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Original Issue

The Plight of an Island Named Smith

The island complex that composes Cape Fear, North Carolina has always been threatened by the sea, but it has remained untamed. Now a developer wants to turn it into a resort area

An astronaut wheeling around the globe might view Smith Island as a small green chip floating off the coast of North Carolina, a band of trees crossing one end, a blanket of marsh covering the other. He might notice its triangular shape. He might even have time to observe the white water jumping over the shoals: a pretty sight from his lofty perch, but hardly more than that. Surely he would smile at the following description of Smith Island, written at a time when men circled the globe in ships:

"...a naked, bleak elbow of sand, jutting far out into the ocean. Immediately in its front are the Frying Pan Shoals pushing out still further twenty miles to sea. Together they stand for warning and woe; and together they catch the long majestic roll of the Atlantic as it sweeps through a thousand miles of grandeur and power, from the Arctic towards the Gulf. It is the playground of billows and tempests, the kingdom of silence and awe, disturbed by no sound, save the sea gull's shriek and breakers' roar. Its whole aspect is suggestive, not of repose and beauty, but of desolation and terror. Imagination cannot adorn it. Romance cannot hallow it. Local pride cannot soften it. There it stands today, bleak and threatening, and pitiless, as it stood three hundred years ago.... And there it will stand, bleak, and threatening, and pitiless, until the earth and the sea shall give up their dead. And. as its nature, so its name, is now, and always has been, and always will be, the Cape of Fear."

The Cape of Fear. How quaint that sounds today, when cameras scan the moon and the air rattles with jets booming overhead. The only cape the astronaut cares anything about is Cape Kennedy. (But why, one wonders, has he never come back to earth with any description to match the mariner's?)

While the capsule hurtles on its way, passing by now over Bermuda, the great Ship of State from which it was launched plunges on through the 20th century, bow down, decks jammed with people. Occasionally a few tired souls—tired of the press, tired of the clamor, tired of the smoke pouring from the Ship's millions of funnels—will climb down the sides and journey back in time to Smith Island. A water journey is always the best journey, and it is by water that you reach Smith Island. There is no other way, unless you own a helicopter. Consequently, because boats are not yet as numerous as cars, Smith Island lives a life apart from the mainland. Hawks soar among the dunes, sea oats lean with the wind and under the warm sand hatching loggerhead turtles struggle through the darkness to reach the sunlight. But not before the astronaut has reached Africa.

When I went out to Smith Island recently it was after a day-long drive on the Ocean Highway south from Norfolk, a moderately pleasant road now that Interstate 95 has siphoned off most of the traffic, but a road, nevertheless, that carries you through a tattered fringe of the Atlantic seaboard that derives much of its income from tourists. Signs knock holes in your head, UNWANTED HAIR REMOVED PERMANENTLY. MOTHER DORA, INDIAN ADVISER, HEALER. HOT WATER HEAT, JUSTICE-PEACE. LAST CONFEDERATE SEAPORT, WHERE THE PINE AND THE PALM MEET. The only palms I saw north of Wilmington were sad, displaced things withering in front of already withered motels. At one beach I found the ocean breaking on all but deserted shoreline, while not a block away a shopping center was selling to a packed house, as though the idea of a vacation was to buy not to swim, better still to buy in swimming suits. I did see two boys on the beach. They were playing fungo with a dead fish.

This is what has happened to a great part of the Atlantic seaboard. Tawdry and trivial. All that grand sweep of water and sand, a coastline unlike any on earth, and we have buried it beneath seafood platters and heaping piles of catsupy french fries.

Against such a background Smith Island is a freak, an anachronism, a mistake, a geographical error. On the day I rode out there—a city man in a bumpy little boat loaded with gasoline and groceries, an uncertain mainlander—I felt that I was on my way to some strange, forbidden land. When uncertain Dante emerged from his dark wood he had confident Virgil to guide him. I had Reese Swan, caretaker of the island, a man who had grown up on the place but who would not sleep there alone without a lantern burning nearby. "Noises." he said, "you hear all these noises." I wonder whether Reese's father Captain Charlie Swan, lighthouse keeper on Smith Island for 30 years, who died at the age of 91, heard those noises or whether they were not something only modern, urban men could hear. I know I heard them all night long, while lying in the old man's house, I heard the sea's monologue, the trees' dialogue and the dunes walking around the house, scratching at the windows.

Captain Charlie's house is one of three built around 1900 by the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. They sit huddled together on Bald Head Island, the highest and largest island in the Smith Island complex. Two of the houses are in various degrees of collapse, but Captain Charlie's is still intact. Perhaps, like Captain Charlie, it is determined to last.

To reach Bald Head Reese takes his boat across Southport Bay. a wide body of water at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and then up a looping tidal creek that runs through the marsh behind Bald Head. Here he transfers to an International Scout—again bumpy, again loaded with gasoline and groceries—and plods overland, first through a dense forest of oaks, cedars and palm trees, and then along the beach. This forest, whose live oaks average 40 to 45 feet in height, is among the last of its kind on the Atlantic Coast, exemplifying as it does the so-called "salt spray climax," the idea that the form of coastal plants is determined by salt water drenching them from the surf.

