The Mortar Termites of the Outer Banks
“The ocean must move around a lot down here. In Vermont, the ocean has been where it has always been.”
. . . Matron from Vermont
I was at the opening of the new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton last month and I happened to be seated next to an elderly matron from some small town in Vermont. It was her first trip to the Outer Banks, primarily because her husband had only been recently successful. (This she told me herself.) As money was now in healthy supply, she and her husband had decided to spend a month in Frisco.
Being my pleasant self, I gave her a brief history of the Outer Banks, a subject of which I am well versed having been born here and having studied the history carefully over a long period of time. She was attentive and expressed great surprise that this was the third lighthouse and that all three had been in relatively close proximity. When I suggested that the newest had been built further inland than the other two, she remarked that the “ocean must move around a lot down here. In Vermont, the ocean has been where it has always been.”
I thought the statement amusing. Later I began to re-examine my understanding of the Outer Banks and the role of the ocean in its creation and demise. Not being a scientific man or having access to one, I have developed my own theory as to how the Outer Banks came to be and their fate. Since there is fairly deep Atlantic water several miles offshore, I believe that the Outer Banks are not simply sand bars or spits but the tops of a mighty mountain range that juts up from the ocean the floor. Over the eons, debris from the Atlantic side has been lifted shoreward by submarine currents. Once on land, the debris becomes the victim of winds and storms that move it over the sand dunes and into Pamlico Sound. How deep the Pamlico Sound ever was I do not know but it is growing shallower each year at the expense of the Atlantic side of the islands.
Simple observation justifies my theory. A walk along the shores of both the Atlantic and Pamlico Sound will reveal a significant difference in the debris. On the Atlantic side, there is a substantial amount of sand and gravel but the shell content is significantly reduced. Along Pamlico Sound, the opposite in the case. There are so many shells in the shallow water there that walking without shoes is painful. Once the wader has moved into the water, he will discover that there are no shells and that the bottom is covered with a layer of sand and earth mixture which makes clouds when one walks through it. I believe that the growing level of this silting makes fishing virtually impossible on the Pamlico Sound side of the Outside Passage. There are no sharks because that upon which they feed cannot survive as the smaller prey does not exist. Since Pamlico Sound does have a fishing industry further offshore, I suspect that this is further proof that the Outer Banks are the top of a mountain range. Sand and other debris that is created on the Atlantic side and blown eastward, the direction of prevailing winds, crosses the narrow Isthmus where it falls into Pamlico Sound and then down the side of the submarine mountain range. The seaside beaches become diminished as Pamlico Sound becomes filled in. Because Pamlico Sound is relatively shallow all the way to the mainland coast of North Carolina I suspect that this filling-in process has been going on for eons. Eventually Pamlico Sound will be filled in and the Outer Banks as they are known today will be swept clean of sand to become nothing more than a submerged reef.
Historically, the facts seem to bear me out. My ancestors founded the twin cities of Bradleyberg and Haroldville. Though they shared the same warehouse and bookkeeping, Bradleyberg was established to service the King’s Navy on the Atlantic which Haroldville provided critical cargo goods to ships that operated within Pamlico Sound. From family records, I note that every few decades, the plank walkway and support beams for the docks of both cities had to be restructured. Those on the Atlantic Side had to be constantly extended as the ocean became shallower and closer to shore. The same was the case on the Pamlico Sound side. The waters became shallower so the plank walkway and docking facilities had to be extended further out to reach deeper waters.
Yet another proof of the advance of the Atlantic is the disappearance of the Atlantic side landmarks. Though it is substantially down the beach from the twin cities, over the past century the fortress at Cape Hatteras has dropped into deeper waters. The fortress was a Confederate stronghold in August of 1861. The structure is still there, SCUBA divers tell me, but it is several hundred yards offshore and rapidly being covered with sand. Within a decade it will be so submerged as to be invisible even to divers.
Then there is the constant rebuilding of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Stationery and visible light has always been a blessing to the mariner. In the days when navigation meant nothing more than a compass and sextant, coastlines in the dark were like the jaws of a ferocious beast. One solution was to place lighthouses on the most hazardous stretches of land to alert ships to the danger of the shoals. In the early days of the American Republic, not less a person than Alexander Hamilton advocated for a lighthouse on the Outer Banks. He had reason to be concerned as an insecure coastline was bad for maritime business which was, in turn, bad for both the internal economy and external imports. Whoever named the Outer Banks the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” certainly summarized the situation into a succinct and telling phrase.
While everything I have said thus far is both known and common knowledge, there are tidbits of history of the Outer Banks which have not only failed to receive proper footnoting but have been widely ignored by both the scientific and historical communities because the truth is most certainly stranger than fiction.
As an example, in addition to all of the hazards of sea travel in those days, there was also the plague of insects. Usually discussed briefly and only in passing, the impact of insects is perhaps the most downplayed aspect of exploration. But they were a significant factor. In the general sense, captain and crew had little physical contact with insects. The adults of the species that somehow made it on board were usually blown overboard. Their offspring, however, were another matter. There was no refrigeration in those days so meat was constantly covered with a sheeting of maggots. Beyond the flies there were fleas, lice and ticks, constant companions on long ocean voyages in an era when hygiene was considered a dunking every two months or so.
