Islanders Trying To Save Ancestors’ Eternal Resting Place

Jenny Farrow Creech, upper left, Dawn Farrow Taylor and James Chalet are among the islanders working to prevent a 19th-century cemetery on North Carolina’s Outer Banks from being eroded away by the Pamlico Sound. The sound is now less than 50 feet from the cemetery. The preservation group hopes to build a bulkhead to protect the cemetery from further erosion. (Photo by Willie Drye)

Residents of North Carolina’s slender, sandy Outer Banks have been wrestling with the sea for centuries. And they know that the sea–the Atlantic Ocean to the east and large sounds to the west–eventually gets its way. About the best they can usually hope for is figuring out a way to accommodate the inevitable.

Sometimes, however, they feel compelled to take a stand and try to hold off the water. That’s what’s happening in the small community of Salvo on Hatteras Island, where some residents are determined to keep the Pamlico Sound from swallowing a 144-year-old cemetery where many of their ancestors are buried.

Among those interred in the cemetery are men who patrolled Outer Banks beaches for the U.S. Live-Saving Service in the 19th century. Known as surf men, they heroically snatched shipwreck victims from the jaws of death during long ago hurricanes and nor’easters.

Two groups–the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society and the non-profit Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Civic Association–have joined forces to raise money to build a bulkhead to prevent the sound from claiming more of the cemetery.

Dawn Farrow Taylor, whose ancestors were lighthouse keepers on the Outer Banks, said a recent “plate sale” fundraiser at a local community center raised about $2,600, enough to start work laying sandbags to protect the cemetery until the bulkhead can be built. Jenny Farrow Creech, whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, said about $70,000 is needed for that project.

On a recent late-summer morning, vacationers happily splashed on a small beach at the Salvo Day Use Area, a small park within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that provides public access to the sound. Less than 50 feet away, several islanders stood in the cemetery watching the tourists and talking about a concrete burial vault that’s been nearly uncovered by the relentless encroachment of the sound. Near the bottom of the vault lay several tombstones that had been displaced by storm-driven waves.

A small island that once provided some protection from the waves’ action has disappeared, and the sound has claimed about 50 feet of the original cemetery plot that was laid out in 1872.

The encroachment of the Pamlico Sound on the island is unusual. Normally, it’s the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred feet to the east that chews away on the Outer Banks. The summer hurricanes and winter nor’easters that regularly roar past Cape Hatteras accelerate the erosion.

But two recent hurricanes–Irene in 2011 and Arthur in 2014–blew over the Pamlico. “What they did was push walls of water over the island,” said James Chalet, a local writer. “Irene put six feet in my yard. And then Arthur put four feet (over the island). And they both came from the sound.”

Dawn Farrow Taylor, upper left, Jenny Farrow Creech, foreground, and Linda Walton checked for further erosion of a historic cemetery in Salvo, North Carolina after Hurricane Hermine recently sent seawater across the Outer Banks. The Pamlico Sound, seen in the background, has been steadily chewing away at the cemetery for years. The burial vault behind Creech has been almost entirely exposed by erosion. (Photo by Willie Drye)
A 2007 snapshot shows the cemetery before severe erosion began with hurricanes Irene in 2011 and Arthur in 2014. The picket fence overlooking the Pamlico Sound was lost to erosion. (Photo provided by Rebecca Mitchell)

Hurricane Hermine sent more seawater across the island a few weeks ago, but the erosion caused by that storm was not as bad as islanders feared it would be. Still, wind and wave action from winter nor’easters can be as devastating as hurricanes, and the group hopes to have some protection in place before fierce winter storms soon start blowing. The group recently obtained permits necessary to start putting sandbags into place.

The group has created a GoFundMe page to accept donations for the work. Checks also can be sent to the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Civic Association, P.O. Box 323, Rodanthe NC 27968. Donors should write “Salvo Cemetery” on the memo line of the check.

Listen to author Willie Drye discuss his IPPY Award-winning book, For Sale-American Paradise, with host Frank Stasio on WUNC radio’s “The State of Things,” and with Joseph Cooper on WLRN’s “Topical Currents.”

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Meet the Author
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.