Beyond the Valley: Fort Macon State Park

By Marsha Smith

Photo by Marsha Smith

From New Bern, we traveled to Swansboro for a couple days which was within 25 miles of Fort Macon located at the eastern end of the Bogue Banks in Atlantic Beach and Cape Lookout Lighthouse on the Outer Banks National Seashore.

Fort Macon was constructed from 1826-1834 and was one of 38 forts built from Maine to the Gulf Coast between 1817 and 1865 to defend our coast lines from enemy attacks. Macon was only in commission from 1834-1836, 1842-1844 and 1848-1849 due to congressional economic restraints.

A single caretaker occupied the fort during the non-commissioned times. Ironically, the fort was under caretaker occupation when on April 14, 1861, two days following the start of the War Between the States, when the local militia took control of the fort and North Carolina joined the Confederacy. The Confederacy occupied the fort for almost a year, when on April 25, 1862, the Union forces overtook the fort and re-occupied it as Union. Five years later, in 1867, the fort served as a military and civil prison for 9 years, and by 1877, it returned to caretaker occupancy.

The fort was commissioned one more time in 1898 during the brief Spanish-American War and occupied by black troops under command of black officers at the ready to ward off naval attacks by the Spanish.

The fort was abandoned in 1903, and in 1924 sold to the State of North Carolina for $1, becoming a public park. The Civilian Conservation Corps took on the restoration of the park and fort in 1935 and it became a popular destination until the beginning of WWII when it was occupied by the Coast Artillery to protect Allied shipping offshore from German U-boats.

Fort Macon returned to state park status in 1946. The fort is very well maintained and staffed with docents in period era clothing and performing period era duties or tasks. After touring the museum and heading to the fort, our first encounter was a bugler who was describing the many bugle calls and then playing the bugle calls. He was extremely good, and we found ourselves listening to him for quite some time. At the entrance to the fort we were stopped by soldiers (boys in their early teens) with their rifles crossed, protecting the entrance and demanding the password to be allowed to enter. The question was, “Who was the President during the Civil War?” If you didn’t know it was Jefferson Davis, there was another soldier standing by to give you clues, or the answer, if all else failed.

The fort is an awesome structure with cannons stationed around the majority of the perimeter and activities and demonstrations within the fort walls of blacksmithing, era food preparation, historical story-telling, etc. The view from the fort was also breathtaking and the grounds surrounding beautiful, certainly worth the afternoon visit.

The next day we caught a walk-on ferry to visit Cape Lookout Lighthouse Cape, located on Lookout National Sea Shore on the Outer Banks, accessible only by ferry. We were unable to climb the 207 steps of this lighthouse as it is not open to climbers until mid-May. However we walked the beach and it was a great walk. People come there to search for sea shells, fish, kayak, or just take in the peace of an uncrowded beach.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse was originally constructed in 1812 and was 96 feet tall, which proved to be inadequate for Mariners to see at a distance, so in 1859 it was replaced with the existing lighthouse standing at 163 feet and its beam reaching 12 to 19 miles offshore. The lighthouse didn’t receive its distinctive diamond paint pattern until 1873 due to the onset of the Civil War. The Confederate soldiers tried to destroy the lighthouse in 1864, but the Union soldiers were successful in stopping them before they could do major damage. Following the war the lighthouse was restored and painted. Today it is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.

On the ferry ride back we skirted Harker’s Island to see if we could catch sight of the wild horses that live on the Islands and we were lucky enough to see a stallion on the beach showing off for us, he was quite handsome. The horses are known to swim between the smaller island adjacent to Harker’s Island and people also get off the ferry and spend time on Harker’s Island to seek out the horses, fish or just enjoy the beach. There are approximately 119 wild horses on the island currently and one new foul accounted for.

Next week: Ocean Isle-Cape Fear.