But once the ship made land, the crew was assaulted with as wide a variety of insects as the land had to offer. At a minimum there were flies of every variety, more ticks, fleas, lice and mosquitoes. Every species of these animals, alone and in clouds, made life a living hell on land.
But there was one particular insect that was a particular danger to mariners both on and offshore. This was what has come to known on the Outer Banks as the Mortar Termite, a species so rare that it only existed on the Outer Banks and may very well be extinct at this moment.
The tale of the mortar termite is linked inextricably with that of the teredo worm. Prior to 1800, the most sought-after timber for ships was white oak. This was a strong durable timber and worked well until ships began to encounter warm water, most notably the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Once ships entered these waters, they fell victim to a wide variety of plant and animal life that attached itself onto and into the ship hull below the water line. The mussels and barnacles were an inconvenience and slowed the ship and, occasionally, were scrapped off when the ship went into dry dock. Far more dangerous was the teredo worm. This animal bored into the wood of the hull and propagated. This not only shortened the useful life of the ship, if the infestation was large enough, the ship could, quite literally, fall apart at sea.
At first mariners tried using sacrificial planking on the outside of the ship. A double hull, so to speak, was constructed. The teredo worms would bore into the outer planks and when the ships left warm waters, those outer planks were removed and discarded. This worked reasonably well but was both expensive and time consuming.
Over the centuries a variety of attempts were made to fend off the teredo worm. Lead plates were later used, each plat nailed into the hull with copper nails. This worked well but was still expensive. The lead also made the ship heavier which slowed its progress. In the early 1700s the British tried using copper alone. This proved to be an economic and technological blessing combined. The copper was lighter and cheaper and was impervious to the boring efforts of the teredo worm. Just as important, the green oxide that forms on the surface of the copper plates was deadly poison to barnacles. Eventually copper, also, proved to be prohibitively expensive and the shipping industry began soaking the hull timbers with a mixture of tar, pitch and brimstone, a practice that continued until the era of the steel ship.
While the copper bottoms of ships proved to be efficient, they also carried with them an unanticipated difficulty. The copper was supremely functional in keeping worms and shellfish for boring into and attaching onto the ship hull. But it also prevented the natural processes of salt water from penetrating and purifying the timbers from land parasites. Beetles and termites, for instance, that were inside the white oak when it was milled into ship timbers were entombed in the ship’s hull. Before the era of copper plating, the intrusion of salt water into the timbers killed these unexpected passengers. After the era of copper plating, the insects were killed when the wood was soaked in the composition of tar, pitch and brimstone. But during the era of the copper platting, those insects that were in the white oak remained therein for the life of the ship.
The few termites that remained in the white oak were, figuratively speaking, not a very significant problem. Most died from the change in temperature, their inability to extricate themselves from their wooden tomb or if they could get into the actual hold of the ship, being eaten by the rats that inhabited ships of those days. But a few did survive and this created a rather significant problem in one specific area of the world’s coastline: the Outer Banks.
Looking back over the record of the twin cities, the first instance of the termites came about in 1789. The termites were discovered in some deck planking. The board was replaced and subsequently burned to make sure none of the insects attacked other wood. The assumption at that time, as recorded in company documents, was that the termites had undoubtedly came from the Carolina mainland though the writer was unsure how that was possible. Driftwood, after all, was usually found on the Atlantic side of the isthmus. Mainland lumber was not used on the Outer Banks for two reasons. First, it was too expensive to transport, and second, Outer Bankers were adept at salvaging enough timbers for their structures from shipwrecks. But, as there was no other explanation, it was assumed that somehow mainland termites had arrived on the Outer Banks. The burning the plank was done to ensure that this freak of nature was not repeated.
This was not to be. A decade later there was a more severe attack. This time the roof support for a warehouse sagged. It was replaced and, again, the timber burned as well. Five years later a large number of infested timbers were discovered in a newly constructed structure.
With the termites suddenly began appearing in the new structure it became clear to the colony that these were not mainland insects. The sheer numbers of the insects also indicated that the generating source was nearby. Eliminating the possibility that the termites had come from the mainland, there was only one alternative, however improbable: the termites were coming ashore in the hull timbers that had been previously been covered with copper.
Unlike today when there are archives and historians to assist in the search, in those early days there was very little in the way of recording keeping for wrecks. Ships went aground and they were stripped of all that was valuable: cargo, sails, rope, glass, timbers, braces and canons. Even the figurehead was taken. From personal memory I can recall a massive figurehead of a heavy breasted woman in what my grandfather called his ‘smoking room’ in one of the company stores. My mother confirmed that her mother had ordered her husband to remove “that horrid thing” out of the family home where children were likely to see the nudity. So my grandfather moved it to the warehouse and converted a section into a ‘smoking room’ where men of the twin cities would gather to smoke and drink, the only place in the twin cities they were allowed to indulge in both of those vices.
