Running Through History

I look for local charity races to run whenever I travel.  On our annual family trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I’ve run the Colony Lost and Found 5K that starts at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and runs around Roanoke Island and I’ve run – big mistake – the Currituck Wild Goose Chase 5K Donut Dash.  It’s a 5K race with doughnut stations approximately every half mile, where runners stop and eat as many doughnuts as they can before running to the next station.  Eating doughnuts isn’t required, but the more a runner eats, the more time is shaved off the runner’s final time.  Eat 24 doughnuts and you could finish the run before you started.

The Wild Goose Chase started at Currituck Heritage Park in Corolla, on the northern end of the Outer Banks.  The park is a 40-acre property that includes the Currituck Lighthouse, the Whalehead Club Historic House Museum, and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education.  So after the race, feeling a little too quesy after my 4-donut run for the winding car ride back to our rental house, we decided to take a wander around the park instead (and I tried to keep my stinky self downwind of other people).

On the night of April 20, 1852, eight ships ran aground in a storm, on a dark stretch of land between the Cape Henry Lighthouse near Virginia Beach Virginia, and the Bodie Island Lighthouse, 66 miles to its south. Another 48 ships would be lost before the powers-that-be got the message and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was commissioned in 1875, halfway between Cape Henry and Bodie Island.  Today, the light still flashes, on a 20 second cycle, and can be seen for 18 nautical miles.

Along with the Lighthouse, the station has an 1876 keepers’ house (a duplex for two keepers), a smaller 1920s house (for a third keeper), an outhouse, and storage.

The lighthouse station was abandoned after WWII and vandals stripped away anything worth anything from the buildings.  The Outer Banks Conservationists came forward to restore the houses in 1980 and were given ownership of the entire compound in 2003.  The smaller keeper’s house and the storage house have been restored and are the gift shop and lighthouse administrative offices, respectively.  The larger keepers’ house currently is being restored.

My stomach settled so Mr. History Tourist and I climbed to the top of lighthouse.  It’s open from Good Friday to Thanksgiving.  There are three Outer Banks lighthouses regularly opened to the public but Currituck is the only one to stay open that far past the end of the summer tourist season.  We paid our $7 fee (for those 8 and older) and signed a waiver.  The first and second floors of the lighthouse have exhibits on the lighthouse and the keepers’ lives.  Then it’s 214 steps to the top.

Next to the lighthouse station is Old Corolla Village, which began life in the late-1800s as the residence area for lighthouse station workers.  What is left of the village, including several small homes, a chapel, and a post office, have been restored and turned into shops.  Its 1900s school house is headquarters for the nonprofit Corolla Wild Horse Fund (Currituck has them) and its Museum.  It’s the only museum I’ve ever come across that welcomes dogs (and probably any other animal you care to bring) inside the museum.

In the early 20th century, the Outer Banks was a water fowl hunting mecca and the Lighthouse Hunt Club stood not far from the lighthouse, on what is now the south side of Currituck Heritage Park.  The hunt club was bought in the early 1920s by wealthy railroad and sugar heir Edward Knight Jr. for his wife, Marie Louise LeBel Bonet.  The official story is that she loved to hunt but had been rejected by local hunt clubs because she was female.  The unofficial story was that she was loud, vulgar, and of questionable origin — she had been Knight’s mistress before she became his second wife — and Outer Banks society simply wanted nothing to do with her.  Whatever the reason, Mr. Knight bought the Lighthouse Hunt Club and the property around it, so that his wife could hunt to her heart’s content while thumbing her nose at those who rejected her.

They built a 21,000 square foot house on the property, called Corolla Island while they owned it, and demolished the old hunt club.  The house, renamed Whalehouse Club by a subsequent owner, is now a house museum restored to the way that it looked when the Knights owned it.  I can’t show you the stunning art nouveau interior, with its Tiffany light fixtures and cork floors, because there was no photography allowed inside.

After the Knights’ deaths, the house went through various hands and saw service as a WWII Coast Guard station, a boys school and a Cold War rocket fuel testing site before it was abandoned in 1970.  In 1997, the county began restoring the property and in 2002, it opened to the public.  The house has escorted specialty tours (hunt history, back-of-the-house, ghost) but the regular tour allows visitors to wander on their own, guided by an audio recording.  The story they tell is a sanitized version of Knight family history and their lives in the house (though the unsanitized version, involving murder and adultery, would be more interesting).

Most of Knights’ belongings left the house through the years, though the museum now is making a concerted effort to find and repatriate what they can.  They’re also using old photographs to recreate some of the furniture.  The audio tour covers the first and second floors, including the servants areas on the east side of the house.  The basement houses an exhibit on house owners who came after the Knights, and a small gift shop.

The Currituck race benefited the local rescue squad, but many historic sites host races as fund raisers for themselves.  And they sometimes come with extra perks.  The creepy Point Lookout Lighthouse, at the site of a Civil War prisoner of war camp in southern Maryland, isn’t regularly open to the public.  But it’s open on race day to those who sign up for their annual 5K fundraiser.

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2 Responses to Running Through History

  1. Some seriously brilliantly good photos there. Rather you than me for the 5K though.

    • Thanks. The running on its own wasn’t bad, but (and I don’t know if there’s an English version of doughnuts) the running with lumps of sugared fried dough in the pitt of my stomach: a seriously bad idea.

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