The following article by Frank H. Jeter, State College Extension Editor, was published in the Monroe Inquirer, Sept. 7, 1939. The CCC camp referred to in the article is the Civilian Conservation Corps. During the Great Depression, unemployed, unmarried men aged 18 to 25 from relief families were put to work conserving and developing public land, in this particular case stabilizing the lighthouse and shores on the Outer Banks. They made $30 a month, $25 of which was sent directly to their parents.
Rodanthe is only one of four small villages on the banks between Nags Head and Hatteras on the North Carolina coast. For years I have wanted to make the trip down the banks and so we set aside one day for the trip. After getting information about the road, how to deflate the tires to travel over sand and learning the eccentricities of driving under such circumstances, we started from the Whale Bone Station and struck out. The road was a trail through the coarse grass of low places and the coarse sand of the higher places. We crossed the ferry at Oregon Inlet and made our way to New Inlet without trouble. Here we passed over two small bridges and then we settled down for a real stretch of sand.
The wind was behind our backs and soon the motor began to heat. Twice we had to stop to allow the engine to cool. There was no water to use and we did not know then that one should turn his car around to face the wind and allow the engine to “idle” until it was cooled off. At Avon, however, we flushed the radiator with cool water and from there on we had no more trouble. But it was an interesting trip to see in places Pamlico Sound on our right and the Atlantic Ocean on our left. Whenever we stopped we found the people friendly and courteous. Sometimes we plowed through heavy sand and again we ran into broad salt flats that formed a regular speedway.
At times, too, we went across high-sand barriers where the CCC boys had erected “sand fences.” Ramps had been built of wooden planks arranged in trough fashion over which the wheels of the car could travel without difficulty. At places, too, there were wide ramps leading to the beach to allow the Coast Guard to carry their life boats to the sea. These also permitted drivers risking the beach to come inland should the surf come too close for comfort.
We were told a simple story of wonderful heroism by Lee O’Neal of Rodanthe as we sat at the bow of the spray-swept ferry boat crossing Oregon Inlet. For 30 years Mr. O’Neal had served in the Coast Guard but now he was retired and living in peaceful security at Rodanthe. In his home, he had a gold medal sent to him by the late King George of England. One could tell that he was proud to have the medal but possibly he gloried more in the heroic deed which won it.
It was during the World War, he said, when the watchman in the outlook tower saw a freighter out at sea apparently blown in halves by some dreadful explosion. The watchman called down to the other Coast Guard members working in the backyard with some of the equipment. It took only a few minutes to launch the power boat and start the rescue. The freighter had sunk by the time the Coast Guard arrived at the scene but most of the freighter’s crew were in boats. The Coast Guard was successful in towing most of the boats behind the bar, eventually rescuing 42 members of the crew.
Mr. O’Neal said the freighter was a British tanker loaded with gasoline and oil and had been sunk by a German submarine. He sketched something of the terror of the crew and something of the fight to get to the life boats as they floated about in a blazing inferno of oil and gasoline. How the rescue was made, I cannot comprehend, but Mr. O’Neal told his tale in such simple modesty that one could only guess at parts of the action. I remembered the occasion when he recalled it and so I was glad to meet one who had been there. Only 10 men were lost, and those would have been saved, said Mr. O’Neal, had they not become panic stricken in trying to launch the first life boat.
All discomforts of the trips were forgotten when reached the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. There was a CCC camp nearby and two boys were assigned to duty at the old landmark. The boy on duty when we arrived was from Hamlet and he showed us every courtesy. He opened the windows as we went upward on the iron stairway 190 feet. When the CCC boys began their work at Cape Hatteras, waves lapped the base of the lighthouse but now sand fences have helped to build the shore line until the beach has been pushed back at least 100 yards. All of the intervening land has been planted to grass now and perhaps the old tower will remain for many additional years.
A new steel lighthouse has been built three miles back from the shore in the Boxton woods and its powerful electric light now guides vessels away from the deadly sands of Hatteras bars. One can see some 10 miles from the top of the old lighthouse. Below we could be seen one of the prettiest ocean beaches in America. The waves came in gently. There was a wide expanse of sand, smooth and even, and the water was apparently shallow some distance off shore.
At Rodanthe Christmas is observed on January 5 instead of December 25. “Our people in my tather’s and grandfather’s time always celebrated Christmas on January 5,” one resident said. “Then for a while we abandoned the custom but in late years we have gone back to it. We have a good opportunity to get together in a community celebration.” Rodanthe is a lovely little village, appearing suddenly on the sandy landscape. The homes are nicely painted and there are lawns, huge fig trees and some shrubbery and flowers.