What’s in a Photograph? A Second Look at the Oldest Image of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Above, the notable 1893 photograph, taken by Herbert Bamber on June 12, 1893

What’s in a Photograph? A Second Look at the Oldest Image of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

By: Meghan Agresto, Currituck Beach Lighthouse Site Manager & Historian  

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In June 1893, a “government surveyor,” as the lighthouse keeper called him in his journal notes that month , arrived to survey the Currituck Beach Light Station in his capacity as assistant engineer for the U.S. Light-House Board. Thanks to this man, Herbert Bamber, who had come from surveying Bodie Island and Hatteras Lighthouses in the days prior, we have photographs of our then-keepers and their families: Lazarus Hinnant, Fabius Simpson, and William Riley Austin.

The keeper on the right in the photo is Principal Keeper Hinnant. At the time of the photo, he was 31 and had lived at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse for five years. He and his wife, Ida, had four children at this point.  The two assistant keepers were living together with their families on the north side of the keepers’ duplex. Remember that our little keeper’s house was brought over on a barge in 1920 so before that point, three keepers shared the duplex – the principal keeper lived on the south side and the assistants together on the north. Because the photo gets blurry when we magnify it, we had to do a little sleuthing to determine which keeper on the north side was which.

CBLH, standing tall at 145 years old

On the day of the photograph (June 12), 1st assistant keeper Fabius Simpson had been at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse for eight years. (We have been working diligently on bios for our keepers – more on that soon we hope!) By 1893 Fabius was married, although had no children yet. William Riley Austin already had three young sons. On the day of Herbert Bamber’s visit Austin’s wife Lovey was actually eight months pregnant with their first daughter. So, since we can see the waist of the woman on the north porch, we will assume that that was Fabius’s wife – Frances Emma Simpson – and not an 8-month pregnant Lovey Austin. Following this guesswork, we will assume that Fabius is the man standing next to the woman on the north side of the porch and William Riley Austin is the man to his right. We can only imagine that Lovey is trying to get boys down for a nap in the bedroom with the windows open above.

This 1893 photo is the oldest photo we have of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Examining it, we find a few interesting differences between the station in the 19th century and today.

Most obviously to those of you who have seen the site, there are many fewer trees and bushes in 1893 than in 2021. Corolla may have been the last spot where the dune system of the Outer Banks was built along the oceanfront in the 1930s and 1940s. Once those dunes were built and cattle were no longer free-roaming, vegetation on the west side of the dunes was much more protected from salt, sand, wind and from getting nibbled. Additionally, after the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1963, the State Wildlife Resources Commission approved $15K to protect Currituck Sound from heavy inflows of salt water by creating two and three rows of sand fences in a 13.5 mile area on either side of the lighthouse. (N&O, 11/05/63 p.1) As a result, trees and bushes proliferated. People often ask us, “Why wasn’t the lighthouse built on the beach” but of course, in the 1870s the whole site was beach.

In the photo, you can see there is a fence separating the principal keeper’s side and the assistant keepers’ side both on the West and East of the house. Apart from fences making good neighbors and the advantages that came with being a principal keeper, we know that our keepers kept hogs, horses, and cattle (and early on were often getting written up by inspectors about not keeping them penned well enough). In the Bamber photo, gates are visible; they gave keepers access to the tower. We have no fences like that today, though many of you have seen the Y in front of the Lighthouse where the fences gave the keepers access to the front door of the lighthouse, which does seem to be painted dark instead of white as it is today.

Another key component of the photo is the line (perhaps even two) going from the Lighthouse to the Keepers’ House, as well as white poles between the house and the tower. Around 1882, electric call bells were placed “in the keeper’s dwelling, connecting…with the lighthouse tower… The object was to enable the keeper…to call either or both of his assistants in case of accident or at time of relief. It required … 3- 6inch call bells with buttons, about 300 feet of insulated wire, insulators, and six bells…” By 1887 a new bell system had been installed, this time an electro-magnetic system with poles.

Note that at the top of the lighthouse in the Bamber photo there is bird netting around the lantern, as well as an exterior ladder inside the netting. The ladder gave the keepers access to the glass and the roof, while the netting kept birds from hitting the lantern wall and cracking the glass. Remember, the lighthouse lantern burned all night and as such, its light confused birds. In the 1882/1883 Friends Intelligencer Currituck’s Keeper William Shinault was quoted, “I must say that as the light-house is nearly a mile from the sea it is a little out of the course of the regular flights of birds, consequently not as many birds strike it as if it were nearer to the beach.  As to their breaking through the glass the light-house department has learned by expensive experience that unprotected lights on this coast are unprofitable.  They have therefore placed wire screens around the lanterns….The largest number of dead birds picked up one morning was seventy-six.” We know that the lighthouse still had netting around the lantern through at least 1949 (see image below).

This image was shared with OBC by Doug Smith whose father Richard Smith took these as color slides (very unusual in 1949) when he was the schoolteacher at the schoolhouse for a year.

People often ask about ghosts at our tower. Were he a ghost, Bamber would have so many lighthouses to visit given his many accomplishments (not just photographic – he was superintendent of construction at Ponce Inlet lighthouse!). But we can certainly consider him one of our patron saints! And though we wish he had asked every lighthouse keeper whose sites he photographed to open the curtains for just one moment so he might have shared with us the configuration of all the towers’ lenses (curtains had to be closed in the lantern at all stations during the day), without him we would know so much less about our station when it still presumably looked like quite a bit like it did when it was constructed – see how white the granite on the tower is still for example! And for that, for just one day in the life of this light station, we are so grateful.   

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