The Keeper of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was beginning his climb to the top of the lighthouse on that fateful night of August 31, 1886. The wicks were lit early before dark and he had come down to dinner with his family before taking up his customary place on the outer platform below the candle room. From here he could see any signs of trouble for ships at sea and, if spotted, could signal by light to the nearby Lifesaving Service boat station.
During the hot summer months, he enjoyed his time alone at the top. On this hot and humid evening, it was cooler up there with the air moving more than at ground level and delivering a slight, but cooling sea breeze which was divine. As darkness fully set in, the haze of the day disappeared and the stars above looked as if he could reach out and touch them. He pulled out his pipe and stoked it with tobacco, then lit it and enjoyed the aroma of the spiced tobacco as he blew the smoke out slowly, savoring the moment. It was one pleasure that he enjoyed immensely, that and strong, black coffee which he carried with him for his watch to keep him awake.
He looked at his watch and it said 9:50 p.m. and as he began to ponder the hours of quiet he would spend that night, suddenly the lighthouse tower began to shake. It stopped and he thought it had been his imagination but then it started again, more violent, and he could identify a swaying motion from southwest to northeast, yet there was nearly no wind to speak of.
He decided to sound the alarm for something was wrong and he wanted anyone on the grounds to leave now. Then he started to make his way inside to the circular stairwell, having to hang on for dear life to avoid being flung over the side. On his way down the stairs, he was knocked down by loss of balance twice and took a couple of hits to his body from the iron steps, yet he made it safely.
And then, just as suddenly, the shaking of the land and the swaying of the lighthouse stopped. Shortly thereafter one of the surfmen from the lifesaving station showed up to see if things were okay.
“The Chief said he could see the lighthouse swaying and sent me to check, Sir,” the young man said. “We just walked outside of the station because the wall was rattling but we were concerned because we knew you would be stationed at the top.”
He thanked the young man and sent him on his way, then went into the Keeper’s house to see his wife and children in good shape but just a little shell-shocked. He told them it must have been some type of earthquake although he had never experienced one and said he’d ride up to Buxton in the buggy in the morning to the telegraph station to find out what happened.
After waiting an hour with no further activity, he retraced his footsteps back up the tower and noticed that every glass window in the lighthouse was cracked. Yet when he got to the lens room, the Fresnel lens showed no sign of damage, but he would clean them just to make sure they picked up no dust or debris when morning broke. The rest of his evening watch was quiet and of no concern.
In the morning when he hitched up the wagon and went to Buxton, he learned that indeed it had been the offshoot of an earthquake, a big one which nearly destroyed the Old City of Charleston, South Carolina and killed about one hundred people. But even more frightening locally was what was learned from the experience of Indians in a village named Whapopin over near Engelhard on the other side of the Pamlico.
At the same time the lighthouse was swaying, the Indians were awakened by the shaking earth and escaped their village of thirty huts and farm plots for higher ground. When they came back later, the entire land mass was under two feet of water, caused by liquefaction, the pulverization of the sandy soil to near dust which allowed the groundwater level to fill in the void. The small town literally sank as a result of the earthquake and the residents then moved to Engelhard.
The Charleston earthquake measured about 6.7 on the Richter scale while the impact in eastern North Carolina was about half that. Yet, a tremor in a swamp or sand, land much more likely to freely break down under stress, would account for the huge sway and the sunken village. And what was called the village of Whapopin near Lake Mattamuskeet is now listed on most geographical maps as Whapopin Creek.
I was led to this story by one of my author page readers, Maggie Bourbon, who identified a Facebook post on the subject. She just suggested I look into it and, being that it was a Facebook site, I looked for other corroboration. Sure enough, I found a sixteen- page paper written by Fred Willard of the Lost Colony Research Center which validated the story, so here it is for my readers to see.
So, we’ve got nor’easters and hurricanes to worry about and I hope this doesn’t mean we now have earthquakes to contend with in our future. But, folks, after all, it’s just nature doing her thing and despite what we think, we are never really in control.