Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

Early 20th Century Tourism

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Early 20th Century Tourism

As the sport-hunting era faded, the beaches became the major scene of vacation activity – swimmers and sunbathers in the daytime, and boardwalk strollers and dancers in the evenings. One vacationer recalled turn-of-the-century Nags Head evenings at an early dance pavilion, lighted by lanterns. On slow evenings, music came from scratchy records played on an old windup Victrola, but the dancing picked up when someone banged out tunes on a piano or accordion. Better yet, Howard Weaver sometimes brought his three-piece dance band.

The possibilities of the beach pavilion were developed to their full potential many miles to the south, however, at Wrightsville Beach, which began to develop as a pleasure ground after the Island Beach Hotel opened in 1888 and the short-line Sea View Railroad reached the area from Wilmington in 1889. Local promoters were soon touting the area as “The Playground of the South.”39

The first extravagant beach holiday party took place on 4 July 1889 with a regatta, fireworks, and dancing in the pavilions. By the end of the 1890s, growth was explosive. The three-story, 150-room Seashore Hotel showplace opened in 1897, and two years later the town of Wrightsville Beach was incorporated. The area rebuilt quickly after the monster “San Ciriaco” hurricane of 1899. By 1902, families from Wilmington could take an electric trolley to the beach in forty-five minutes, beach cottages were multiplying rapidly, and Consolidated Railways, Light and Power Company had built a 400-seat vaudeville theater. [ILLUSTRATION: Through train to Wrightsville Beach 1912. CAPTION: Fig. 9-15: Through Train to Wrightsville Beach, 1912. Postcard published by S. H. Kress & Co. North Carolina Postcard Collection, North Carolina Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.]

A widely celebrated central feature of Wrightsville Beach during the first third of the twentieth century was the gigantic, lavish, and brightly lit Lumina Pavilion, opened on the south end of the beach in June 1905. [ILLUSTRATION: Lumina best dancing pavilion.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 9-16: Lumina, Best Dancing Pavilion on the South Atlantic Coast, ca. 1917. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library.]

Excursion trains brought thousands from Wilmington and as far away as Atlanta to “The Fun Spot of the South.” Hundreds crowded into its 6,000 square foot ballroom to dance to the music of the biggest bands of the day – Sammy Kay, Tommy Dorsey, and Kay Kyser. [ILLUSTRATION: Interior of Lumina dancing pavilion at night. CAPTION: Fig. 9-17: Interior of Lumina dancing pavilion at night, ca. 1912. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library.] There was something for everyone: a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, slot machines, food, movies (shown on a large screen in the surf after 1914), a huge promenade, and major athletic and aquatic events. [ILLUSTRATION: Movies over the waves at Lumina. CAPTION: Fig. 9-18: Movies “Over the Waves” at Lumina, E. C. Kropp Co. postcard, Milwaukee WI. Postmarked 22 July 1926. Postcard’s own caption said “A novel feature of the Lumina entertainment is ‘Movies over the waves,’ music and dancing in the background, the ever changing sea and starry sky excelling in grandeur painted decorations, and with balmy ocean breezes instead of artificial ventilation.” E.C. Kropp Co., Milwaukee. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library.]

By the 1920s, other pavilions, hotels, and beach houses were spreading in every direction, and fill was dumped to provide more building room. The state built the Wilmington-Wrightsville Beach causeway in 1926, and the first automobiles arrived in 1935. The coming of World War II troops, military bases and shipbuilding doubled the population of New Hanover County, and Wrightsville Beach became a year-round community. Threats from German submarines forced the dousing of the Lumina’s lights, but they came back on in 1943 and the big bands returned, drawing countless service personnel. The big bands played on into the 1950s, but with increasing competition from the new juke boxes. In 1954, hurricane Hazel blew down the huge lighted LUMINA sign on the roof, and the crowds dropped off. Much of the building was closed in the 1960s, and it was torn down in 1973.