Coming out of the forest, the road passes among a number of ruined buildings, which go back in time to that era in Bald Head's history when the Coast Guard manned a station on it. Actually the island has known a number of eras, some distinct, some overlapping. First Indians occupied it and then pirates, the most famous of whom, Stede Bonnet, would lead ships onto the shoals with false lights and then attack them. Later pilots moved over from the mainland. Captain Charlie himself has left a record of that era. "Piloting was a highly competitive business in those days [the 1880s]. The first pilot-boat to reach a ship preparing to enter the harbor, got the job of taking them over the bar and up the river. For that reason, many of the pilots moved over to Bald Head, to get a start on those who stayed on the mainland. The minute a ship was safely through the channel, friendly relations all started again. It was a community in the woods."

Today the woods have taken over this community and are threatening the old Coast Guard station. The Victorian barracks still stands and so does the mess hall behind it, as well as the boathouse and a number of outbuildings. But the windows are gone now and sand blows through the rooms where sailors once lived and rested between sea rescues.

A typical rescue is described in one of the lighthouse logs: "At 5:30 this morning J. A. Pinner reported a schooner ashore on Frying Pan Shoals five miles south from the station. The surf boat was launched as soon as possible. I reached the schooner about 8 a.m. She had sunk decks under and the sea was breaking over her. The crew had collected on the forecastle, the best place they could get. I took them in the surfboat at once. She proved to be the three-masted schooner, Elizabeth A. Baizley of Camden, N.J., from Charleston to Baltimore with phosphate rock—7 in crew. I landed at the station at 10:15 a.m."

The lighthouse era was the island's longest, beginning in 1796 with the construction of the Bald Head Light and ending in 1956 when the Cape Fear Lighthouse, the one Captain Charlie kept, was discontinued.

Plenty of fish

Reese remembers some of that era well. "There were three keepers. Each got a house for his family. One keeper would have the day shift and two would go up at night. I remember that each afternoon the two men on the night shift would hoist the fuel to the top of the lighthouse, and it would hang there until they were ready to use it. There were plenty of children around in the summer, and sailors used to come up from the Coast Guard station to visit in the evening. We used to fish off the shoals for channel bass and drag them home up the beach. There used to be plenty offish around in those days, more than there are now. I've heard my father say that the only time the light was turned off was once during World War I. So many ships were being sunk in the area that it was ordered turned off for 11 days."

All that remains of the Cape Fear Lighthouse are a few pieces of steel and the stone base. The rest has been carried away. Birds nest among the ruins of the old Coast Guard station, and weeds cover the ground where the community of pilots once stood. Nothing remains of the pirates but their ghosts—ghosts looking for another ghost, that of Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr who was thought to have been shipwrecked in that area. This is Smith Island's descried era, when it belongs to no one but itself. But not for long. A new era waits on the horizon, the resort era. Here is what it might bring:

1) a year-round city of 60,000, 2) an airport and a site for light industry, 3) an amusement area "in the Disneyland tradition," according to one newspaper account, 4) halls for large conventions, 5) private and public beaches and golf courses. 6) a port to serve large ships, 7) a "summer White House" for the governor of North Carolina.

These are but a few of the things proposed in an elaborate study of the island completed a few years ago by a Florida architectural-and-engineering firm, Rader and Associates. Rader did the job for Frank O. Sherrill, a rich North Carolina restaurateur (he's the S of the S & W Cafeteria chain) who owns ever) one of Smith Island's 12,000 acres. Sherrill bought most of the island in 1938 for a reported $16,000 and completed the package in 1963 by offering the U.S. Government well over $100,000 for the old Coast Guard property. Sherrill says he bought the island without setting foot on it. "A friend of mine, Allen I wing, told me I ought to buy the island. One summer Mrs. Sherrill and I joined Ewing in a trip to see the island. As our small boat neared the shore I asked, "What's the price?" Ewing told me that the island could be picked up by paying back taxes. I said, 'All right, you've just sold an island. Now let's go look at it.' " At the time Sherrill wanted to make the place over into something like Bermuda, a plush resort, but when the war came along the plan had to be dropped. Recently, however, it has been revived, and rumors along the coast have it that this time Sherrill really means it, even though the Rader plan, excluding buildings, would cost in the neighborhood of $40 million.

I asked Reese what he thought.

"Mr. Sherrill always said he would like to do whatever the people in Brunswick County wanted him to do. There's no question about that. They want him to develop it."

One such person is lames Harper, the editor of the State Port Pilot in Southport.

"This county practically gave Bald Head to Mr. Sherrill because it assumed from the start that he was going to develop it. It's a pretty place. People in Southport are proud of it. The first thing they want to do is take you out to Bald Head. But pride's about all they've gotten out of it. This is a poor county. We can't afford to have a thing like that sitting on our doorstep just so a few people in Wilmington and South-port can have a place to hunt and fish. I hope Mr. Sherrill develops it. An ambitious plan like his would open up this whole area. It would bring a lot of money into the county, and the increased value of the land would find its way to our tax books."

Others feel the same way.

