A Winter at Currituck Beach Lighthouse

By Meghan Agresto, Currituck Beach Lighthouse Site Manager

Have you ever wondered what lighthouse keepers do in the winter? At the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Corolla gets sleepy after October. Our lighthouse door is locked, the vacationers are gone, the docents resting, and the lighthouse doesn’t require a supply of oil for its light that’s been electrified since 1933! Once our lighthouse closes up for the winter, we tend to follow the sturdy pedigree of those keepers that came before us: we keep working.

This standard demonstrated itself in history as well. For two night shifts, the US Lighthouse Board employed three keepers to accommodate all of the work; at a light station, there is always more to do!

A part of the Corolla wild horse herd takes a stroll through the lighthouse grounds.

Over the past several months, our lighthouse crew took on a variety of big jobs, including everything from heavy lifting and complex restoration projects at the light tower, woodworking on the Keepers’ House, and extensive research on the history of our keepers.

Once our doors closed, we started our restoration work straight away. We’ve had scaffolding constructed somewhere on-site for the near entirety of the winter – first on the Keepers’ House and then on the lantern of the tower.

At the Keepers’ House, our charge was seeking out problem areas that were harboring rot, and to remove them. If you’ve ever been involved in any repair on any wood structure (be it house or boat), the doctrine is always the same: there is always more rot than you initially assumed.

The rot elimination work at both the Keepers’ House and our Museum Shop was completed effortlessly and expertly by our solid, go-to craftsmen (and their sons, and sometimes their friends!), The Martin Boys. At the Keepers’ House, we replaced our southwest porch flooring, along with its associated supports.

Keeping true to the historic fabric of the originally constructed porch, we chose to lay the new specialty milled tongue and groove lumber at differing widths, just as the house’s original builders would have done. The newly replaced porch boards were laid with attention to historic accuracy. The boards are laid systematically in an alternating width pattern: a 2.5” wide board lays aside a 3” board. The look is subtle, yet aesthetically pleasing.

We continued to gain appreciation for our winter of restoration. While removing some window sills on the east side of the Keepers’ House, we learned that the weights from our sash weight window opening system are actually still in place, albeit hidden and unattached. We’ve tagged the sashes on our list – another preservation project for another winter – to restore use to the original sash weight system!

At the lighthouse itself, we called in the experts at International Chimney Corporation – now ICC Commonwealth (the movers of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse!) to tackle repairs on some certainly-hard-to-reach areas of the tower. ICC was onsite by February to complete the first phase of a comprehensive two-phase restoration plan. Working quickly, the first phase of mobilization is now complete!

At both the lighthouse roof and lantern, ICC worked quickly to construct scaffolding and then remove the rusted cornice pieces that will be recast offsite.

When the winds were too high, or the temperature too low, the expert ICC crew of two would retreat to the base of the lighthouse for work on our lower iron belt courses. For this work, the cracks and seams on the two belt courses were exposed to their iron base, then resealed to prevent water from entering. To finish, the belt courses were primed, painted, and clear coated – a strong face lift for the bottom portion of our tower!

In the process we learned that like the iron pieces on our gallery, the belt course pieces also had Roman numerals on them – indicators of the pre-fabrication parts of the construction. (We know our iron was originally cast in Philadelphia).

Back on the ground, our lighthouse compound was still in need of extensive tree cleanup after the force of Hurricane Dorian. All tree companies on the Outer Banks had some serious delays after the storm in September – which seemed to hit our site harder than anywhere else this far north. After dealing with the most urgent tree issues ourselves, we waited for ATX Tree to take on the removal of leaning pine trees, or those trees capable of damaging any of our historic structures.

While the heavy lifting has droned on for the entirety of the winter, we still managed to dedicate some time to a primary-source material search about each of our lighthouse keepers. At the conclusion of this research project, we’re planning to have a biography of each and every keeper that called the Currituck Beach Lighthouse home! Along the way, we’ve found great pieces of information that we’re excited to share.

To keep us from getting too serious about work, some of Corolla’s wild horses (who usually stick to the 11,000 acres north of us) visited the lighthouse grounds a couple of times. The visits worked swiftly to reinforce the magic of our place – we’re pretty lucky to be lighthouse keepers.

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