The History of the 1866 Roanoke River Lighthouse in Edenton, North Carolina

On the coast of Edenton, NC, also known as the Inner Banks of North Carolina, sits a historic screw-pile lighthouse. A screw-pile lighthouse is a lighthouse structure with supports that are screwed into the sand or river bottoms of the water. Each piling can withstand storms and waves as they were literally screwed into the river bottom below. This historic lighthouse, better known as Roanoke River Lighthouse, is the last standing screw-pile lighthouse in the state. Because of its structure, it has been moved twice in the past.

North Carolina was once known for its screw-pile lighthouses, they were pretty inexpensive, easy to construct, and were popular especially during the time of the Civil War. The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse was in commission from 1887 to 1941. As with any lighthouse, its purpose was to provide saftey to sailors as they entered the Roanoke River. It was in 1832 that William Biddle Shepard, a state senator, petitioned for a light station in the Roanoke River for that very reason. Two years later, the U.S. Congress approved the construction of a light vessel instead of a light house worth $10,000 to be stationed on the river.

Roanoke River Lighthouse

Before the restoration of the 1866 Roanoke River Lighthouse. Damage from Hurricane Isabel.

The vessel, however, became the subject of a Civil War battle when Union forces decided to capture Plymouth, North Carolina, and the south used the light vessel to block the Union forces. In 1866, the government decided it was time for a lighthouse. The the structure was first lit in 1867 using whale oil as fuel. After several instances of damage from fire and ice storms, the U.S. Coast Guard deactivated the screw-pile lighthouse in 1941. More than 10 years later, the U.S. Coast Guard sold the structure along with two other North Carolina lighthouses for $10 each to Elijah Tate, a local resident and former lighthouse service employee. Through an unfortunate series of bad luck losing the two additional lighthouses, he sold the Roanoke River Lighthouse for $10. That owner lived in the lighthouse for his entire life.

Today, the lighthouse still remains, though it has been moved from its original place. Hurricane Isabel significantly damaged the lighthouse in 2003, and four years later, the Edenton Historical Commission purchased the structure and two departments within the town agreed to restore it to its original state. In 2012, it was moved back over water next to Colonial Park in Edenton, and remains the last standing screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina.

Locals and tourists are welcome to visit the Roanoke River Lightouse & Maritime Museum to learn more about the historic lighthouse, its story, and browse the variety of exhibits.

Thank you to the Inner Banks Inn, an Edenton bed and breakfast, for providing this guest post.


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