the beach, these historical buildings speak of another era. With their weathered exterior and the charm of bygone days, I definitely felt a connection to my families past and to a Great Grandfather that lived before my time.
Previously, before we left on our trip to Bald Head Island, I was able to contact Ann Mills. She is the Executive Director of the Old Baldy Foundation. And what a wonderful lady she is. Our ferry’s arrival time on the island wasn’t until 4:00 p.m. So without her generosity, we wouldn’t have been able to tour the museum or the Old Baldy Lighthouse, due to them being closed.
Now climbing the lighthouse was another one of those “moments” for me. Ann, my Father, and myself stood in the watch room, gazing out across the island. I do believe I could have stayed there the rest of the day. The picturesque chapel, which sat next door to Old Baldy, poked its steeple up through the surrounding oaks. And according to my Father and my cousin Edith, the island’s vegetation was reminiscent of the Cape Hatteras of their youth.
Throughout our visit, much of the island brought my Father fond memories. Memories that he shared the next day, when Ann Mills and Marilyn Ridgeway stopped by the keeper’s quarters to share stories and photographs. My Father had brought a folder full of photos that showed our family’s life while there. There was Pop in his uniform, throwing horseshoes while his very somber looking son, Elwood, peered at the camera.
And then there were the photographs of my Father and his sister, Ella Nora. The Cape Fear Lighthouse standing erect in the background. “Nonie”, as Margaret Swan, Capt. Swan’s daughter, named her because she thought Ella Nora was to big of a name for such a small girl, was sitting in a rocking chair that had belonged to Margaret’s brother, Reese. To me, it seemed as if the lighthouse keeper’s families were more than just neighbors whose head of household worked together. In a sense, they had become extended family. No doubt they had, due to the solitude and isolation of the island.
Now, I have to wonder if it wasn’t that isolation that brought about the tale of my Great Grandfather’s death. The day in which Ann and Marilyn came by, we found out that it had always been just a rumor that he had died in the watch room of the Cape Fear Lighthouse. But thanks to years of genealogical research of his life, I was able to obtain his personnel file from the National Archives. And there, in the file, were copies of hand written statements by Captain Swan, declaring Pop’s death. Not to mention that there were numerous documents from the Lighthouse Service, showing that indeed, the rumors were true. Except for the part of his death certificate that read he had possibly died of a brain hemorrhage. It has always been said within the family, since he had suffered from heart trouble for quite some time that he passed away due to his heart.
So the morning of our departure came. And as the tram arrived to pick us up and carry us the four miles to the ferry terminal, I felt saddened. It felt as if I was leaving a part of myself behind. Perhaps Pop had been with us during our visit. According to local lore, there are quite a few tales of stranger than normal occurrences by many who have stayed there. Are they true or not, who knows? But I would like to think that Pop was aware of our visit. A visit that my Father had often said, he had always wanted to make sometime in his life.
Well, we caught the 10:30 ferry back to Southport. I watched as the Old Baldy Lighthouse, faded from my view. But, our departure wasn’t totally a sad one. For waiting at the docks, was Reese Swan. Up until that day, we had only talked a couple of times by phone. And the smiles that lit up upon stepping off that boat, were priceless.
Reese, my Father, my cousin Edith, and Myself, stood for quite some time, sharing the ties between our two families. Memories came back as Reese recalled the faces of my Uncle, Elwood “Lefty” Jennette, who at one time played baseball for the Southport town team. It seems that while Reese was caretaker over on the island, in the 60’s, Elwood and his second wife, Dot, paid a trip to see him.
Then there was my Uncle Ross, whom Reese had often wonderedwhat had happened to him and the rest of the family. Ross had been appointed to the Coast Guard Station at Amagansett, New York and was there when the Nazi saboteurs landed. Why even Elwood ended up stationed on Long Island. And there they lived, for many years.
So after the exchange of greetings and where’s and what’s, we followed Reese to meet his nephew, Ron Hood, later that day. On the way, we passed by the Smithville Burial Ground, which we had walked through a few days prior. Seems that Uncle Elwood’s first wife was a local Southport girl and had died at the age of twenty-five. There were quite a few of her family members buried there. But we never did find the Muriel Thompson Jennette that we were searching for.
Anyways, Ron came out of the house and we stood in his yard, once again reliving island memories with another member of the Swan family.
We exchanged stories and handshakes then headed to our new -found favorite local’s restaurant, named PJ’s. After a quick lunch, it was back to Ron’s and back to the stories that kept us there for most of the afternoon.
Hopefully, we will one day, make a return trip to see them and the island that over the years, has meant so much to my family and me.
This story appeared in the
May 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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