On September 7, 1959, The Raleigh News and Observer published a front-page article, with photo, titled, “Dock Situation Provokes Feud.” It concerned Robert Stanley Wahab and Sam Jones, both Ocracoke islanders.
Wahab, a native islander who had worked as an oysterman, sailor, accountant, and public school teacher, later became the owner of the Wahab Village Hotel (now Blackbeard’s Lodge) and the Silver Lake Inn & Coffee Shoppe (originally the Odd Fellows Lodge; later the Island Inn). He has been described as a citizen “prominent in the political and economic life of the coastal region.”
Sam Jones was born in Swan Quarter, North Carolina, and made a fortune as owner of Berkley Machine Works in Norfolk, Virginia. He married Ocracoke Native Mary Ruth Kelly, daughter of Neva May Howard and a Maryland mariner. In the 1950s Sam built several large, shingled structures, including the Castle on Silver Lake and Berkley Manor.
The newspaper article included this photo (a line drawing is included for clarity):
Following is the article:
“Ocracoke—Ocracoke Island’s two millionaires are feudin’ over a dock situation that has a small boat owned by one of them cooped up.
“Stanley Wahab, owner of the penned-in craft, has filed a $10,000 damage suit against Sam Jones, the owner of neighboring property.
“He charges that Jones built a dock on the line between their properties so that the Wahab boat can’t get out or in except by being hauled over land.
“Wahab, an island native with extensive property holdings here, built his dock some years ago with a “T” on the end. When Jones decided to put his dock right on the property line, it closed in a boat Wahab usually ties alongside his dock, inshore from the “T.”
“Jones, who made his fortune in the iron foundry business in Norfolk, Va., has had large property holdings on the Island for several years. He built two large houses here, both fronting on Silver Lake, and recently was convicted in Federal Court in Norfolk of evading income taxes on the money spent for the houses. His case now is on appeal.”
A deposition from Mr. Neafee Scarborough to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, dated November 10, 1959, reads as follows:
“Objection to the pier which was built on Silver Lake, in front of the property belonging to the Berkley Machine Works….
“The pier owned by R.S. Wahab is a T pier. Mr. Wahab had a boat tied up on the west side of the pier and when the pier, for which a permit is requested, was built Mr. Wahab could not remove his boat as it was entirely enclosed.
“The pier owned by Mr. Wahab is used by his friends to fish from, also by Yachts and fishing boats. Mr. Wahab always kept his boats moored alongside of this pier, keeping the end of the pier open so that boats could land at the end.
“Now that the pier mentioned in your public Notice belonging to the Berkley Machine works was built on the west side of Mr. Wahab’s his boat or any other boat cannot navigate to and from the pier. I cannot see why this pier was not built at least 50 ft. further to the westward both in the interest of the Berkley Machine Works and R. S. Wahab as both sides of their docks would be usable, as it is now there are two piers each having one side.
“Mr. Wahab’s pier across the end was long enough for a 100 ft. boat to tie up. Now only about a 60 ft. boat can tie up as the 100 ft. boat would extend over the Berkley Machine Works pier. Piers that are long enough for any size boat to tie up to are very few outside of the National Park Service piers and in stormy weather commercial fishermen come in for harbor and very often there is from 75 to 100 boats tied up in Silver Lake to make harbor until stormy weather is over.
“I reply to this notice in the interest of this beautiful harbor, the pleasure yachts small and large and commercial fishermen.”
Cape Hatteras National Seashore was authorized by Congress on August 17, 1937, and officially established on January 12, 1953.
In 1957 eleven miles of what was to become NC Highway 12 through the Seashore Park on Ocracoke Island was paved. The last three miles (at the north end of the island) was a single lane of WWII metal landing mats (with “pullovers” every half mile for passing oncoming vehicles). For many of those miles the highway traversed barren tidal flats, and was exposed to overwash from the ocean during storms.
To help protect the road, the National Park Service and the State of North Carolina constructed a continuous row of man-made dunes between the new highway and the Atlantic Ocean. Workers erected “sand fences” to catch the blowing sand. Sea oats and other grasses were planted to stabilize the new dunes. For many years, horses, cattle, sheep, and goats had been permitted to roam throughout the island. Apparently, no one anticipated the problems Ocracoke’s free-ranging livestock would cause for the new highway.
In April of 1957 Ocracoke native, R. Stanley Wahab, circulated a petition to have all free-ranging livestock removed from the island. Excerpts from the petition follow:
“The new highway on Ocracoke Island is now being retarded and damaged by cattle and horses running at large along the beach adjacent to the highway and the area where sand fences are being erected.
“On several occasions while driving on the new highway where grass, planted by the Highway Commission, on the shoulders of the highway had started to grow, cattle and horses were seen grazing and eating this grass which had sprung up, thereby destroying the grass before it could fully mature and serve its purpose. Furthermore, the sand shoulders of the highway and the sand caught by the sand fences is being trampled by livestock running at large. The two hundred cattle and about fifty horses are destroying what the State of North Carolina and the U. S. Government have expended large sum of taxpayer’s money to build.
“The beach land is not the only property where damage is being inflicted. In the village of Ocracoke property owners (the great majority do not own any livestock) are the victims. Horses run at large on the property of the citizens and also on the land in the village that is owned by the Park Service. Stallions and mares are conspicuous in their breeding process, fences are being damaged and torn down, horses are dumping dung on the lands and in the yards of the property owners and are destroying their flowers and other vegetation.