A motel operator: "I'd like to sec him put up some first-class operations out there. I don't mean any $6-a-night motels. I mean the right kind, ones that would charge $30 a night. That's the kind of tourists we need around here."

A barber: "Southport's a nice, sleepy little town, but it needs something to pep it up. Bald Head could do that."

On the other side of the fence from the pro-developers are the conservationists. For years there has been an underground "Save Bald Head" movement in North Carolina, but now it has come surging to the top, led by Dr. Arthur W. Cooper, an associate professor of botany at North Carolina State. In 1964 Cooper and Sheafe Satterthwaite of Wildlife Preserves, Inc., a nonprofit organization whose aim is the conservation of open space and natural areas in America, published a book on Smith Island in which they say it is much too valuable to be developed. "The magnificent landscape destroyed today cannot be reclaimed tomorrow. The visitor to a Smith Island left intact participates in a unique contrast of land and sea, density and openness, rest and change. Participation in these pleasures contributes to some ultimate human and spiritual purpose."

Harper claims that like all idealists Cooper and Satterthwaite are impractical, although he does admit that there is some merit to Cooper's argument that commercial fishing, still Brunswick County's main industry, would be seriously hurt if the extensive marshes behind Bald Head were destroyed. According to Cooper, the productivity of these marshes "far exceeds the average productivity of most cultivated crops. In addition, almost half of this productivity is washed out of the marshes by the tide, in the form of organic detritus, and may serve as a major source of food for many important game and commercial species that frequent the estuarine waters near the marshes. Furthermore, shallow waters surrounding these marshes inhibit the entry of larger carnivores that frequent the deeper reaches of the estuary and the shelf beyond. For smaller fish this protection from predators allows for successful spawning and early development."

"This may be so," Harper says. "The fishing may suffer. But tourism will shortly replace fishing in this county anyway. And besides, those marshes have already been polluted by the Cape Fear River [which dumps raw sewage into them], and I honestly don't know what Dr. Cooper means when he talks about turning Bald Head into a state park or a wildlife refuge. What wildlife? There's none left! It's all been killed off. And speaking of pollution, did you know that oysters seem to thrive on it? It's a fact. They do. It doesn't hurt them one bit. It might hurt people who eat them, but the oysters themselves get fat."

Conservationists might keep this in mind. One way to protect wildlife from man might be to pollute it.

Cape of Fear. Fear what? I ear sew age.

It was a long, noisy night in Captain Charlie's old house, but the next morning I walked along the beach under the wings of a thousand gulls. Reese had taken the boat back to Southport, leaving me alone on a deserted island. How many people in this day and age are given that privilege? I thought of something Harper had said, that fat, polluted oysters can be washed out by dredging them up and then replanting them in clean water farther down the coast. There was a comparison here, but I didn't want to make it. I cast for a while, unsuccessfully, in the surf, then climbed up on a surveyor's rickety platform and looked at the dunes rolling into the forest. It was a sight that must have thrilled Rader and Associates. Think of the possibilities it offered an architect! All too clearly I could see the houses rising and Disneyland whooping it up. One thing a mainlander notices about an island is that whereas he builds to defy the elements, an island builds to accommodate them. Dunes and trees take their shapes from the wind. Curves replace angles, and it is the tide that designs a beach. The Indian who escaped strangulation by conforming his muscles to the coils of the snake surely learned that lesson from an island.

A trail led up the beach to where a turtle had laid its eggs in the loose dry sand of the higher slopes, covered them and returned to the sea leaving a second trail. Anyone who has ever seen one of these great creatures make that arduous overland journey on flippers, pulling its heavy body through the sand, occasionally resting with its eyes closed and its head down, panting, has witnessed a tribute to all living things. Yet on one stretch of highway in Florida thousands of newly hatched turtles, confused by the lights, are smashed each year. Furthermore, because so many southern beaches, hitherto undeveloped, are now being built up, the female loggerhead turtle is rapidly losing her nesting grounds. Bald Head, with its many miles of undisturbed beach, represents one of her last havens on the East Coast, and during a short walk one can find any number of trails such as I followed into the dunes.

Possum and coon tracks are also there. Reese says there are a few pigs on the island, but I didn't see any signs of these. Some years ago Sherrill brought a lot of pigs over from the mainland and turned them loose but, according to Reese, hunters killed most of them and went home with tales of all the wild boars they had shot. Even so, the pigs were more fortunate than the sheep Sherrill tried to introduce. All of them were slaughtered.

"Tame sheep at that," Reese said. "They would feed out of your hand."

Perhaps Harper is right. Perhaps it is too late to think in terms of wildlife when not even tame life is safe any longer. In the debate over Smith Island one thing is clear. Both sides have the welfare of man at heart. The developers believe man has the most to gain from a resort. The conservationists believe he has the most to gain from a park or a refuge. So long as man is the beneficial, both sides have good arguments. Bui does man deserve Smith Island? We have polluted the water around it. We have slaughtered the things that once made it their home. Maybe it's time to build a fence around Smith Island, protecting it from ourselves with a sign that reads: HERE IS A TRIBUTE TO ALL WE HAVE DESTROYED. KEEP OUT.