The second annual Spring Retreat conducted by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society (OBLHS) was held April 29-May 1 in the small community of Southport, North Carolina. Event planners diligently worked to make the event as successful as the first. Visits to the Oak Island and Bald Head Island lights, a walking tour of Southport, and dinner at the Oak Island Life-Saving Station were just some of the major events during the retreat.
There was one more event that no one in attendance dared miss: a rare visit to the usually inaccessible Prices Creek (front range) Light. The brick lighthouse was built in 1849 and was active only until 1861. It was used as a signal tower by Confederate troops during the Civil War. There’s been talk of moving the tower to a more accessible location, but so far there’s no preservation plan in place.
Event planners and city officials were able to get permission from the lighthouse’s owner, Archer-Daniels, for the OBLHS to visit the lighthouse, which stands on its property at the west side of the Cape Fear River. Although permission was granted and a boat was obtained to take the group to the light, the weather wasn’t looking too cooperative.
The morning began with a short meeting and a tour of the Southport Maritime Museum. Then the group was treated to a walking tour of Southport. After the walking tour ended at 12:30 p.m., it was announced to the group that the Prices Creek Lighthouse tour would take place that afternoon at 2:00 p.m. With great enthusiasm, we quickly registered for the event and proceeded to lunch before meeting with the group at the boat landing.
Once at the boat landing, my girlfriend Christina and I boarded the boat along with the other members of the group as Bob, the boat captain, greeted us. When everyone was on board, we departed and headed for the lighthouse. After a ten-minute ride up the river, we found ourselves just offshore in front of the lighthouse. Our captain eased the boat to the beach and we all disembarked, jumping off onto the sandy shore. Larry Pace was our tour guide during our time at the lighthouse and we followed him a few feet down the beach. As Larry outlined the area where we were allowed to explore, the boat departed to pick up the next group.
The path to the lighthouse took us through a mucky tidal area, left behind by the outgoing tide. As we walked through the waist-high marsh grasses, each step sent fiddler crabs scurrying, as they were trying to not be stepped on as we hiked the few hundred feet toward the light.
Our first objective was to check out the inside of the tower. As we walked around to the entrance, we were not surprised to find that the door was missing. Stepping up inside the lighthouse, we realized that a new set of stairs had recently been installed into the tower. Someone commented that the stairs may have been built for our visit, but a few places on the stairs showed minor signs of exposure to the rain, indicating that the stairway had been there longer than initially thought.
We then took a close look at the floor in the tower, and it was evident that all the brickwork was not original. It was noticeable that a type of mortar had been used to place the newer bricks that were different from the mortar used in the original construction. The window on the south side of the tower was missing the panes of glass it once held, and the wooden framing was in terrible condition due to being exposed to the weather. We also noted that the interior bricks on the bottom of the window had rounded edges as if the corners had been rounded off.
We then began climbing the 13 steps and came to the window on the north side of the tower. The window was in the same condition as the other one, yet the interior bricks on the bottom of the window still had more of a rectangular shape, unlike the rounded-off bricks in the other window. As we climbed to the top of the stairway, we came to the wooden landing at the top of the 20-foot tower.
Standing on the landing, you could reach up and grab the rebar that was added when the concrete cap was installed onto the light, closing off the entrance into the lantern room that no longer exists. Near the wood planking that made up the landing was an interesting section in the brickwork. There were four vertical openings, indicating that at one time it may have been used to vent air into the lantern room and the tower. The openings were now sealed, probably an attempt at some point to keep moisture out of the tower. A final note-worthy observation was that there was a good amount of mold growing in the upper part of the tower, yet the 1840s brickwork seemed to be holding its own against the elements.
After taking all the photos that we wanted, we descended the stairway to make room for the others and headed back outside where Larry was answering questions about the light and giving a brief account of its history. One of the interesting things we learned was that the pole so prominently protruding from the top of the tower once held and supported the lens.
After all questions were answered, we took a number of photos of the exterior before we headed back over to the beach where next group of people was departing the boat and members from our group were getting back on the boat. We decided to stick around a while longer and take the next boat back with the group that just arrived. Although we stayed over on the beach area, we took a number of photos of the new group enjoying the experience of visiting the lighthouse. When the boat arrived again with the third group, it was our time to leave. We boarded the boat and were set to take off, but our captain had gotten the boat too far up on the beach and was having trouble getting it back out in the water. A few of us got back off the boat and helped push the boat back out in the water and then boarded again.
As we made the trip back to the boat landing, a number of us were chatting about the lighthouse and what an exciting experience it was to be part of the first group granted permission to visit. Most of what we had read about the lighthouse referred to it as “ruins,” which in my opinion is not the case.
Back at the boat landing, we departed the boat, gave our thanks and appreciation to our captain for the safe and enjoyable ride over to the lighthouse, and went to prepare for the next event on the retreat schedule.