A Brief History of Currituck Beach Light Station’s Smaller Keeper’s Dwelling

On the grounds of the Currituck Beach Light Station are two homes: a white, two-and-a-half story, 1876 duplex built from plans for a “First Order Dwelling” to house three keepers west of the newly constructed ocean-wise tower with a first-order lens; and a smaller, white, story-and-a-half dwelling built in 1881, much like the original Keepers’ House, in the Victorian Stick Style. The smaller home was also built for a principal keeper and his family, though, not at Currituck Beach and not with the Currituck Beach Light Station’s principal keeper in mind. It was built as the dwelling for the keeper at the Long Point Light Station in the Currituck Sound. Three lighthouse keepers at that station (est. 1879) ran a “gas-works” plant, manufacturing “compressed gas” (naphtha) and delivering it to the beacons in the surrounding waters.

Herbert Bamber, the engineer who in 1893 took the pictures of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and its duplex dwelling (full of people!) also visited Long Point Island and captured early images we have of that house in its original location, including the one above. In 1893, Long Point Station’s Principal Keeper William Shinault would have been living in the house. Interestingly, Shinault had come to Currituck Beach Lighthouse for a year and a half after serving at Long Point as its first 1st assistant keeper (1879-1881) but then, perhaps due to having a daughter who died while he was at Currituck Beach or perhaps because it was a more complicated job with higher pay, or perhaps because he was offered the principal keeper’s position, he returned to Long Point. (We know too that in 1895 President Cleveland overnighted at Long Point Depot, though we can’t say for sure that he was a guest in the Principal Keeper’s house…) Shinault served at Long Point (both as keeper and then master of a lighthouse tender) until his death in 1913. Soon after, in 1914, manufacturing of compressed gas at Long Point was discontinued.

Above: Turn of the century photo of Long Point Station. Principal Keeper’s House located on the left. Photo courtesy of Kevin Doxey.

Above: Nathan Halstead Sawyer and family. Picture provided to OBC by his grandson, Dr./Rev. Thomas H. Sawyer.

In 1914 and 1915 Nathanial Halstead Sawyer and his family (pictured above) lived in the house on Long Point. We know from his grandson that Sawyer was the “Laborer in Charge” there.

In 1920 the Principal Keeper’s house was barged (on two flat-bottom barges!) to the Currituck Beach Light Station. The Department of Commerce Bureau of Lighthouses Lighthouse Service Bulletin, Volume II from 1918-1923 reports that, “[a]s the keeper’s quarters at Currituck Beach Light Station, N.C., have been inadequate for a number of year, it was decided to relieve the situation by moving an unused dwelling at Long Point Light Station N.C., across Currituck Sound and placing it on a new foundation at Currituck Beach…The work of removing the dwelling was started at Long Point on December 13, 1919, and was completed at Currituck Beach, together with repairs on the wharf there, on March 23, 1920. The work of moving the dwelling, rebuilding the chimneys, building the piers and painting cost about $4,000.”

That report tells us, “The house was elevated off its brick piers, placed on skids supported by twelve wrought-iron rollers – 8 inches in diameter and 30 inches long… two triple blocks and falls were employed to move it out on the scows.” The two flat-bottomed barges with the house on them were tugged by two small motor boats “a distance of 10 miles…the time consumed being about 14 hours…The structure was brought ashore at the nearest point to the light station, about five-eighths of a mile, which could be reached without building a wharf. Blocking, skids, and rollers were again employed and an improvised windlass with two lever arms furnished the power. By anchoring the windlass securely a sufficient distance ahead of the dwelling each time it was shifted, it was easily moved to the new site by two men on each lever arm.”

An inspector’s report at the time disputes the report slightly: “Work progress[ed] slowly on house moving.”

Until the dwelling was placed back on brick piers on the grounds of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and a cistern built for it, the station’s two assistant keepers had shared the north side of the Keepers’ Duplex. The record indicates that the 2nd assistant lighthouse keeper was the one to move into the newly arrived dwelling (1920 census and oral history). For the first time on site, the 1st and 2nd assistant keepers would have had a home solely for each of their families. The first to live in the “new” house would have been 2nd assistant Keeper George G. Johnson who had moved to Currituck Beach with his family in 1912. In 1920 he was living with his wife Lucy Bertha Johnson (they were 39 and 36), their 4 sons (3, 11, 16 and 20) and their young niece, Sadie, aged 7 or 8. The following year is when Johnson was made 1st assistant keeper and so he likely moved back into the big house where he had first lived – but this time without having to share it with another keeper.

