CSI joins Manteo in effort to save lighthouse relic

By on April 23, 2013

Dr. Nathan Richards with the screw pile. (Town of Manteo)

Dr. Nathan Richards with the screw pile. (Town of Manteo)

Plans are under way to preserve and display a massive iron screw-pile leg believed to be part of the Roanoke Marshes Light that was dredged up from the Croatan Sound about 10 years ago.

The artifact was discovered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a channel-cleaning operation and has been kept at the town’s public works yard ever since, says Manteo Town Manager Kermit Skinner.

The beacon was constructed in the waters near Wanchese in the late 1800s.

“We can’t definitively say at the moment that it is from the original Roanoke Marshes light, and we can’t say what leg it is,” says Dr. Nathan Richards, head of the maritime heritage program at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute. “That could be cleared up with future research.”

The legs were giant iron cylinders with large threads that were turned into the sand to support the structure. The process was completed at the time using sail and steam power.

A replica of the lighthouse now stands on the Manteo waterfront. The original was lost in the Roanoke Sound during an attempt to tow it to private property after it was decommissioned in 1955.

A sketch of the lighthouse with the leg marked. CSI students found the sketch in the National Archives.

A sketch of the lighthouse with the leg marked. A CSI student found the sketch in the National Archives.

A recent partnership with maritime experts at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute has made it possible to move forward with conservation of the piece, and officials expect to eventually display near the downtown replica and N.C. Maritime Museum.

“We knew this was a significant artifact when it was discovered by Stuart Westcott, but we weren’t really sure what to do with it,” said Skinner. “Being a small town, the preservation of it was beyond the talents of our staff.”

The efforts, says Skinner, will help to keep the story of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse from being lost in time.

“This illustrates the rich maritime existence in the shallow waters of our area,” he continued. “We are very excited to have a piece of the original lighthouse.”

While he added that the replica serves as a significant facility in itself, having the artifact is just “icing on the cake.”
Maritime experts at CSI are now consulting with conservators at East Carolina University to devise a plan that would stabilize the artifact long-term and halt deterioration. The enormous artifact, which can’t even be lifted by the town’s backhoe, has held up amazingly well considering its age, officials say.

The replica of the lighthouse.

The replica of the lighthouse.

“This is a great opportunity for the public to see how these lighthouses were made, Richards said.

The leg is nearly intact. Once mounted on display, the town will erect interpretive signs.

Based on images of the lighthouse from historical records, Richards said the screw-pile leg is a near exact match and was discovered in the same area as the lighthouse was originally constructed.

“Right now we are trying to get the Town of Manteo the best advice and plan of attack to get this leg stabilized and prepared for potential movement and display,” he said.

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