Keepers of the Light Amphitheater: From Circle to Arcs at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
-- first published in Lighthouse News Vol. XXI 2015; by Cheryl Shelton-Roberts
There has been another rescue at Cape Hatteras.
In late January and early February of this year, a quiet project began at the Cape Hatteras Light Station that will speak loudly into the future. Thirty-six granite stones engraved with keepers’ names once comprised the revered area marking the original site of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse foundation–fondly known by many as the “Circle of Stones.” They were excavated from their sandy prison created by several events of storm-driven, ocean overwash and moved to the National Park Service (NPS) Buxton maintenance yard. After a thorough cleaning, plans began for a new “look” for the stones. The new design is one of historical appeal and promises to be even more useful than the old “Circle of Stones.”
In maintaining historical context, the Circle of Stones evolved into three rows of double arcs. All the stones now are arranged in such a manner that seated visitors will face the grand lighthouse with an unhindered view of it as well as facing a speaker; moreover, for the first time in their history, the stones are wheelchair accessible. We now have a new memorial officially named “Keepers of the Light Amphitheater.” Here is a brief story about the stones’ journey.
The first of five granite plinths, the “stepped” layers that supported the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, was the cutting line below ground level that freed the tower from its original foundation. Unleashed, the tower was lifted and moved 2.900 feet southwest to its current position in 1999. What happened to that first, subterranean layer of granite?
In 1999, the moving team was contracted to move everything belonging to the light station that was above ground to the new location. It just so happened that a top portion of that first plinth poked its head out of the sand. So, that meant that the plinth had to be excavated, broken into blocks, or “stones,” and “moved.” The movers did not need the dense blocks of heavy stones in their entirety; therefore, movers received permission to cut away about a foot of the “face” of each stone. Those faces were applied to the exterior of the reinforced brick foundation at the new location. Today, if anyone were to dig below the ground’s surface under the lighthouse and look at what was once the first plinth, he would find that it appears just as it did when the foundation was laid by Dexter Stetson’s lighthouse construction crew in 1869. What happened to the rest of the stones left behind?
In 1999, the National Park Service (NPS or the “Park”) had movers to place 36 of the 44 granite stones into a circle to represent the lighthouse’s foundation at the original site. Eight of the remaining unmarked stones were placed as cornerstone markers at the old site to indicate where the Double Keepers Quarters and Principle Keepers Quarters once stood. The ninth one is thought to be at the NPS Buxton maintenance shop.
Going forward, in 2000, the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society (OBLHS) received permission to engrave the stones with names of keepers of both the 1803 and 1870 towers with the first known date of service for each man. The “Circle of Stones” became a place for milestone events including weddings, christenings, and funerals. It also was a place that hundreds of keepers’ descendants visited to place flowers on the stone bearing their ancestor’s name or do a rubbing to capture the engraved name for a keepsake held by future generations of descendants. It became a very special place for many. It was perfect.
But capricious Mother Nature began to reclaim the old site just as she had threatened the lighthouse’s foothold for decades. The heavy granite stones were tossed around, covered up, and uncovered only to be overwashed and buried again over several years. What was to be done? Relocate them? Let them wash away to sea? In view of the heated controversy concerning relocating the lighthouse, one might dread to even approach the subject.
But, overwhelming support was expressed to relocate the stones closer to the lighthouse. Great thought and planning ensued.
In June 2013, OBLHS’s board of directors began discussion on the future of the stones. Hurricane Sandy had completely buried them and there didn’t appear to be any plans to uncover them. We made sure former Superintendent Barclay Trimble knew of the Park’s initial plans for the stones as announced by then Deputy Superintendent Chris Bernthal. In partnership, OBLHS agreed to have the stones engraved and promised to keep the stones cleaned. In turn, the Park agreed to protect them while acknowledging that eventually they would have to be relocated and made into a “mini amphitheater” in which special events and programs can be held. And that is exactly what has happened.
The NPS, OBLHS, a representative from Congressman Walter Jones’ office, and representatives of the Hatteras Island Preservation Genealogical Society (HIGPS) met to begin solid plans for the location and design of the amphitheater. It has taken input from many interested individuals over the past year to make a vision happen. But then again, visions happen regularly at this revered light station.
Journey's End Marks a New Future
Today, thirty-six engraved granite stones are gracefully placed in three rows of double arcs in their new location east of the lighthouse, thanks to the prescience of both the NPS and those who respect the stones and their historical value. The east side of the pavilion near the visitors center (close to the parking area) was agreed upon for two main reasons: first, the stones’ proximity to the lighthouse is appropriate but does not infringe on the historic district for interpretive purposes; and secondly, the site is not disposed to flooding. John Havel took the original Park’s plan for the mini amphitheater and gave it his expert graphic artist’s touch.
All work was done by NPS personnel. Doug Blackmon, heavy machine operator for the Park, was assisted by Chris Kosciewicz from Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio to achieve the stones’ new arrangement. The engineering design was followed perfectly to include an emergency access road as well as a five-foot-wide aisle down the center of the double arcs and between each row of stones, making the site handicap accessible. Doug has recorded the exact size and weight of each stone. The lightest weighs about 2,300 pounds while the largest tips the scale at over 5,700 pounds. The most difficult part of the job was the compacting of the layers of sand and clay that had to be made wet and firmly packed several times. Then came the durable crush and run gravel that had to be compacted and leveled also. And the finishing touch was a layer of crushed shells–an idea that came from Shelly Rollinson, Maintenance Mechanic Supervisor Outer Banks Group-South District. The overall arrangement is environmentally sound and pleasing to the eye.
From the top of the lighthouse, the stones look as if they are floating on a giant clam shell.
Congressman Jones’ office communicated with the Department of Historic Preservation to ensure the stones will retain their historical status just as was done for the lighthouse following relocation.
All that remains to complete the project is to lay sod outside the stones’ area filled with shells. The Park asks this of visitors: Do not remove the shells, but do pull up any weeds within the stones’ area. As he bent over and plucked a dandelion weed, Doug said, “Just pull it up and toss it to the side. That way we can keep it a weed-free area at no extra cost.”
But there is one more thing. In agreement with many others who have visited the site since the stones’ relocation, OBLHS feels that something meaningful is currently missing at the historic complex: the original lighthouse site must be marked since the stones have been moved. OBLHS designed and sponsored a wayside marker at the original site years ago, but storms eventually destroyed it. Today, anyone asking about the former location of the tower is hard pressed to find an answer. The Park has discussed placing a buoy to mark the 1803 tower’s location, but an appropriate marker and interpretation sign should be placed at the 1870 lighthouse’s site to bring the story full circle.
The editor would like to thank former OBLHS president Bett Padgett for her leadership in this project; John Havel for sharing his graphic artist’s expertise and for his intense interest in the project, the NPS, and our loyal membership. Recognition is due to Doug Blackmon for his careful work using large machinery to lift, move, and reset the stones, and to Shelly Rollinson for having closely documented the stone relocation project and for granting interviews. Doug and Shelly both shared their photographs for this article. Thanks to HIGPS, and all those who voiced opinions that shaped the progress and execution of the stones relocation project.
This entire stones project appears to be not only unique but possibly unprecedented at a historic site: The stones’ repurposed role as marking the original 1870 tower’s foundation came first; next, they were engraved with 83 keepers’ names, sponsored by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society; finally, they have been relocated and now have a new role as the Keepers of the Light Amphitheater near the lighthouse.
© 2016 OBLHS