The next keeper to move into the Little Keeper’s house was Loren Edward Tillett who stayed on site as 2nd assistant keeper until 1928. He then took a job elsewhere for a bit and then came back to Currituck Beach as the 1st assistant keeper in 1930 for 6 months at which point he likely lived on north side of the Keepers’ House.

Tillett’s descendants remember this a little more creatively: They say that Loren, his wife, and his daughter had moved to Currituck Beach and into the smaller home (soon after his young daughter, Merle, drowned in the Chesapeake) but later he had so many more children that he and his family had to return to the larger Keeper’s house.

In 1930, Edward B. Austin, the brother of the principal keeper at the time (Homer T. Austin, who was also the great grandfather of John Wilson who created the nonprofit Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) to save the site from disrepair 50 years later) took the second assistant keeper’s position. He remained in that position until 1933 when the lighthouse was electrified and the 2nd assistant keeper’s position was eliminated. It is unclear what happened to the little house next. By 1937, with the automation of the beacon, both houses became uninhabited and by the late 1940s the property was becoming overgrown.

Above: Circa 1940 photos from Open Parks Network that show the smaller Keeper’s Dwelling in its secondary location at the Currituck Beach Light Station.

Local lore tells us the mounted United States Coast Guard (USCG) used the house to store hay for horses during WWII. It’s possible that in the 1950s the man who had been hired by Ray Adams (the second owner of the nearby Whalehead Club) to build a landing strip lived in the Little Keeper’s House. Bob Beske, who lived in Corolla for a few months that year when his parents arrived from Germany to work as employees for Ray Adams, told OBC in 2022, “I knew the guy who came to build landing strip; he was staying in one of the houses at the lighthouse which I remember because I was excited to climb the lighthouse but it turned out we couldn’t access the lighthouse.”

By 1959, when the Navy housed three men on site, the U.S. government built their own barracks and the little house continued to fall into greater disrepair.

By 1973 North Carolina applied to have the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the bigger Keepers’ House included on the National Register, but no mention was made of the little Keeper’s House. It is said that the shrubs and vines had completely covered it and that people did not even realize that the house was still there.

In 1990, OBC signed a lease with the USCG to open the lighthouse to the public. The  response was overwhelming. During the summer of 1991, thousands of people visited the lighthouse. The funds were used to pay staff, initiate repairs to the lighthouse and to begin rehabilitation of the little Keeper’s House. Two years later, the State amended its lease with OBC as both organizations recognized the “now-or-never” condition of the building. OBC’s directors agreed to defer funds from the interior rehabilitation of the larger Keepers’ House to save the smaller structure.

The evolution of the Long Point station keepers’ dwelling. From left to right: a.) An 1893 image by Herbert Bamber of the dwelling at Long Point Station, b.) The Little Keepers’ House at the Currituck Beach Light Station in the 1980s, c.) The Little Keepers House in 1996, completely restored at the Currituck Beach Light Station.

A Boundary Expansion Registration form filed in 2000 that added to Currituck Beach Light Station’s National Register classification mentioned that the little T-shaped dwelling is “especially significant for its connection to another maritime­ related complex.” Its description is befitting of a beautiful old house, “The Small Keeper’s House retains a front-gable weatherboarded privy and a concrete cistern dating from 1920…Its exterior decoration is particularly lively, from its elaborate vergeboard and scalloped upper-story board-and ­batten covering to the front shed porch’s bracketed and chamfered posts. The interior of the house follows a center hall plan with its staircase facing the rear of the house. Original elements, such as stairs and simple door and window surrounds in the first floor’s rear wing, are still in place.

Today, visitors enjoy the house for its architecture and history but also for the books, photographs, postcards, and lighthouse ornaments they can find inside for purchase. Having saved the little house fulfilled three goals: the light station was a fully-restored, a historic home for dissemination of information was open to the public, and the station had become fully self-supporting!