Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2023

Uncle Billy And The Lighthouse


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Artist rendition of North Carolina’s first Cape ...

Editor’s Note: This story is from the from: Fishhouse Lies, by Sonny Williamson, copyright 1996 and used by permission, courtesy of the Carteret County Historical Society, Morehead City, North Carolina. Transcribed word for word by John T. (Jack) Graham.

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Government drawing of the 1812 Cape Lookout ...

Since the first explorers came to our shores, Cape Lookout, North Carolina, has been well known for two distinct features; a treacherous shoal which stretches out for over ten miles, and one of the most beautiful and safest natural harbors on the eastern seaboard. Then, as now, the government was slow to act, and it was not until 1804 that Congress finally gave the go ahead for a lighthouse to be placed at the “pitch” of Cape Lookout. Even after Congress acted, it took eight more years before this first lighthouse was finally constructed.

On June 2, 1812, newly appointed light keeper James Fulford lit up the lamps for the first time. The lighthouse was constructed with an inner brick core and an outer wooden structure, painted in red and white diagonal stripes. When you went up in the lighthouse, you went between the outer wooden structure and the inner brick one. It was soon discovered that this lighthouse was not tall enough, nor bright enough, and that the wooden part soon began to deteriorate. It was suggested by some seamen that if the light couldn’t be improved it should be torn down because “ . . . you could run aground looking for it.”

The situation was tolerated for over 40 years until the mid-1850s when a new lighthouse was finally approved. Construction started in 1857 and the light from this new lighthouse was finally finished and put into service in November 1859. Now there were two lighthouses on the Cape, less than 100 yards apart. What to do with the old one? The fact is that not much was done with it for many years until it had deteriorated to the point that officials were afraid it would fall and kill someone.

Action was finally taken when a con­tractor was hired to demolish the dangerous structure, but when he arrived he soon realized that he had “bitten off more than he could chew.” The old red brick core of the lighthouse was now surrounded by several other buildings. Not only the new lighthouse, but by the keeper’s quarters, stables, barns, woodsheds, an oil storage building, a summer kitchen, and the Signal Corps weather station was only a few yards to the south. His usual procedure was to use dynamite and blow up the structures, but this would obviously not work in this situation. He considered taking it down brick by brick, but this too was unrealistic. It was possible to tear out a lower section and allow the rest to fall, but how would he get the last brick out without the now almost 100-year-old building from falling on him?

Someone finally told him about Uncle Billy Hancock, reputed to be the fastest man in North Carolina. If asked, Uncle Billy would freely admit to being the fastest man on the entire east coast of America, and parts of Canada as well. But the question still remained? Could he outrun a falling lighthouse? “Piece of cake,” Billy bragged. “If’n I can get that last brick out, I can outrun her.” He had outrun many of the Outer Banks ponies without ever breaking a sweat.

The date was set, the word was put out. Uncle Billy Hancock was going to knock down the old lighthouse. People came from all around. Over in the sand hills at Rose Town the mullet nets were hung to dry. School let out early in Diamond City, and Lookout Village declared a public holiday. People came from as far away as Wade Shore, and even a few Rice Panthers showed up. Sleek schooners lined the shores of Lookout Bay and the docks at the landings were lined with small skiffs. No one wanted to miss this once in a lifetime event. They would not only get to see the lighthouse come down, but witness first hand just how fast Uncle Billy really could run.

The porch was full at the new keepers’ quarters and people were hanging out of the upstairs windows. Many others were sitting on the cisterns and the outside stairs of the new lighthouse. The remainder of the crowd was lounging around on blankets in the bare sand. This was a big event.

Uncle Billy had his plan. “I’ll swag with all my might, and when that brick goes out, I’ll let go the hammer and keep right on aturnin’, then I’ll cut on back to the house, pocket my five dollars, and head fer town.” Billy’s plan worked just fine. He swung the hammer, the brick flew out, and the hammer dropped. But while he was aturnin’ his feet got tangled up and he fell onto his hands and knees, right squarely in front of and beneath the crumbling lighthouse . . . . . .

The story pauses here, to be picked up again the next day. Buddy Earl, who had witnessed the event, was over to Harkers Island where he stopped by the “Beehive,” the local general store and post office. Of course, nothing would do except for him to relate the story of Uncle Billy to the unfortunate islanders who were unable to attend in person. They were all anxiously listening. Everyone wanted to know how fast Uncle Billy Hancock could really run. When Buddy Earl got to the point where Billy fell, one of the impatient listeners interrupted. “Hurry up, Buddy. Tell us. HOW FAST DID UNCLE BILLY RUN?”

The storyteller spit out his chew of tobacco, and took a long pull on his long-necked Pepsi while pausing a little for effect. “Wal,” he said slowly, “don’t rightly know how fast he kin run – but he kin shore as the devil crawl 35 miles an hour.”

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2023 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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