Keeping the Light: Modern day lighthouse keepers burn for the NPS

Published: Jun. 22, 2018 at 4:23 AM EDT
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A pair of modern-day lighthouse keepers is working to keep the history of the profession burning bright in the minds of visitors to one of our state's beloved national parks.

Larry and Paula Green are unlike many other "VIPs" which stands, in this case, for Volunteers-In-Parks. It's a nation-wide service that utilizes volunteers of all ages to do a variety of duties in national parks.

The Green's have been married for 54 years.

For the last six years, they've spent about a month of every summer living on the uninhabited island of Cape Lookout.

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse served as a navigational beacon for generations of ship captains navigating the shallow waters and sandy shoals of the Outer Banks.

Today, lighthouses are preserved for history and it's leisurely recreation that typically guides people to them.

"Of all the other lighthouses, this one is the only one you have to take effort to get here -- come by boat to get here -- and then secondly, when you look down from the top of this lighthouse you won't see cars, houses, McDonald's, streets, etc., all you see is just God's green...this primitive beautiful place," Larry Green said.

Larry and Paula will work five days on and two days off for a month. They live in the upstairs of the old Keeper's Quarters just below the lighthouse.

"You look out your bedroom window and you see the sound, you look out your kitchen window and you see this gorgeous's just, oh, it's wonderful, it's beautiful," Paula Green said.

They run the first-floor museum where visitors can cool off and learn about the grueling work of a lighthouse keeper. They come to the island by ferry or boat.

Larry says "the most predominant question is 'how do you get to do this?' That's what they want to know; but they want to know how many bricks are in the lighthouse, you know, or just, what was life like for the keepers out here."

There are 600,000 bricks in the lighthouse.

Built in 1859, the Cape Lookout light burned from sunset to sunrise. Keepers had to carry two 45lb. cans of oil up 216 iron spiral stairs to the top of the 163' tall lighthouse every day. They also had to clean the lens' 1000 glass prisms by hand.

"I look up at that lighthouse and I see those black things way up on the top on the glass and that's what they would hang on to, and step on that second railing to clean the glass -- can you imagine?" Paula Green said.

Taxing, isolated work often led to alcoholism and depression.

Paula said, "every once in a while we'll really start thinking about it and thinking 'do you think they really did that' but they had to, but it was a way of life, it was just like you do your job and I do my job, it was just a way of life for them."

"I think it was a very very lonely lonely time, as you can imagine, being out here with no people," Larry said.

Now, the Keeper's Quarters are filled with nothing but enthusiasm for the people who come to enjoy nature's beauty.

"There's no place like it, we went to Hawaii one time and did a tour of Hawaii and I told the guy after we finished I said 'you know you've got a really pretty place here but have you ever seen Cape Lookout? That's just how I feel about it," Larry said, laughing.

Larry Green has been coming to Harker's Island and the Cape Lookout National Seashore since his childhood.

"We were just basically awe-struck, we were like 'golly, ya know" it's so beautiful and we enjoyed it then as much as we do now," he said.

He started volunteering with the program ten years ago with Paula's brother who has since passed away. Paula started volunteering with Larry after that.

The Green's are both retired teachers from Stem, North Carolina.

For Paula, the kids who visit the island with their families is her favorite part of volunteering. In her free time, she searches for seashells and displays them on the house's porch, where she lets children choose one each to take home with them.

"The thing that stands out to me the most is the awe that people get that haven't seen it before' and the kids, I love watching the kids, they just go "ooh" and when they come back "I climbed all the way to the top!"'

At the top of the lighthouse, is a solar-powered LED light installed by the U.S Coast Guard in 2017. While the National Park Service maintains the national seashore and its facilities, the USCG maintains the light itself. The previous light relied on diesel generators and shore power but now the visitor's center, keeper's quarters and lighthouse are totally off-grid.

Park rangers say they get complaints almost daily about the light because the LED one is hard to see during the day and it doesn't make the same circular sweeping motion that the previous one did; but the old light that did was actually installed just about thirty years ago. The light has changed almost generationally since the lighthouse was first built. The last one was powered by an underwater cable which was found to be deteriorated and near failure in 2016. The cost to replace it would've been between $2-3 million, according to the USCG.

At the time of installation, Capt. Jerry Barnes, chief of prevention for the 5th District, said "installing a new submarine cable could potentially disturb the coastal environment. The shift to solar panels is the natural solution and aligns with our mission to protect marine environments and living marine resources."

The view from the Keeper's Quarters is something the Green's say they'll never take for granted and while you won't find them carrying oil cans, you could say the Green's burn a different kind of light as modern day lighthouse keepers keeping it going for generations to come.

You can learn more about the park and how to plan a visit


Below is the National Park Service's history of the Cape Lookout light:
Lamps: - 1812 – The original lighthouse had 13 individual lamps on a frame. - 1859 - Lighthouse began with First Order Fresnel lens (Single Lamp, 5 wicks, produced a Fixed White beam 1859-1912) - 1912 – Converted from 5 wick lamp to Incandescent Oil Vapor (IOV) lamp. (Rotating occulting device added to create two flashes every 10 sec - one short flash, one long) - 1933 – Conversion from IOV lamp to electric bulbs inside Fresnel lens. (Flashing twice every 15 seconds – "Group Flash" 2 flashes together, then period of darkness) - 1975 - Fresnel replaced with two rotating 1000w airport beacons. (Blinking every 15 sec) - 2017 - Airport beacons replaced with LED array. (Blinking every 15 sec) Power Sources: - Whale Oil (1812-1873) - Mineral Oil / Kerosine (1873-1933) - Gasoline Generator (1933-1982) --- (Lighthouse automated in 1950) - Underwater Cable (1982-2017) - Solar (2017-Present)