The First Accounts at Currituck Beach Lighthouse

From To Illuminate the Dark Space by Jenny Edwards

Horatio’s tale is the oldest known surviving account of any keeper at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. His story dates from the Civil War and related events that took place so far back in time that it is remarkable to find any oral histories on him at all. The Federal records dryly report that on April 26, 1877, Horatio offi­cially replaced Lewis A. Simmons as first assistant to the Currituck Beach Light Station. The official register also reveals that Simmons had been working at the lighthouse since November of 1875 and was therefore the first first assistant there. Sadly, the stories of those first keepers have been lost with the passage of time. Horatio’s saga, however, has been passed down from generation to generation and endures in the memory of his living descen­dants.

The Lighthouse, photographed just after Heath’s tenure as Keeper

Horatio was born in the late 1830s somewhere in Pasquotank County, North Carolina. His lifelong love of the sea began there, on the Pasquotank River and at the Albemarle Sound. Asa young adult, he worked those waters on fishing boats. Like all watermen of the Outer Banks, Horatio’s very survival depended upon how well he could read the rivers, sounds and ocean tides. It was this skill that would seal his fate both during and after the Civil War, a conflict that forever changed his country and set the course for the rest of his of life.

In 1861, the United States Navy’s top priorities were the sea blockade of Confederate supply lines and securing safe shipping harbors for Union vessels. Early in the war, Winfield Scott, head of the United States Army, came up with the Anaconda Plan, named after a South American snake that squeezes its prey to death. He wanted to choke the Southern states by cutting them off from the outside world, splitting the Confederacy in two and moving troops in from the periphery. In conjunc­tion with the Army’s plan, the Navy’s initial objective was to prevent merchant ships from reaching Southern p0rts. But, with 3,500 miles of coast line to monitor, it quickly became evident that the United States Navy would need additional p0rts in the South to provide support services to its ships.The Navy’s first victory in the war was on the Outer Banks at Hatteras Inlet very close to where Horatio lived.

Hatteras was an important victory because it was the only inlet for 200 miles deep enough for large ships, and it served as a gateway to the Atlantic for Richmond. Early in the war, rebels had grounded all the navigation buoys in the sounds and dismantled the light­ house at Hatteras, rendering the Cape one of the most dangerous places for ships along the Outer Banks. Relatively speaking, there was little military presence on the northeast coast of North Carolina. The inlet as well as the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds became a sort of free-for­ all land, the haunt of blockade runners and privateers. All that changed, however, on August 28, 1861, when the Union Navy attacked the two forts at Hatteras. Half-built and ill prepared for battle, the forts surrendered after two days of naval shelling. By February 1862, the entire Pamlico and Albemarle sound regions were under the firm control of the Union, a crushing and demoralizing turn of events for the South.

The Yankees quickly learned it was one thing to be a victor in battle and quite another to be an occupying force surrounded by so much unfamiliar water. The United States government began pressing local watermen into service as pilots to assist Navy and merchant supply ships. According to the Heath family legend, Horatio was one of those young seafar­ers forced into service. His youth and intimate knowledge of the provincial waters made Horatio an ideal pilot for the United States Navy, and he spent several years navigating supply ships in and out of the sounds. But Horatio’s service came at a personal cost above and beyond his lost youth. He had aided the North­ern aggressors, however reluctantly, and that meant he was forever suspected of volunteering to undermine the Southern cause, a.k.a. the Lost Cause.

After the Civil War, the Lost Cause became a defining characteristic of Southern culture. In her autobiography, Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin remembered that in the late 1800s”. . . when men like my father [who was a Civil War veteran spoke of the Lost Cause … they would say, We were never conquered . . .’ and of reconstruction,’ I’m an un-reconstructed rebel!” Across the South in towns and cities, Confederate veterans were honored in celebra­tions such as parades, military reunions and monument dedications. Lumpkin wrote of a “solemn ceremony, a ‘rebel yell’ from assembled veterans, a band playing Dixie, and oratory of a bygone day.”‘ In this social atmosphere, it did not seem to matter that Horatio was coerced into the Union Navy; the ignominy hung, with him all the same.