As was the case everywhere at the time, the dancers, swimmers, and boardwalk strollers at Wrightsville Beach were all white, but McCallister’s engaging history of Wrightsville Beach also provides an interesting capsule history of a brief effort to establish a black resort called on the then separate Shell Island. Since the late nineteenth century, blacks had had a small pavilion at Ocean View Beach, but in 1923 plans developed for a larger “National Negro Playground,” which drew both local blacks and others from surrounding states. After a series of fires “of undetermined origin” destroyed some buildings, the area was abandoned in 1926. In the 1960s, the inlet separating the area closed, merging it with Wrightsville Beach.40 [ILLUSTRATION: Wrightsville Beach Roy Wilhelm map from McAllister p xii. CAPTION: Fig. 9-19: Map of Wrightsville Beach showing former site of Lumina Pavilion and railroad/trolley lines that served it, Shell Island Resort, and several large clubs and hotels. Map by Roy Wilhelm in McAllister, Wrightsville Beach: The Luminous Island, xii.]

Cape Lookout Village and Cape Lookout Development Company

Between the resort development at Nags Head and that at Beaufort and further south, the only substantial node of related development after the obliteration of Diamond City in the hurricane of 1899 was at the south end of Core Banks near the lighthouse. This small aggregation of structures, which at some indeterminate point came to be referred to as Cape Lookout Village, was only partly and belatedly related to what would usually be thought of as tourism, but it eventually was used by local people for recreational purposes.41

An 1853 U.S. Coast survey of of Shackleford Banks shows a small settlement called Lookout Woods located about a mile west of the lighthouse on Shackleford Banks. After the devastating 1899 hurricane, a few Diamond City fishing families relocated between the Life-Saving Station and the lighthouse, and by 1910 as many as eighty people were living there. For a little more than a year (April 1910-June 1911) they had the services of a post office, but it was discontinued because newly motorized boats placed both Harkers Island and Beaufort in easy reach.42

Around 1915, local school teacher Clem Gaskill built what later came to be called the Gaskill-Guthrie house there.43 [ILLUSTRATION: Gaskill-Guthrie house 1939.tiff. CAPTION: Fig. 9-20: Gaskill-Guthrie House 1939. Jones, Gaskill-Guthrie House Historic Structure Report, 24.] By 1920 there were about thirty houses in the area.44

In some quarters, however, there were high hopes for the development potential of Cape Lookout. Around 1913, local entrepreneur C. K. Howe of Beaufort and some associates formed Cape Lookout Development Company, with plans to establish both a resort and a commercial port.45 They began to buy land, and an ambitious plat showed many streets and hundreds of lots awaiting eager buyers. [ILLUSTRATION: Cape Lookout Development Company plat. CAPTION: Fig. 9-21: Cape Lookout Development Company plat, 1915. Tommy Jones, Lewis-Davis House: Historic Structure Report (2004), 13] A large clubhouse and hotel completed the scene.

Contemporaneously with these developments, the Corps of Engineers began in 1915 to construct a jetty in Cape Lookout Bight to create a coaling station and “harbor of refuge.” Cape Lookout Development Company principals apparently viewed this move as promising not only resort, but also commercial, potential for the area.46

Many were apparently convinced. “Cape Lookout to Be a Great Port,” a Beaufort News headline proclaimed a decade later. “It seems probable,” the article said, “that the long deferred development of Cape lookout is now about to take on a new life and that it may yet realize the hopes of those who have desired to see a seaport and resort city established there.” Cape Lookout Development Company officials had already obtained a charter; and were advertising and selling property. “Quite a number” of lots had been sold, the article reported somewhat vaguely, a “good many houses” were expected by the following summer, and a club house and “possibly a large hotel” were planned.

