Love in the Light-House Service: Letters from Lighthouse Keeper William Shinault Donated to Currituck Beach Lighthouse

By Jane Bailey and Meghan Agresto

Acts of love – from sending a heartfelt letter, to preserving those letters for over a century  – have ripple effects. Our lighthouse was recently the recipient of some long-held love, thanks to a generous and preservation-minded donor. 

In December 2023, the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) received a small box in the mail with handwritten letters, newspaper clippings, notices of employment, photographs, and a hymn book of the Principal Lighthouse Keeper William Shinault, who served at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (CBLH) for 16 months during 1881 and 1882. Mary Doxey, Keeper Shinualt’s foster child Vertie Williamson’s grandson’s wife, generously donated the archives and artifacts to the site so OBC could continue sharing the story of her family’s service as a Keeper. The donation included a portrait of Keeper Shinault – for as much as we have always admired him and his service here and nearby, we had no idea what he looked like, and are thrilled by the photograph.

William Shinault (September 8th, 1851 – May 30th, 1913) was Currituck Beach’s third Principal Keeper. He came across the Currituck Sound, having been promoted from Long Point Light Station, which he would return to in 1882 after the death of his daughter Edith. Interestingly, Shinault was the only keeper CBLH had who lived in both the Principal Keeper’s house and the Little Keeper’s house. CBLH’s museum shop, barged to Currituck Beach in 1920 to be a separate dwelling for keepers, allowed the 2nd Assistant keeper to have a separate dwelling from the 1st Assistant Keeper. The Little Keeper’s house would be Keeper Shinault and his wife Clara’s dwelling when he returned as Principal Keeper to Long Point! 

The documents recorded some of Shinault’s service appointments, including his appointment as Assistant Keeper of Long Point Station in the Currituck Sound in 1879, his promotion from Keeper at Currituck Beach to Keeper of Long Point Light Station in 1882, and then Master in the Light-House Service in 1908. The donation also included a newspaper clipping documenting Shinault’s cause of death as by “apoplexy,” (a hemorrhagic stroke). 

Photographic reproduction of a tin type of Keeper William Shinault. OBC, 2023.

In with the professional form-letter appointments are a series of handwritten letters between Shinault and Clara in the weeks leading up to his death while he was away from Long Point Depot as the Master of the Lighthouse Tender Juniper. The letters, penned with love and longing, share day-to-day events in  his time away from home in Currituck, matters of his health, and his wishes to return home to be with his loved ones. He complained of illness, taking sick to the point where he left work in Beaufort to go see a doctor in Marshallberg, NC.  3. After, he wrote Clara three times, assuring her of a clean bill of health and of returning to his duties. In each correspondence Shinault relays a quick work summary (“I have got to go to Cape Lookout to investigate a Beacon that is about to wash away. I may have to move it. If I do it will take 2 or 3 days and if I have every day good weather”; “I am laying at anchor fitting and painting boards to use in Bogue Sound. I have only about 4 hours more work to do in this Sound when the weather gets suitable but you cant tell anything about the weather here.”) and moves to express his sincerest desires to return to her. 

Captain Shinault’s vessel, Juniper. OBC, 2023.
Long Point, NC. Capt. Shinault’s Steamers Juniper and Brahble. OBC, 2023.

“I am mighty tired of this trip and I want to see you mighty bad” he wrote in his last letter sent before his death in the last of May, 1913. “My darling wife,” he begins most frequently in his letters. “Write to [me] when you can” he says, then always a sincere signature of “your devoted husband…” or “​​With lots of love from your devoted”. After complaining of thorough sweating (“the nastiest sweat I have ever sweated”) and being diagnosed with “acute indigestion” by a doctor in the days prior, William Shinault went to sleep in his vessel, a tender (called “tugboat” in one newspaper clipping) at port in Beaufort, and was not able to be roused the following morning by his crew members. 

The culmination of letters and Lighthouse Service appointments add a layer of depth and complexity to Shinault’s story and to the nature of his work. Keepers along the Outer Banks worked in isolated areas and were continually tested by the harsh environments of barrier island and nearby  sounds. Shinault’s casual depictions of his travels pale in relation to the words of warmth he directs to Clara. 

Doxey’s commitment to caring for the letters illuminates a shared love and passion for service that both she and Shinault possessed. Her donation allows us to see the care that this Keeper-  expressed not only for his wife, but for his profession in the Light Saving Service as well. His commitment to his Service, through illness and foul weather, is a bolt that runs through each document in the archival set. 

OBC is proud to provide a platform for which the stories of the Keepers of Currituck Beach can be shared, both from their words and documents and the stories left to their descendants. As documents return, bound between husband and wife, ancestor to descendant, and from keeper to lighthouse, OBC will continue to save them for those who seek out these stories. A near-Valentine’s Day newsletter seemed the right spot to share our love for historic preservation and living history. We would love to see what letters you might have on any of our 24 oil-carrying lighthouse keepers!