In the years following the war, as Union troops gradually withdrew, and the so­ called political redemption of the South began, Horatio found himself with slimmer and slimmer job prospects. He attempted to get recognition of service and an official discharge from service but was informed that “the Navy Department does not discharge Pilots.”

Finally, years later, Horatio’s military service was rewarded when, on April 28, 1876, the superintendent of lights offered Horatio a position as second assistant light keeper at Bodie Island, which he promptly accepted.

By 1877, Horatio was married to Mary Mizelle Heath and had requested a transfer from Bodie Island, probably because he found life with the other keepers, for whatever reason, intolerable. He was moved to the Currituck Beach Light Station were he became first assistant. Upon arriving at Currituck, Horatio and his wife moved into one side of the large keepers’ house.

Horatio joined a team of keepers who had been at the light since it first began operations. But, tensions soon ran high between the Heaths and the original keepers at Currituck. In the summer of 1878, the principal keeper N.H. Burrus, told the Lighthouse Service Inspector that Horatio had poisoned the second assistant’s dog. Whether or not Horatio killed the dog, or if he had good cause to put the animal down, has never been determined. But, since the inspector had the authority to nominate keepers for promotions, it damaged Horatio’s career to have such an egregious complaint lodged against him. Horatio requested to be transferred from the Currituck Light. In a long letter, Charles Manning, the Superintendent of Lights, coun­seled Horatio to:
. . . strive to do your duty in your position faithfully and have as little to do with them [the other keepers] as possible outside of your regular business in the discharge of your duties… and thereby give no cause for complaint as much as you possibly can. I, and all others who know you, have always knwon you to be peaceable and quiet in your disposition, and I would endeavor to bear up patiently under all the wrongs that may be done with the view of bringing you into disfavor with the Lighthouse Inspector.

Horatio and Mary took Manning’s advice to heart and found the strength of character to stick it out. They were still at the Currituck compound when Burrus was removed from service two days before Christmas in 1879.

Lewis A. Simmons, whose shoes Horatio filled just two and a half years earlier, returned to Currituck Beach to become the principal keeper (unfortunately, at the time of this publication, no other information was available on the years Lewis A. Simmons spent as keeper at Currituck).
Both Horatio and Lewis were at Curri­tuck whenThomas Everton, the second assis­tant, allowed the light to go out on July 22, 1880. Apparently Everton left the light unattended, a serious offense. The Lighthouse Service Inspector investigated the incident in late August and was informed that when Horatio and Lewis reached the top of the tower, they discovered that Everton had failed to pump the oil into the lantern, which had to be done every two to three hours.The offense appar­ently cost Everton his job because he was removed from duty on September 9, 1880. For more than a month after Thomas Everton left the Currituck compound, Horatio and Lewis worked by themselves during hurricane season. Finally, help arrived when F.W. Bell was appointed second assistant on October 12, 1880. Horatio would see two other principal keepers come and go and would share one side of the house with as many assistants before he and Mary left the lighthouse service for good on June 13,1885.
Apparently, while he was at Currituck, Horatio had been building a large house in downtown Elizabeth City, right across from the railroad station. Perhaps he and Mary had been planning for some time to leave civil service and go into business for themselves.

They opened their new home in Elizabeth City as a boarding house, and Horatio put a small store in one of the downstairs rooms. He decorated the store in nautical themes, a reflection of a seafaring soul who after many trials had finally made his way to higher ground. The boarding house had a cook and perhaps cleaning help as well because Mary’s granddaughter, Mary Heath Powell, remembers that her grandmother’s job was simply being a good hostess to the boarders. While Mary ran the house, Horatio spent much of his time in the store. The shop had a separate entrance on the street and sold candy and produce. Every Sunday, he would close up the store, walk several miles to the poor house and hold church services for those folks less fortunate than him. He always took candy and other treats from his store to share with the indigent residents.
Both granddaughters remember they were not allowed in grandfather’s store while he was working, and they never dared to sneak in when he was not looking because, as Leona flatly stated,”I stood in awe of Grandpa.” Beverly Wright, a great granddaughter, summed up Horatio’s relationship with his grandchildren like this:

