By Aida and John Havel
May 2, 2023, Salvo, NC–As Ocracoke Island and the National Park Service prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the lighting of the island’s most famous structure, one startling mystery remains: when exactly in 1823 was the lamp at its top first lit? (It’s actually a trick question; read on for the answer!)
The Ocracoke Preservation Society does not know. Venerable local historian Philip Howard does not know. Park Service historians, interpretive staff and assorted researchers have searched old books, contemporary newspapers, and assorted archives and come up empty, without even a month, much less a day for the tower’s first lighting.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has a month, day, and year (December 16, 1870), Bodie Island Lighthouse has a month, day, and year (October 1, 1872), Currituck Beach Lighthouse has a month, day, and year (December 1, 1875), but Ocracoke? Ocracoke is an orphan, seemingly destined to celebrate its birthday at the whim of party planners.
But into this murky mystery steps Dale Mutro, an Ocracoke Island native, who works the front desk at The Anchorage Inn by day and conducts super sleuth historical research by night. Mutro is not a writer or a historian, and yet, in the year when an entire island was getting ready to celebrate their light’s 200th anniversary, he quietly and humbly revealed to a few chosen people a small stack of documents from numerous websites and resources that show, step-by-step, and year-by-year, not only when the lighthouse construction was completed, but also the month, day, and year that Ocracoke Lighthouse was first lit by Anson Harker, its first Keeper.
Here is what Mr. Mutro found, all supported by primary source documents:
On April 24, 1823, Winslow Lewis, who sold lamps to the Lighthouse Establishment for installation in lighthouses around the country, wrote a letter to Henry Dearborn, Collector of Customs and Superintendent of Lighthouses, in Boston, saying, “The lighthouse to be built at Ocracock [sic], is situated between Cape Hatteras & Cape Look Out light houses….. I should recommend the light to be lighted with 15 lamps….” The mention of these 15 lamps will become important later.
On June 20, 1823, Henry Dearborn entered into a contract with builder Noah Porter for the construction of the Ocracoke Lighthouse, with Porter “to furnish all the requisite materials and to perform the work as aforesaid in a faithful and workmanlike manner….by the first day of December next,” which would be December 1, 1823.
On May 6, 1824, Stephen Pleasanton, the Fifth Auditor and Acting Commissioner of Revenue (who was in charge of lighthouses but who delegated this authority to Dearborn) sent a letter to Dearborn saying “Sir, Your account for building a lighthouse and dwelling house at Ocracoke has been received and handed to the first Auditor for adjustment,” meaning that construction had been completed and payment (handled by the First Auditor) would be forthcoming.
Then there is a flurry of letters in June 1824 suggesting a replacement for Anson Harker who was “being about to resign” his post as Commissioner of Wrecks in Carteret County to take up new duties as Ocracoke’s first lighthouse keeper. (It would seem clear that a lighthouse can’t be lit without first having a keeper.) The new wreck commissioner, Jechonias Pigott, was commissioned by Governor Gabriel Holmes on July 3, 1824.
We’re almost there!
On November 9, 1824, Stephen Pleasanton writes to Henry Dearborn, scolding him for overpaying Winslow Lewis, who supplied the lamps. “In the above account you have included the payment to him [Mr. Lewis] for Ocracoke and St. Augustine lighthouses from the 1st January, when the former was not lit til the 3rd of April and the latter the 15th August……Deductions: St Augustine 10 lamps from 1 January to 3 April 1824 is 3 months 2 days at $4.25 per annum… Ocracoke 15 lamps from 1 January to 15 August 1824 is 7 months 14 days at $4.25 per annum.”
Please note that in the last sentence above, Pleasanton mentions the 15 lamps at Ocracoke (which Winslow Lewis had suggested needed to be installed in his letter of April 24, 1823) not being lit from 1 January to 15 August 1824. And ta da, the day Ocracoke’s light was first lit was August 15, 1824! She is no longer an orphan, she was not born in 1823, and we can now celebrate for a year and a half.
Mutro’s research was reviewed by Philip Howard, one of Ocracoke Island’s acknowledged historians, in March 2023. Howard subsequently updated his May 20, 2018, newsletter article on villagecraftsmen.com and credits Mutro for the new information in the very last sentence of the article.
Dale Mutro must be commended for the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of his research. Not only did he find all the missing pieces, he also linked them together in a way that is absolute and indisputable. That is not easy when trying to piece together a 200-year-old mystery. We thank you, Dale, for finally giving Ocracoke Light a proper birthday to be remembered and celebrated.
Aida and John Havel are on the board of directors of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society.
Way to go, Dale!
What a terrific story – !! We are especially touched not only by the dedicated research, but as our wedding anniversary is August 15 – we feel even more connected to this island’s icon. We came away this April with one of Mary Bassell’s beautiful renderings of the Lighthouse –
Thanks for such an interesting article, and congratulations to Mr. Mutro for the first rate research which establishes the date for initial lighting of Ocracoke Light! If I read the letter from Stephen Pleasanton to Henry Dearborn correctly, the words “former “ refer to the Ocracoke Light (“the former was not lit until the 3rd of April”) He then specifies the deduction be taken from January 1 to August 15, but August 15 would be the date for “the latter “, being St. Augustine!
For this visitor, Reading the Ocracoke Observer has become an important first hand source , a way of keeping in touch with Island events, wildlife and history, and a record of its exceptional people . The detailed articles and excellent photos of birds by Peter Vankevich add much to my appreciation of the special and unique qualities of Ocracoke.
With all best wishes for the future,
The dates are confusing- the “former” was not lit until August 15, and Ocracoke light was mentioned first, and so would be the “former”. The accounting for deductions is clear that St. Augustine was lit August 15, which is contradictory
An excellent bit of research and deduction by Mr. Mutro. His dedication is to be admired by all.
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