Digest>Archives> March 2002

Capt. Benjamin Cox, of North Carolina’s Lost Lights

By Carolyn Venard Cooper


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North Carolina’s lost Gull Shoal Lighthouse. ...

Benjamin Fenner Cox was the fourth of fourteen children and the eldest son born to Jeremiah and Mary (White) Cox, December of 1861 in Middleton, North Carolina. He married Margarette Williams of Fairfield in 1885, and he took the oath of a lighthouse keeper in the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1896. As an Outer Banks native and a member of a family that had pioneered the region in colonial times, he had the background and experience that was prized by the officials of the Department of Treasury, who carefully regulated the lights and their keepers.

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Captain Benjamin Fenner Cox, who spent 15 years ...

On the west side of Pamlico Sound, four miles east of Bluff Point, Gull Shoal was one of about 30 small lighthouses guarding North Carolina’s inlets and sounds in the late 19th century. Pamlico Sound, with a depth of only about 20 feet, definitely did prove treacherous for vessels endangered by the shifting shoals, submerged sandbars, and frequent choppy waves. In this “Graveyard of the Atlantic” shipwrecks and lifesaving were a way of life. In the days before accurate weather predicting, hurricanes and other severe weather further complicated matters for mariners.

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The lost Laurel Point Lighthouse. Photograph ...

The station at Gull Shoal was built and established in 1891. The white hexagonal lighthouse dwelling on seven piles showed a fixed red light. During thick and foggy weather a mechanical fog bell struck a double tone every fifteen seconds. Prior to its construction, a distance of 35 miles of heavily navigated water in the Pamlico Sound was without a signal. A large number of vessels, among them the largest steamers navigating the sounds of North Carolina, had struck Gull Shoal. Some were lost. When a US Coast and Geodetic Survey schooner Scoresby struck there in 1887, the danger was considered to be unacceptable and Congress authorized the light in 1889.

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The lost Laurel Point Lighthouse from the ...

Gull Shoal Lighthouse was constructed at a cost of approximately $30,000. It was one of more than 100 lighthouses constructed after the Civil War using the screwpile method. These lighthouses, many of them quaint and cottage-like in appearance, were to be placed in sounds, bays, and rivers. Their unique characteristics made them economical; they could be constructed quickly and easily. At Gull Shoal, a crew from Baltimore installed wooden piles (10 inches in diameter) covered with cast iron sleeves. The piles were screwed to a depth of 13 feet and secured to the sandy bottom of the shoal. The dwelling was constructed quickly thereafter.

Ben Cox spent at least four years at Gull Shoal. During that time, new model lamps were installed in the light, and a fuel platform positioned in a manner to endanger the lighthouse during high tides was removed. Because this station had a fog signal, it was preferable that the assistant keeper be a man with experience as a machinist in order to keep it in good repair. The keepers themselves were generally young men with some sea experience or retired sea captains. According to officials at the time, “The best keepers are found to be old sailors, who are accustomed to watch at night . . . and know by experience the value of a light.”

Transfers were not uncommon among the lighthouse keepers. Ben Cox transferred to Laurel Point Lighthouse on the southwest point of Albemarle Sound in neighboring Tyrrell County in 1900. Unlike Pamlico Sound, which connects to the Atlantic from the north, the Albemarle has no direct connection to the coastal ocean. But the intercoastal waterway was a major route and the traffic was heavy. His family moved to a house in the nearest town, Columbia, ten miles away by boat.

The former keeper at Laurel Point had been dismissed after nearly 10 years at the station, and records show that the assistant keeper position frequently changed hands during that period. In September of 1900, Ben Cox received the new appointment and an annual salary of $560 per year. His assistant was Benjamin Williams for the first four years. In October of 1905 Fred Kemp became the assistant, an arrangement that lasted for years.

Laurel Point Lighthouse Station was built in 1880. It was nearly identical in construction and appearance to Gull Shoal. The white six-room hexagonal cottage was situated atop an iron screwpile foundation secured at a depth of 10 feet. The light on top was 42 feet above the sea. The keeper and assistant each had a private room. Four 200-gallon tanks on the roof provided an ample supply of water. Supplies and rations were delivered every month in quantities determined by the Lighthouse Service.

Laurel Point didn’t have a fog signal. Its fourth order Fresnel lens was the same size as the one at Gull Shoal. The characteristics were different — Laurel Point’s light revolved every three minutes and emitted a flashing white light at 30 second intervals. The revolving mechanism required winding every four hours.

Generally, the local inspector regulated absences from the light. Sometimes lighthouse keepers supplemented their income with outside jobs. As long as their duties at the lighthouse were not affected, and they weren’t actually doing business from the lighthouse, this was allowed. Some were boat pilots or fishermen. Ben Cox had a general store in Columbia. He was able to spend time with his family in town and attend to business by alternating the night watch with his assistant.

During the night and in stormy weather, the keeper or assistant stood watch. When the sound was frozen, the lighthouse could essentially “close.” The keepers had to operate their lights as far into the fall as possible without endangering their own lives by being caught in the ice. The lights could be extinguished during the times when navigation was suspended, but were required to be shown when it was at all possible that vessels might benefit.

One winter the ice caught Ben Cox. A blizzard struck suddenly during a period when he was standing watch alone. The sound and river froze solid. He was stranded with no means to communicate with the outside world. He waited, hoping for a change in the weather. But his rations were depleted; the Coast Guard wouldn’t be able to bring more supplies. Finally he set out to walk home on the frozen sound.

An unpublished article in the Columbia, NC library tells us, “For one full day, a night, and part of another day, without allowing himself the luxury of resting even a little, lest he freeze to death, he continuously trudged on, following the western shore line of the Scuppernong River, until he reached an open space he knew, just across the river from Columbia. Fortunately, after some necessary rest, he was found to have suffered no physical damage from his icy trek.”

Ben Cox married his second wife, Mary Swain, in the autumn of 1919, his wife Margarette having died in February of that year. He married yet again after Mary’s death. His third wife was Winnie. He fathered four children, all with his first wife. A son died in infancy.

Ben Cox retired at age 65 after 35 years of service. Presumably he retired in 1926. This would account for 26 years at Laurel Point, four or five years at Gull Shoal, but leaves about five years unaccounted for. Quite possibly he worked for the Lighthouse Service in another capacity before he received his appointment as keeper.

Ben Cox was a founding member of the Columbia Christian Church. And ironically, after devoting his life to sea travel, his obituary notes that he was “the first promoter of building a highway between Hyde and Tyrrell Counties, and worked tirelessly to get it done when most people thought it impossible to accomplish.”

In the 1950s, Laurel Point and Gull Shoal were demolished. The screwpile foundations remain, but modern automated beacons are perched where the quaint lighthouse keeper’s cottages once stood. Gradually most of the cottage-style screwpile lighthouses in the country have disappeared and are all but forgotten. Replicas of two former Albemarle Sound stations are being constructed in North Carolina: Roanoke River Station at Plymouth, and Roanoke Marshes at Manteo.

Ben Cox died at age 84 in June 1945. His daughter, Cora Alexander, was careful to nurture his memory. She passed along his history to her children. She even preserved his sea chest. The old trunk in which he kept and transported his possessions to Laurel Point was donated to the Columbia Theater Museum in Columbia, North Carolina and is now on display.

This story appeared in the March 2002 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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