The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a replica of an original structure that was built in 1877 and decommissioned in 1955. The new lighthouse, which sits about 40 yards into the Roanoke Sound, was completed in 2004.
By Bryan Mims
More than 400 years have passed since the English language dropped anchor on Roanoke Island, and the mother tongue has spawned a medley of accents between its shores. Drift into the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum on the waterfront in Manteo where Charlie Parker can regale you with tales of sailing off “Lawn Guyland.” The native New Yorker might even take you for “cawfee” and “tawk.”
Parker, who is retired, sits down for lunch at the Hungry Pelican with a Pennsylvania-raised pal whose home state, in case “yinz didn’t know,” is itself a panoply of dialects. A block away at the Stock-Aide General Store, a fellow sporting camouflage pants and a three-day growth of beard wanders in and out, furtive as a house cat, ready with a dose of sarcasm when provoked. But Pete Jasin (there’s a sign on the back door that says, “Beware of Pete”) is harmless and claims to do “as little as paww-sible … you know, whatevah.” He’s another local retiree who moved down from Massachusetts.
As if funneled down the Intracoastal Waterway, Northeasterners have traded snow piles for sand dunes, dipping their toes into the Southern flow of things. That’s not to say the natives have abandoned ship; they still fry oysters and build boats and watch the tide ebb and flow — and still speak in that classic cadence of the North Carolina coast. The dialect around here is known as “high tider” (pronounced “hoi toider”).
Carl Jordan speaks in that unmistakable brogue as he looks out his window at the yachts, sailboats and fishing boats berthed at the waterfront. As the town’s dockmaster, he’s in charge of the 52 slips where boaters can pull in and walk to a restaurant, bar, ice cream shop or bed-and-breakfast. Condos overlook the water, and a hodgepodge of small stores selling books, antiques, pottery, peanuts and candy line streets named for Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh.
It wasn’t that long ago when Manteo had a gritty, workingman’s exterior, offering little to stop the beach traffic on U.S. 64. When Bob and Bonnie Morrill, a couple from Massachusetts, decided to open a pottery shop here in 1991, they inquired about renting space in what was then a construction office. “They thought we were crazy to open a shop here,” Bob says, taking a break in a rocking chair at Wanchese Pottery. “At the time, the only other shop here was the bookstore, and that was it. My wife thought this would be a nice artist village at some point, and it’s turned out to be.”
Over the next two decades, Manteo — with its prime spot on Shallowbag Bay, proximity to the North Carolina Aquarium and adorable old homes — metamorphosed into a destination. Summer, of course, is high season for the town, which claims a year-round population of a little more than 1,400. Come Fourth of July, the waterfront is awash with boaters and landlubber visitors soaking in the charms of a locale where English America had her origins. “All your slips are full, and everybody just hangs around all day,” says Jordan, the dockmaster.
Another marquee event for Manteo is Dare Day, on the second Saturday of June. What began as a local event has “gotten so big the locals won’t hardly come,” Jordan says. “It grew into a great big tourist thing, a carnival atmosphere.”
Manteo is a coastal town but not a beach town, an important distinction. Scan the eastern horizon across Roanoke Sound, and multistory vacation houses stand shoulder to shoulder like a stockade against the sea. Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills have their bright beachwear shops and sunscreened surf splashers; Manteo has leafy yards with white-picket fences, shaded by live oaks.
While the nearby beaches are for frolicking, Manteo is for quiet walks to contemplate the origins of our nationhood. It lays claim to one of the most enduring mysteries in the world, the Lost Colony. In 1587, English settlers led by John White set forth to establish a colony on Roanoke Island. White’s daughter gave birth to America’s first English child, Virginia Dare, for whom Dare County is named. Manteo was the name of the Croatan Indian chief on the island who, along with another Indian named Wanchese, traveled to England as a display of good will to the colonists.
As the story goes, Capt. White had to sail back to England for supplies, but because of a military crisis with Spain, he couldn’t return to Roanoke Island for another three years. When he finally returned, the colony had vanished without a trace. Every sign of human presence was gone, except for the word “Croatoan” carved on two trees. To this day, nobody knows what happened to the settlers.
Roanoke Island was permanently settled in the mid-1600s and has a long history of boatbuilding. At the maritime museum, where Parker, the talkative guy from Long Island, likes to “putz around” with his buddies, craftsmen restore old shadboats, skiffs, canoes and anything else that can brave the sounds and marshes. Their workshop is named for George Washington Creef, a boatbuilder who lived on Roanoke Island until his death in 1917. Creef designed the shadboat, a round-bottomed vessel with a wide center to carry large hordes of fish. In 1987, the state legislature designated the shadboat as the state boat of North Carolina.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, shipyards appeared in Manteo and Wanchese, a town 5 miles to the south. During World War II, the yard in Manteo built Navy landing crafts and vessels for rescuing downed pilots. Boat manufacturing remains a staple of the Roanoke Island economy, though it suffered during the Great Recession when the wealthy weren’t sinking money into multimillion-dollar boats. Builders laid off workers, and a few closed shop, but most weathered the rough waters and are back at full throttle. Dare County’s boat-makers are clustered at an industrial park in Wanchese and at Manns Harbor, located west across Croatan Sound from Roanoke Island. Blackwell Boatworks employs about 20 people making fishing boats and luxury yachts, taking orders from as far away as Dubai.
Commercial fishing is another economic hook on Roanoke Island. Wanchese Fish Co., founded in 1936, harvests wild scallops, shrimp, oysters, king crab and other seafood. Canada-based Cooke Seafood USA Inc. acquired the company in 2015. Wanchese runs a fleet of 16 vessels, including three in Argentina, and has a sales office and storage facility in France.
Manteo is the clean-cut tourist counterpoint to the industrial character of Wanchese. The shipyard is gone from the town, along with a wastewater treatment plant that once stood just offshore from Manteo’s waterfront. As recently as the 1990s, the cylindrical concrete tank rose out of the harbor with the subtleness of a beached whale. In its place now is a replica of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, dedicated in 1999 to celebrate Manteo’s 100th anniversary as a town. Unlike the towering sentinels by the ocean, this lighthouse is squat, its lantern house mounted to the roof of the lightkeeper’s cottage-style quarters. The house sits atop pilings screwed into the harbor floor, thus known as a “screwpile” lighthouse.
In Manteo, you can stroll the lighthouse pier and drowse away an afternoon along the waterfront, cooling off with a cold one from Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe (previously called Full Moon Café) or dining at a restaurant called 1587. If you’re seeking a coastal experience without the breakers and sunburns, Manteo speaks your language.