Missing Hatteras light mystery solved

Published 5:02 am Sunday, March 16, 2003

By By BILL SANDIFER, Special to the Daily News
A dozen rapt listeners sat Saturday at Sunflower Books taking in a tale of a North Carolina historical mystery.
The story has all the facets a good mystery needs – intrigue, deception, blackmail, all set against the backdrop of war.
Reading from his recently published book, "The Lost Light, the Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel Lens," North Carolina author Kevin P. Duffus was accompanied by a "mystery" guest – Dr. David T. Tayloe.
The "missing" lens is the massive array of prisms and machinery that beamed the flame of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse far out to sea.
Removed from the lighthouse in the middle of the Civil War, spirited inland by Confederate loyalists and "lost" for close to 140 years, the saga of the lost light – and Duffus' literary sleuthing that removed the metaphorical bushel obscuring its fate – is detailed in his work.
What do Tayloe and the missing lens have in common?
"Nobody'd ever done what he did," Tayloe told the audience of his great-grandfather.
And what the original "Dr. Dave" did is, indeed, remarkable as recounted by the author.
Duffus' research tells the following tale:
Tayloe's great-grandfather, David Tayloe, was instrumental in seeing the valuable lens – removed when North Carolina seceded from the Union – make its way to another hiding place once Union forces discovered it had been hidden in a warehouse on waterfront Washington.
The Tayloe of old arranged passage aboard a steamboat owned by John Myers. The act was no small feat and placed Tayloe and the entire town of Washington at risk.
Myers stowed the 44 pine boxes containing the disassembled, 6,000-pound Fresnel lens that had been carefully removed from the Hatteras lighthouse aboard his steamboat and headed upriver.
The lens had been manufactured in France by the Henry-Lepaute Co., a clockmaking firm, and was a complex and expensive device, essential to the safety of maritime shipping – commercial and military.
Myers and his cargo slipped away up the Tar River a scant 24 hours ahead of a flotilla of Union forces from New Bern bent on recovering the lens or seeking vengeance.
When Union Gen. A. E. Burnside arrived in Washington, he was told by Washington Mayor Isaiah Respess that the lens was steaming up the Tar River.
Duffus, in an interview, noted that North Carolina's populace was deeply divided over the Civil War, many sympathizing with the Union.
Despite threats of destroying Washington and Myers' steamboat, the lens was not turned over to Union forces.
After a river journey to Tarboro and a trek by rail, the cargo of pine boxes was hidden, possibly on a plantation, in the small Granville County village of Townsville – now in Vance County, which didn't exist then – where Tayloe was joined by his mother, wife and son.
Ironically, after the surrender of the Confederacy, 28,000 Union troops marched through Townsville, through the very plantation where sketchy historical records indicate the lens was hidden. It would be the first close encounter with a piece of history that would reappear and disappear from view for another century and a half.
Although Sherman's troops succeeded in locating other lenses removed from North Carolina lights – some in the Capitol rotunda in Raleigh – the Hatteras lens eluded the best efforts the Union could muster – recovery, according to Duffus, a symbolic gesture of dominance.
After the war, when most Union troops had left the state, the Hatteras lens "suddenly appeared" in Henderson, according to Duffus, where the federal government was allowed to recover possession and send it to Staten Island depot where repairs could be arranged.
During the war, the Hatteras lighthouse had been returned to service with a lesser lens than the Henry-Lepaute device removed by Confederate forces, the original lens remaining stored in a Staten Island warehouse.
At that point, events surrounding the Hatteras light became obscured in a mountain of bureaucratic documents – some surviving, some destroyed in fires – and the whereabouts of the lens settled into the muck of myth and lore; according to "Lighthouse Digest," becoming "one of the great, unsolved mysteries of American lighthouse history."
There it remained until about two years ago when Duffus, who stumbled upon intriguing clues during earlier historical projects, decided to have a go at solving the mystery.
Duffus searched mounds of dusty documents in state and federal archives, finding a tantalizing clue here and there, but no resolution to the mystery. That is, until one evening, 15 minutes prior to closing time at the National Archives in Washington, Duffus found himself ready to abandon the effort.
One of the last researchers still sifting through documents, Duffus turned one last page – and found the thread that solved the mystery.
The lens, it seems, had remained hidden in the best of all hiding places – a spot where none would think to look.
It sat squarely atop the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from whence it had been removed more than 70 years prior to the decommissioning of the light in 1936.
Like any good bureaucracy, the U.S. Lighthouse Board, in 1870, unceremoniously returned the original, freshly repaired lens to service in the new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that was then nearing completion.
The dramatic saga of the lens – a touchstone in an epic struggle – was apparently lost on staid officials, and no announcement was made of its return to service.
The subsequent destruction of many lighthouse records further obscured the disposition of the hard-won and expensive machinery that powered the Hatteras light and more than 100 other Southern lighthouses.
Ironically, the 1936 decommissioning of the Hatteras light was a result of concerns that severe erosion around the structure would soon see the light fall into the sea.
In 1949, the National Park Service acquired the Hatteras light and, once again, removed what remained of its vandalized lens mechanism, storing it in a park facility on Roanoke Island.
"Almost a third of the lens was stolen," noted Duffus. "There are about a dozen first-order lenses; not a single one has the remarkable history of this artifact."
In September 2002, the NPS agreed to lend the surviving pieces of the Hatteras lens to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras for an upcoming public exhibit.
In addition, the NPS is seeking to recover any parts of the lens – held by individuals – either by anonymous return or return with recognition.
Duffus called Tayloe to the front and, placing the prism in his hand, said, "For the first time, we are reuniting the lens with the Tayloe family."
Tayloe, with his characteristic grin, said, "I was questioning all this, so … I got a copy of the (original Tayloe) letter from the Library of Congress that connected the first Dr. Dave with all this lens business. I still wasn't convinced."
Reading from the letter, Tayloe said, "'I have had the lighthouse apparatus removed … and safely stored. … I reached Townsville with the lighthouse apparatus.'"
Tayloe said he compared the handwriting in that letter with family documents containing his great-grandfather's handwriting, noting, "It was identical."
An exuberant round of applause followed after which coffee was served and books were signed.