Exploring The Parks: Cape Lookout National Seashore's Historic District

Original life saving stationRoad in the historic village

The house was an old life-saving station that had many other uses. Walking on the road through the village lets you imagine what life was like when people lived here. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

Everyone claims to want solitude.

But as I walk through a deserted village at Cape Lookout National Seashore, I wonder why I don't see anyone. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, with sunny skies and a gentle breeze, I have the village to myself.

It's not easy to visit Cape Lookout National Seashore, in the southeastern corner of North Carolina. Located south of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the seashore has several attractions -- the lighthouse, wild ponies and Portsmouth Village -- each requiring separate ferries. Only the visitor center is on the mainland.

The Cape Lookout lighthouse attracts the first time visitor. Ferries -- skiffs, really, that can hold 10 or so passengers -- from Harkers Island and Beaufort drop you off in front of the lighthouse and keepers' quarters. Most visitors stay close to the lighthouse area, but a walk down the beach will reveal a world of old and vacant houses from an intriguing past. If you're looking for solitude and a quiet place to wander, head for the village.

Cape Lookout Village Historic District

The Cape Lookout Village Historic District includes the lighthouse and keepers' quarters. But walk further south on the beach, toward the point of the cape, you'll find a relocated keeper's quarters, an historic Coast Guard station, a U.S. Life-Saving Service station and boathouse, fishing cottages, and other buildings.

These were home to Life-Saving Service and Coast Guard crew members, fishermen, construction workers, and summer residents. The two-mile walk to the village will take about 45 minutes; more, if you stop to look at birds and pick up seashells. As you leave most visitors around the lighthouse, you'll see more birds.

The beach walk itself is fascinating. A squadron of pelicans flies overhead. A great egret stands in the sand. Red-beaked oystercatchers strut on the beach. Laughing gulls with their characteristic black heads have been following you from the picnic area in front of the visitor center. These birds are not shy. If you really appreciate birds, print out the park's bird list before you go.

The first structure you'll reach is Les and Sally Moore's house and dock. The complex, built between 1950 and 1971, had a store and several rental cabins. From oral history reports, the store was the focus of the community. The Moores planted various ornamental bushes and flowering perennials and bulbs, mostly nonnatives.

Continue on the beach to the Barden House. In the early 1900s, it was the Principal Keeper Quarters, but was sold and relocated in 1958. Here, a dirt road takes you away from the water and into the village proper.

Old Structures Don’t Die, They Just Keep Moving

Islanders kept reusing buildings. The house shown in the top photograph was the original life-saving station, built in 1888.

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The view below the lighthouse shows the keeper's quarters and daytrippers enjoying the beach. Kurt Repanshek photo.

In 1915, the Life-Saving Service and the Cutter Service merged to become the US Coast Guard. The house was absorbed into the new organization and then moved to accommodate a new station.

A few years later, it was used as barracks for Navy radio operators. In 1957, the house was sold as surplus and was moved again by the new owners who converted it into a private residence.

Eventually, the park probably will relocate it to the Coast Guard area further up the road for interpretation downstairs and staff or volunteer housing upstairs.

Right now, only one house is fit and approved for human habitation. The Gordon Willis House offers shelter to volunteers and staff members working in the village. From the outside, it doesn't look much better than the other abandoned houses. Without a sign alerting you that volunteers use it, the only other clue would be the shells laid out on the picnic table.

Further on, the coast guard station was built in 1916-1917. Only the main building and the kitchen have survived. Other structures shown in a picture on the information board were moved or demolished.

The National Park Service installed plaques in front of most structures explaining the history of the buildings. However, spend some time just wandering around the village. You can imagine what it was like to live here or spend the summer fishing, repairing your roof and installing screens on your windows.

Even in the 1950s and 1960s, families spent the whole summer on the Cape. Some houses have fanciful names like the Coca-Cola house and Casablanca. In the village, redwing black birds flit from tree to tree. Blue-eyed grass and Robin’s plantain cover the ground. It's a pastoral scene, if you ignore the structures that are falling apart.

A front door hangs on by one end. Vines crawl up the outside walls. Barns and outbuildings have holes in their roofs. The wooden houses haven't been painted in years. Gordon Willis who was born on Cape Lookout in 1916 remembers, "The Cape proved to be quite a 'lively' place during the summer months after Mrs. Carrie Arendel Davis built a house big enough to take in boarders, as well as house a dance hall complete with snack bar. Weekend parties, at the Cape, were attended by young people from other communities, as well."

The Davis house was demolished in the late 1940s. Although there is plenty of information on the lighthouse and lighthouse keepers, little has been written about life in this village. In contrast, numerous books and articles are available about Portsmouth Village, located on the northern end of Cape Lookout.

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One of the oldest houses at Portsmouth Village, the Washington Roberts house, dates to about 1850. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Portsmouth Village was a more cohesive community that still holds homecomings every two years.

The Future Of Cape Lookout Historic Village

Cape Lookout National Seashore became a national park unit in 1976. At the time, the park entered into 25-year lease agreements with the property owners of the village. This ensured that the dwellings would be occupied and used. When the leases were close to expiring, the National Park Service commissioned a Cape Lookout Village Cultural Landscape Report to look at the history and condition of the structures in the village. The 446-page report was published in 2005. It was followed by the Draft Cape Lookout Village Historic Structures Reuse Implementation Plan/Environmental Assessment/Assessment of Effect.

But unfortunately, according to a roving ranger, nothing has been done to the buildings because the park just doesn't have the money to implement these recommendations.

Friends of Cape Lookout has a summary of the origin of each building and its probable reuse.

Visiting Historic Portsmouth Village

Reaching Portsmouth takes a little extra effort -- and a ferry ride from Ocracoke. Take water, snacks, insect repellant, and sunscreen. Don't walk through the village barefoot or with flip-flops. Wear good quality sports sandals.

When you buy a ticket for the ferry, you'll be asked when you want to be picked up. Allow at least three hours on the island, if you want to stroll through the village. If you plan to swim in the sound or fish, you can spend the whole day here.