But I digress. The primary historical point to be made here is that the early shipwrecks were stripped so fast and thoroughly that often the only thing known was the ships name. That was only the case if the ship’s log was found or a bell with the ship’s name was kept. I do not recall ever seeing a ship’s log in the twin cities and the only bell that came to my attention was in the process of being melted. It was worth more as metal than a bell and was thus on its way to becoming nails.
As a result of the total devourage of the shipwrecks, there was no way to ascertain which ships had been copper bottomed. The Outer Bankers knew that several ships had been copper bottomed because the copper was in use as proof but beyond that, they knew naught. Thus began a dedicated campaign to pitch every timber in the twin cities. A mixture of tar, pitch and brimstone was made and all new timber was soaked there in. This ended the termite infestation in the twin cities.
But the termites proved to be a hardy lot. Over the time that they had become marooned on the Outer Banks, the insects must have gone through a Darwinian evolution for they survived not only the tarring but the lack of an unending wood supply in which to invade. There was a dearth of driftwood on the isthmus so the insects added other foodstuffs to their diets. Because they were able to make good use of the local vegetations, their population expanded to that which could be sustained by, presumably, the eel grass, bulb kelp, driftwood and other bits of dendritic debris washed ashore.
What the fate of the termites might have been is unclear. What is clear is that the insects came to national discussion in 1797. In 1794 the United States government had legislated moneys to build a “first rate” lighthouse on what is now the Buxton shoreline. After several years of negotiation, the job went to Henry Dearborn. Dearborn was a two-term Massachusetts legislator and for whom the city in Michigan is named. I am unsure as to why a city in Michigan would be named for a Massachusetts legislator. But I am sure, and the documents bear me out, that $38,450 was appropriated for the construction of two lighthouses, one at Buxton and the other at Ocracoke.
The building of that first lighthouse at Buxton, named the Dearborn Lighthouse, was slow and arduous. Living conditions were miserable and the mosquitoes must have been merciless. The construction took nine years and it was not until 1803 that the first light pierced the darkness of the Buxton night shoreline.
But what the builders of that lighthouse did not know and could not have known was that they were building a disaster-in-the-making into the 90-foot structure. As it was reasonable to use as many local building materials as possible, the work crews indiscriminately took sand from the shoreline to use in the construction of the mortar for the brick lighthouse. Bricks, of course, had to be shipped in but the mortar was created locally. As was often the case in these early days, mortar was not pure. It was a mixture primarily of sand and gravel but often melded into the hardening slush was straw, bits of wood and other local vegetation. The workers were not aware of the termites that had made their home in the sand and thus they did not consider boiling the sand before using it. As a result, the termites were devouring the very glue of the structure as fast as it was going up. Only after the lighthouse was erected did it begin to show signs of termite infestation. The insects were dubbed “mortar termites” for it was first assumed that the insects were eating the mortar. Actually they were eating what had been added to the mortar to thicken the slush. It was clear that the lighthouse had to be reconstructed or it would collapse under its own weight.
But the Dearborn Lighthouse was to have a longer than expected life. Shortly after it was constructed the United States became involved in the War of 1812. After the war the United States government was not in the financial position to repair the lighthouse so it was left to languish, each year coming closer to collapse. Then came the Civil War and it was not until 1867 when a new lighthouse was funded. A total of $75,000 was appropriated to replace the Dearborn Lighthouse with what became known as the Stetson Tower. It was completed in 1870, a few dozen yards from the foundation of the Dearborn Lighthouse which was then mercifully destroyed.
By 1870 the builders were aware of the mortar termites and were careful to boil any sand they used in the construction and not to mix vegetation into the slush of the Stetson Tower. This precaution worked to keep the lighthouse free of the mortar termites but it did nothing to prevent the hardy insects from attacking the wood structures erected by the Life Saving Service, the forerunner of the United States Coast Guard. These structures were in constant danger of collapse so it was with great joy when, in 1937, it was decided to construct a new lighthouse further inland and move the lifesaving structures as well.
That was a decade ago and I have since moved from the Buxton area. However, I have been informed by several reliable relatives that with the construction of this third light house, no effort was made to make certain that local sand was boiled. The contractors only became aware of the presence of the mortar termites after the foundation had been constructed. Thereafter the sand was boiled. How this will affect the new lighthouse I do not know. But considering the historical voraciousness of the mortar termites I suspect that it will not be long before the foundation of the third lighthouse suffers the same fate as the first. I have no reason to think otherwise.
The only solution I can think of is to move the next lighthouse inland. Eventually this will have to be done as the Atlantic will continue to advance. With each foot of advancement I suspect that legions of mortar termites are being drowned. The vast expanse of beach they once inhabited will eventually become a narrow band of sand and their food supply will be severely restricted. At the current rate of Atlantic advance I predict that the lighthouse will have to be moved by the end of the century and the mortar termites will not last long thereafter.
[This short story is from Steven Levi’s faux history of the Outer Banks HOW NAGS HEAD LOST ITS APROSTROPHE available on Kindle.]