In preparing this study, we have benefitted from advice and assistance graciously offered by many people both inside and outside the National Park Service.
Cape Lookout National Seashore staff helped orient us to the park and made key records available: Chief of Resource Management Michael Rikard, Chief of Visitor Protection Barry Munyan, Management Assistant Wouter Ketel, Facility Manager Mike McGee, Administrative Officer Rich Huffman, Administrative Clerk Cathy Frazier, and Superintendent Russel Wilson. At various points, Tommy Jones, Brian Coffey and Bethany Serafine at the Southeast Regional Office of the National Park Service offered useful commentary on what we had written, and steered us toward other important materials and issues. Longtime volunteers Ed and Rene Burgess gave us a thorough tour of Portsmouth. Archives Technicians Michelle Schneider and Alvie Sellmer of NPS’s Technical Information Center in Denver provided indispensable digitized documents on several occasions.
Karen Willis Amspacher of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum at Harkers Island welcomed us to the museum’s informative public programs, and David Montgomery of The History Place in Beaufort helped with elusive statistical data. The staff at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo offered assistance as well. Joseph Mitchell located details in Methodist church sources on the Methodist Church at Portsmouth.
The always knowledgeable staff of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources provided archival help and advice on many occasions. Military Collections Archivist Sion Harrington III was especially helpful. Senior Architectural Historian Michael Southern and North Carolina’s National Register Coordinator Ann Swallow guided us through technicalities related to the National Register of Historic Places and alerted us to relevant documents in the State Historic Preservation Office.
Through the now many years we have done research on many projects in their collections, the University of North Carolina Library and its North Carolina Collection have provided an incomparable array of key documents and resources in both conventional and (more recently) digital form. Their extensive Documenting the American South digital collection allowed us both to access historical documents (especially the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina collection and the new North Carolina Maps compendium of digital maps and to use them more efficiently than was ever possible in the pre-digital age.
This is the second NPS study we have undertaken through the cooperative agreement between the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service. As before, it has been our great pleasure to work with the OAH’s Public History Manager Susan Ferentinos. Her sensitivity to the concerns of professional historians in all settings is as impressive as are her managerial skills.
Nature has always had the upper hand on the “ribbon of sand” that is now Cape Lookout National Seashore. Part of the ever-changing Outer Banks, the seashore’s island environment has commanded attention and demanded respect for centuries. Reports of disastrous encounters with hurricanes and shoals go back at least into the late sixteenth century.1
Appropriately then, the 1966 Federal law that authorized creation of a National Seashore at Core Banks and Shackleford Banks focused on the area’s “outstanding natural values” and required that they be managed for “conservation of natural features.” At the same time, however, the establishing legislation specified that the area’s “recreational values” be conserved and managed so as to contribute to “public enjoyment [and] public outdoor recreation” (P.L. 89-366).
As every National Park Service employee who has ever worked at Cape Lookout National Seashore (or indeed at any national park) has learned, these two sets of values and obligations can be difficult to harmonize and maintain at the same time. Conservationists don’t always see things in the same way that ATV riders do; sport and commercial fishermen can find themselves at odds; tourists sometimes want more infrastructure than the environment can support. Historic preservation of sometimes xfragile structures can clash with their adaptive reuse, and each must be measured against available public tax dollars. In fact, opposition between these values and aims long predated the coming of the National Seashore.
In 2007, a much acclaimed new park orientation film welcomed visitors with the soothing voice of Meryl Streep channeling Rachel Carson. “The shore,” Streep nearly whispers, “is an ancient world,” a place of the “meeting of land and water,” where “in every curving beach and every grain of sand, there is the story of the earth.” For the nearly thirty minutes that follow, human history (in the form of a few picturesque but unoccupied and uncontextualized historic structures and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse) plays only a bit part in a sweeping drama featuring sparkling blue water, blowing sands, orange sunsets, galloping horses, swooping and wading birds, God-like satellite views, heart-stopping helicopter flyovers, new-age music, and finally the comforting benedictory assurance that “All at last return to the sea, to Oceanus.”
Would that it were so. When an NPS team gathered at the park in 1967 and 1970 to begin drafting a master plan, however, not everything had slipped so peacefully into the sea. In converting the parklands for recreational use, early park managers found on their “to-do” list a recommendation to “[d]ispose of the hundreds of abandoned and junked cars and many squatter shacks” remaining on Core Banks.2 [ILLUSTRATION: Junk cars g119.tif. CAPTION: Fig. Introduction-1 Two of the many hundreds of junk cars abandoned on Cape Lookout National Seashore lands. Car on left seems to be 1950s Dodge or Plymouth; one on right may date from a decade later. Southeast Regional Office archive, National Park Service.]
The 2500 junked cars and the squatter shacks were just the latest residue of a long history of human activity on the islands that became the National Seashore.3 Like nearly all national park areas in the eastern United States, Cape Lookout National Seashore was carved out of privately owned lands, rather than out of the comparatively trackless public domain on which most early western parks had been mapped. While most of the permanent residents of the islands had already left by the time the National Seashore was created, protracted land acquisition conflicts with major property owners like the Core Banks Gun Club and individuals who owned fishing or vacation cabins remind us that creating the national parks, especially in the east, superimposed Park Service-created landscapes on vernacular ones.4 [ILLUSTRATION: Core Banks Gun Club ca 1960s-70s d49.tif. CAPTION: Fig. Introduction-2: Core Banks Gun Club, 1960s or 1970s. Cape Lookout National Seashore archives.] Deciding how much – and what elements – of the former landscape to retain and interpret in a new park context is a central management challenge.5
Thus, during the decade between the park’s authorization in 1966 and formal establishment in 1976, park managers and others began to realize that the new park contained substantial material remnants of the long human history on the islands. This growing understanding of the historic resources in the park doubtless came about at least partly due to NPS efforts to comply with the newly codified principles of historic preservation, encompassed in the landmark 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which created the National Register of Historic Places, housed within the Park Service.
Thus the sparse material remains of human history still in evidence on Meryl Streep’s “natural” Cape Lookout National Seashore are to a degree misleading. Most of that history has been altered or erased by centuries of storms, shifting sands, impermanent inlets, and dynamic social, economic and cultural systems. It is this restless interplay between natural and human history that this study most seeks to comprehend and explain. In the process, we attend to the human history both seen and unseen, for both are, in a true sense, the “historic resources” the park must understand and interpret for the public.