To increase public awareness, company officials had recently hired a boat and taken fifty or so newspaper reporters out to look at “the magnificent harbor,” which many of them saw as “North Carolina’s best chance to build up a seaport of the first grade.” Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot, who thirty years earlier had pioneered scientific forest management on the Vanderbilt estate in western North Carolina, came to look and was “greatly impressed.”

The Cape Lookout developers hoped to interest the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad in building a line to the Cape, but were prepared to build their own trolley line like the one from Wilmington that had helped spur development at Wrightsville Beach. “There are many persons who believe,” the Beaufort News reported,

that important as the possibilities of converting Cape Lookout into a big Summer resort [are,] . . . its commercial possibilities are even greater. The naturally fine harbor there has been greatly improved by the breakwater which the Federal Government started there some years ago . . . . When the railroad is finished, the harbor can be used for a coaling station. A fuel oil station may also be established there and it is possible that a cotton export business may be built up there some day.

The plans were both grand and vague, but in the next year, the article concluded, the developers “hope to have some big results to show for their hopes and activities.”47

The signs were not encouraging, however. In early 1922, the Company sold Coast Guardsman Odell Guthrie a lot for $100, including Clem Gaskill’s small ten year-old house which it had bought from Gaskill after he moved to Harker’s Island.48 A half-dozen years later, Charles A. Seifert, owner of the Coca-Cola franchise in New Bern, bought two lots from the Company and built a house (popularly known as the Coca-Cola House), one of the first vacation houses built at Cape Lookout by people who were not native to Carteret County.49

Two or three houses do not a development make, however. Demand for the commercial harbor never developed, the railroad (or trolley) was never built, only a few lots were sold, and sand eventually buried the only partially completed breakwater. The date of Charles Seifert’s purchase of land for the Coca-Cola house (1927) shows that the Cape Lookout Development Company continued to push the project at least until that date, but it was not to be. Three interrelated factors seem to have doomed the development: the failure to build the railroad or trolley, the Federal government’s abandoning the jetty construction, and the coming of the Depression two years later. Their relative importance is not clear.

What did happen, however, was that existing residential houses at Cape Lookout were slowly converted to vacation use, eventually resulting in a small resort community. The O’Boyle-Bryant house, built about 1939, was used by military personnel during World War II, and bought by N. C. State forestry professor Ralph Bryant in 1961. [ILLUSTRATION: OboyleBryant house 1939.tiff. CAPTION: Fig. 9-22: O’Boyle-Bryant house as it looked in 1939. Jones, O'Boyle-Bryant House, Cape Lookout National Seashore: Historic Structure Report, 28.] It was later used by his daughter and her husband, and incorporated into Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1976.50 The Guthrie-Ogilvie house was similarly re-purposed for vacation use. The Coca-Cola house was bought by long-time state geologist Harry T. Davis, who used it as a base for his bird studies and retreat for the North Carolina Shell Club.51 Around 1930, a Mr. Baker built a large summer cottage (Casablanca). At about the same time, the Bryant house was built, and Carrie Arendell Davis built a house and a dance hall and snack bar (a mini-Lumina?) that was the scene of popular weekend parties.52 Around 1940 George Allen Holderness and several other Tarboro families purchased a part-interest and shared its use for many years.

The Cape Lookout Village area underwent considerable expansion during World War II, but buildings associated with the expansion were removed at the end of the war. [ILLUSTRATION: Cape Lookout Village 1942.tiff. CAPTION: Fig. 9-23: Cape Lookout Village as it looked in 1942. Jones, Gaskill Guthrie House Historic Structure Report, 21.] Les and Sally Moore, who owned a store at the Cape, constructed several rental cabins from the 1950s until around 1970. The second lighthouse keeper’s quarters was sold as surplus property in 1958 to Dr. and Mrs. Graham Barden, who moved it south and used it for many years as a vacation cottage. Several other buildings (including two jetty workers’ houses) were also sold at this time and converted to occasional use.53 Fishing Cottage #2, possibly built by a Coast Guardsman for his family, also dates from the 1950s.54

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