What to Do About the Circle of Stones?

Reprinted from the Island Free Press

BUXTON — The massive foundation stones that were left behind when the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved 15 years ago are now ravaged by storms and frequently covered with sand. Outer Banks residents, officials with the National Park Service and even a U.S. congressman are trying to figure out what to do about them.

For, the granite stones – some weighing at least 3,000 pounds – are more than just a pile of rocks. They have become a Circle of Stones, an almost sacred place where people come to marry, to christen their newborns and to honor their dead.

After the lighthouse was moved to its new location, 2,900 feet to the southwest, the nonprofit Outer Banks Lighthouse Society paid almost $12,000 to have the stones engraved with the names of the 83 keepers of the light.

Bett Padgett

Barclay Trimble

The stones were arranged in a circle that marked the original location of the 1870 lighthouse. The circle of stones was unveiled on May 1, 2001, during a reunion of the descendants of the lightkeepers, and the Park Service’s re-dedication of the Light Station.

Since then, it has become a place of great historic and sentimental significance for both islanders and visitors.

However, the site has been periodically battered by hurricanes and northeasters over the years. The stones have been tossed around and covered by sand.  

They have been almost entirely covered by sand since Hurricane Sandy and several northeasters in the fall of 2012. Occasionally a visitor brushes off some sand, so part of a stone is visible.

In the past, the Park Service has uncovered the stones and rearranged them if necessary. But earlier this year, the Park Service said it is no longer practical to keep uncovering and rearranging the stones after each storm.

In a letter to the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society in June, seashore superintendent Barclay Trimble said, “Because of coastal processes, namely shoreline erosion and dune migration, the stones have routinely become covered with sand requiring substantial effort to keep them uncovered.”

Trimble sought the Lighthouse Society’s blessing on one of its two alternatives. They were letting nature take its course at the site and the park would then use it to “interpret coastal processes” or to move the stones down the road to the grounds of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village.

Bett Padgett, president of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, told me last June that the society’s entire board of directors was unanimous in its view that neither alternative is acceptable.

“The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society is not going to stand by and let this happen,” Padgett said then and she told Trimble that in a June letter.

The old foundation stones of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse are now often covered in sand. Photo: Outer Banks Lighthouse Society

She said the society does want to work with the Park Service on a solution that will work for all.

Padgett and the lighthouse society board want to see the circle of stones kept together and in the vicinity of the Cape Hatteras Light Station, perhaps on the grounds between the current lighthouse location and the double-keepers’ quarters.

Since last summer, the society and park officials have continued to talk, but they apparently are still not on the same page.

Siding with the society is the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society, many of whose members are descendants of lightkeepers, including its president Dawn Taylor.

Taylor posted a change.org petition on her group’s site late last year, opposing the Park Service’s plan for the stones. She also sent the petition to U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., in December.  

On Dec. 20, Jones sent Trimble a letter asking for an update on the Park Service’s policy regarding maintenance of the stones.

“As I know you understand,” Jones wrote, “Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is an enormously important piece of Eastern North Carolina’s heritage. Preserving the foundation stone, which bear the names of the lighthouse keepers, is essential.”
Trimble responded last month. In his reply, he basically said the seashore does not have the money to move the stones.

“At a time when the country, the NPS, and the seashore are experiencing significant budgetary constraints, the NPS must evaluate the best use of its limited funds,” Trimble wrote. Continuing to maintain the stones, as well as other facilities and providing necessary services have become problematic due to budgetary reductions.”

Rep. Walter Jones

Trimble noted that the Outer Banks Group budget has been reduced by $2 million since 2010.

He goes on to say that the park has explored numerous alternatives for the circle of stones and has solicited input from the local communities and the public. He concludes by saying the park will uncover the stones one last time this spring before the visitor season starts.

“In the event that a volunteer organization expresses an interest in assisting with the maintenance of the circle of stones, the NPS is willing and open to discussing what opportunities exist,” he said.

Padgett said the lighthouse society has floated the idea that islanders and other volunteers could get together periodically to clear sand off the stones.

It’s certainly possible and might help.

However, after another major storm, shovels and brooms probably just won’t do the job.

In his response to Trimble, Jones said he understood the financial constraints, but he “respectfully” requested that the superintendent convene a meeting of the groups who oppose the park plan for the stones to discuss the matter.

Padgett said the lighthouse society welcomes a meeting, but that the Park Service is going to have to take the first step of uncovering the sanded-over site.

“We aren’t going to let this die,” she said.

About the Author

Irene Nolan

Irene Nolan is the co-owner and editor of "The Island Free Press," an online newspaper serving Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. She is a veteran journalist who edited "The Island Breeze" on Hatteras for 16 years after 22 years as a reporter and editor at "The Courier-Journal," a statewide newspaper based in Louisville, Ky. Irene was managing editor of the newspaper for the last five years of her tenure there, and during that time the newspaper staff won a Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting on a church bus crash, caused by a drunk driver, that killed 27 people, most of them children.