“He [Horatio) had such penetrating, piercing eyes and was such a stickler for the truth that [Leona] was very intimidated by him. And one day she and her younger sister, Mary Heath, were given maybe a nickel, some small amount of money, to go over to grandpa’s store and make purchases. Because they didn’t want to lose it, they put it in their mouths, for safe keeping. When they got into grandpa’s store, he came from around the counter and peered down at them and said, ‘And what can I do for you little girls?’ and they were so scared they swallowed the money.”
Although they rarely went into Horatio’s store while he was working , if he should step away from the house, his wife, Mary, was brave enough to take the girls into the store and treat them to candy. “She was the one that made us kids comfortable,” recalled Mary Powell. “She used to go into the store and get some candy and bring it to us and stuff like that.”

Horatio could be intimidating to other folks, but he was very affectionate with his wife. Leona remembers that her grandfather “was a fine old man. He thought grandmother [Mary] was the prettiest thing he ever saw. He always called her ‘my sweet little lady.’ He would go by her chair in the dining room and [pat her shoulder.]

Apparently Mary was truly beautiful, as were her daughters, Sally and Lula. Although they were both attractive, Horatio and Mary’s daughters were also very different. Sally was a college graduate and, according to Beverly, “had wild ambitious visions of making a million dollars lumbering mahogany in Honduras or mining mica in Western North Carolina.” Lula, on the other hand, Beverly remembers, “never had to grow up. She had one of those blessed lives where she could just be a teenager all of her 91 years. [She was) flirtatious, coy, sweet, funny and kid-ish – all of her life.”
Beverly has incredibly tender memories of her grandmother Lula, and their close relationship has fostered the transmission of the Heath family history from one generation to the next. “I loved her [Lula] dearly because she was more like a teenager, like I was, than a grandmother who was sort of stern or grumpy or unapproachable,” Beverly reminisced. “My greatest delight as a kid was to be able to go over and spend a week with Ma-ma [Lula] in Elizabeth City in the summer. We would lie together in her feather bed at night, and she would tell me some of these stories about great grandpa Horatio.” Sally, who was Lula’s sister and great aunt to Horatio’s great grandson Charles Smith, also did her part to pass on Horatio’s legacy.

One day, when he was a little boy, Charles had done something very good, and as a reward, Sally promised to give him a magnificent ship Horatio carved from a piece of driftwood while he was stationed at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. True to her promise, Charles has that ship encased in glass in his living room today. It is, by his description, one of his prized possessions.

Horatio’s ability to navigate North Carolina’s quirky and dangerous waters started out as a survival skill cultivated in his youth, was later capitalized upon by invading Northern forces and ultimately was relinquished under the shadow of a stigma. But it was not in Horatio’s nature to feel sorry for himself. he persevered until finally securing a coveted position with the lighthouse service.

In the end, he had become a self-made businessman and devoted every Sunday afternoon in service to others. In a sense, Horatio’s life was foreshadowed in the words of Henry Adams, a contemporary of the Civil War generation, who wondered:

“. . . whether any of us will ever be able to live contented in times of peace and laziness. Our generation has been stirred up from its lowest layers and there is that in its history which will stamp every member of it until we arc all in our graves. We cannot be commonplace…”
Indeed, Horatio the person, with his imposing presence, rigorous honesty and intimidating gaze, was anything but common­place. Yet, his experience in the Civil War is part of a common chapter in American history, a common thread linking us together. The historian David Lowenthal has likened the past to home. Like home, the past is where we come from, and being cut off from the past is like losing the way home. Alienated from our roots, we become nostalgic, longing for days gone by.

Horatio’s story and all the keepers’ stories are important because they have lasted throughout the generations, connected people to their shared past and provided a sense of identity to the living descendants, not unlike a distant lighthouse beacon, patiently signaling the way home.