Fort Macon is not the only to-seaward structure that gains the gawkers around Beaufort, North Carolina. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is also an iconically-important piece of the history-and-culture-puzzle of Beaufort and the surrounding coastal area. The first lighthouse was built here in 1812, just in time for the British to make it a prime target for destruction, and they did some pretty major damage to it initially. But when the Redcoats made a second attempt to take out the vital beacon, troops from Beaufort and local Fort Hampton courageously drove the invaders back into the sea, and the lighthouse survived and shone for the rest of the war and well after.
A second lighthouse—taller, bigger, more powerful—was erected in 1859. Yep, you guessed it: it too was soon marked for obliteration, since the War Between the States erupted soon afterward. But this time, ironically, it was native North Carolinians who attempted to undermine the ship-saver: the Union had seized Beaufort and its valuable port, and taking the lights out was now good Confederate sabotage. Explosives spelled the end of the original structure, but the newer and stronger lighthouse withstood the blasts, only receiving internal damage. Repairs were made after the War, and the black-and-white diamond-vested giant on Cape Lookout, fully functional, faithfully guides the wave-riders and receives thousands of visitors annually to this day.
And speaking of wave-riders, pirates and privateers aside, Beaufort has always been a vital port for the whalers, fishermen, and sea merchants plying their trade by foam and wind-spray. In fact, so water-dependent was it, the main approach to Beaufort was always by sea as late as the early twentieth century. Shipbuilding and naval stores were big here initially, but by the early 1800’s the pine supply necessary for such industry began to wane, and fishing and shipping endured to maintain a solid economic backbone for the growing community. Just add to that tourism, which actually began as early as the 1850’s, and you have a pretty good picture of what has kept the lights on at Beaufort (whether by whale oil or electricity) for centuries.
That which makes for a good harbor at Beaufort makes also for good marine life all around. So it is not all that surprising that in the 1880’s a group of marine scientists from Johns Hopkins University rented the Gibbs House in town and operated for the next several years the first school of marine biology in the United States, the Johns Hopkins Seaside Laboratory. By the turn of the century, the United States Fish Commission had gotten in on the action at Beaufort, opening a marine biological laboratory on nearby Pivers Island. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates the nation’s official Beaufort Lab in cooperation with the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve, and Duke University also has a vibrant School of the Environment Marine Laboratory on the island as well. Together some of the nation’s top scientists and students continue the important work of studying, in what has always been the superb environment at Beaufort, marine life and the way society interacts with it and impacts it.
One of the most famous of those marine biologists to fall in love with Beaufort waters is Rachel Carson, sometimes referred to as “mother of the modern environmental movement.” In 1938, Carson came to Beaufort as a junior aquatic biologist for the Bureau of Fisheries, and the visit inspired two books, Under the Sea-Wind and The Edge of the Sea, in which Carson draws a beautiful portrait of Beaufort shoreline and sea life. In 1985 the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve was established on Carrot Island—2,625 acres of marine plants, clams, shrimp, crabs, shore birds, and its very own pony collection (likely kin to the Shackleford horses but a separate group altogether). The Reserve is open to visitors year-round, so the same amazing natural habitat that captured the heart of Rachel Carson can do the same for today’s and future generations.