The title of this post, is an early name for a very well-known place on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, however most people wouldn't have a clue as to what it means or represents. Promontorium Tremendum, or dreadful promontory, was the name for Cape Lookout on many early maps depicting the North Carolina Coast (Schoenbaum, pg. 189). Being that a promontory is a mass of land adjacent to a body of water, it is easy to see why Cape Lookout was a dreadful one for 16th and 17th century mariners. Cape Lookout, which lies approximately 70 miles southwest of Cape Hatteras has an interesting history unknown to many, and is often over-shadowed by the more popular cape to the north (Cape Hatteras). With any luck, I will attempt to shed light onto the fascinating history and modern day topics that surround Cape Lookout, and what life has in store for it years into the future.
The dreadful promontory that is Cape Lookout first appeared on maps of the new world of America in 1585, when naturalist John White sailed the surrounding shores and created one of the first maps accurately detailing the Outer Banks of North Carolina. (Stick, pg. 308). Before the arrival of the white man, the lands adjacent to Cape Lookout, mainly Core Banks, were inhabited by the Coree Indians, who hunted and fished on the banks near the cape, although they mainly resided further inland, in a village named Cwareuuoc, several miles behind Core Banks. After the visit from John White in the 16th century, Cape Lookout remained largely distant from the focus of history on the Outer Banks, being used mainly be Spanish privateers, taking shelter in the cove accessible by what is now called Barden Inlet. The cove used by the Spanish however, was so desirable that it warranted a visit from the Governor at the time, Arthur Dobbs, who stated the cove was "the best, altho small of any harbour from Boston to Georgia" and even tried to get the Governors mansion built on the Cape. (Stick, pg.309). Of the bankers who did live in the area, many were engaged in sustenance living, typically relying on the ocean and sounds for food, shelter and survival. Many people, are surprised to find out that in the late 18th and early 19th century, whaling was a huge industry around Cape Lookout, generating a much more substantial income than the odd jobs many previously worked. The first major event to happen on the cape occured in March of 1804, when congress aprroved the construction of the first lighthouse on Cape Lookout, which was finished sometime around 1812. The modern day lighthouse that visitors see today is actually the second lighthouse to occupy the area, as the first one was decidedly too short, and did little good for weary mariners. During the War between the States, Cape Lookout was laregly unused, although the lighthouse did sustain some damage after a raid from Confederate troops (Stick, pgs. 309-310).
In the time following the Civil War, the Cape Lookout area (specifically Shackleford Banks) was home to one of the largest populations on the Outer Banks. Diamond City, located on Shackleford Banks. The community, named after the diamond patter of the lighthouse, grew steadily in the late 1800's, eventually boasting a population of over 500 people. Despite the haven in which they lived, the residents eventually evacuated thanks to Ma Nature. A series of devestating hurricanes, including the infamous 1899 hurricane, or San Ciriaco Hurricane, which ravished the banks, forcing the bankers to the "promised land" section of Morehead city and to the more tranquil lands of Harkers Island as well. Thanks to an act of congress some 87 years after the hurricane, the Cape Lookout National Seashore was established, forever preserving the 56 miles from Portsmouth Village to Shackleford Banks.
Today, the Cape Lookout Seashore remains much as it did when White first laid eyes on it in the late 16th century. The unspoiled beaches, dunes and ecosystems are truly a testimony to the power and processes of nature. In fact, Cape Lookout is one of the healthiest beaches in North Carolina, largely thanks to the fact that it was spared from the overdevelopment the plaugued and still plaiges much of the Outer Banks and surrounding Carteret County. Rather than serve as a mobile home park or seaside mecca, Cape Lookout and its seashore serves to bring visitors back to the days of long ago, when beaches and nature were untouched by man. As for the future of the state, it will remain forever changing, and through that, forever static. Barrier islands are always moving, always adapting to the natural forces that affect them. Islands migrate, rise, accrete and erode on a very short term basis. However, Cape Lookout will be able to carry out these processes at its leisure, as it has all of eternity at its disposal. As I look into the future, I would like to see the Seashore continue to serve as a mecca for the natural world, adventure and edcucation. I would like to see the lighthouse refurbished, so anyone can see the view that awaits at the top. I would like to see historic Portsmouth Villiage restored to the time of its hayday, so visitors can feel the spirit of communtiy which was once as abundant as the water that surrounded them. I would Cape Lookout and the Seashore to keep being everything that arracted me to it in several years ago. With the help of smart, evironmentally literate politicians, an active community and an egaging public, this is a goal which could very easily be accomplished.
Islands, Capes, and Sounds- The North Carolina Coast. 1982. Thomas J. Schoenbaum. Page 189.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina. 1958. David Stick. Pages 308-311.
Link to a great documentary concerning Cape Lookout National Seashore-