“There is a Bill pending in the present N. C. General Assembly to remove all livestock from Ocracoke Island. Amendments have been offered and are now in process which would permit thirty horses to remain for the use of the Boy scouts. If such amendments would pass, the present damage and destruction would continue to exist.
“Our citizens like and admire the Boy Scouts and would not object to their horses being kept, provided they are kept penned and not permitted to run at large on public land and on the property of those who do not own horses.
“A great majority of our citizens are opposed to horses and other livestock running at large on Ocracoke Island, in defiance of the existing N. C. No Fence Law.’
Seventeen people signed the petition.
Marvin Howard, scoutmaster of Ocracoke’s mounted Boy Scout Troop #290, was successful in allowing a remnant herd of banker ponies to remain on the island. Marvin, with help from the boy scouts, constructed the first pony pen on National Park Service land. All remaining free-ranging livestock was removed from the island.
Capt. Ben’s Waterfront Restaurant was established by Ocracoker Ben Mugford in the early 1970s. Situated on the end of a dock overlooking Silver Lake harbor, across the road from the Harborside Motel, the restaurant quickly gained a reputation for excellent cuisine, spectacular sunset views, and colorful native island cooks and wait staff. Unfortunately, the restaurant burned to the ground in a fire in 1977.The enthusiastic but woefully untrained and disorganized volunteer fire department was unable to extinguish the fire before it became a conflagration. Although no one was injured or died, it was a sad day for Ben and his family, and for the entire Ocracoke community. It was, however, a wake-up call for islanders.
In 2016 Jimmy Creech wrote the following account of that awful night, and the beginning of a new era that today boasts a well-trained and well-equipped volunteer fire department (https://www.ocracokevfd.org/).
The Night Capt. Ben’s Restaurant Burned
By Jimmy Creech
When Capt. Ben’s Restaurant burned to the ground, I was the pastor at the Ocracoke United Methodist Church.
There was no organized volunteer fire department at the time. We had an old fire truck, an old army surplus equipment truck, a collection of second-hand boots, coats, overalls and helmets, and a two-bay building to house it all. Womac was the fire chief, but no one ever showed up for the training he scheduled once a month. I certainly never had training! It wasn’t required back then – whoever showed up for a fire was welcome! Whenever the sirens went off, most always for brush fires started by discarded cigarettes thrown from passing cars on highway 12, we always had a good turnout and everything seemed to go well enough. Didn’t happen that way when Capt. Ben’s burned.
The sirens sounded shortly before midnight that Saturday. I jumped out of bed, pulled on a bathing suit and some sandals and ran to the fire hall. When I arrived, I discovered that those ahead of me couldn’t start the fire truck – the battery was dead. Someone tied his pickup to the fire truck with a rope and towed it down the back road toward Blackbeard’s Lodge. Once it was running, the driver drove the fire truck back to the fire hall to pick up those of us waiting to fight the fire. Word was there was a fire at Capt. Ben’s Restaurant.
While I waited for the fire truck to return to the fire hall, I put on a helmet, pair of overalls, coat and a pair of rubber boots, all much too large for me, but the best I could find. Don’t remember how many there were of us, but we all jumped on the fire truck as it came back by, siren blaring, and headed off down the back road toward Capt. Ben’s. As we passed cottages along the way, tourists, who had been partying, came running out to jump on the fire truck for the ride. Several young women in bikinis with beer in their hands joined us. Must have thought it would be something fun to do on a Saturday night, I guess.
When we pulled up in front of Capt. Ben’s, I jumped off, grabbed the nozzle, pulled the hose off the truck and ran with it toward smoke I saw coming out of a window at the rear of the restaurant on the edge of the lake. I stood at the window, smoke pouring out, and desperately yelled, “Water! Water! Water!” No water. The driver made the mistake of turning off the fire truck when he got to Capt. Ben’s and it wouldn’t start, so it couldn’t pump the water.
Suddenly, I realized the slack in the hose I was holding was fast disappearing – the fire truck was being towed again, and no one bothered to tell me. Not wanting to drop the nozzle and have it damaged by being dragged down the road around the lake, I took off running with it behind the fire truck, the much-too-large helmet bouncing on my head and my feet nearly coming out of the much-too-large rubber boots with every clomp along the road. The truck finally started about where Howard Street meets the paved road. The driver waited for me, pulled the hose in, then turned the fire truck around and headed back to Capt. Ben’s.
Again, I pulled the hose from the truck and headed back to where I saw the smoke before. Now, large flames were leaping out of the window. I turned on the nozzle and began spraying water through the window inside the restaurant. The flame just got larger, breaking through the roof and spreading throughout the building. To better get at the fire, I crawled beneath the back porch and began shooting a stream of water into the building through a gaping hole the fire had burned in the floor. Lying on my stomach, I aimed the water into the heart of the fire, hoping to knock it down.
In a few minutes, someone crawled under the porch next to me and said, “Jimmy, you’re getting everybody on the other side of street wet! Please lower the water!”
The crowd of people who came to see the fire stood across the street from Capt. Ben’s. Lying on my stomach beneath the opposite side of the building from the onlookers, I wasn’t just shooting water up at the burning structure, I was shooting it through the flames into the air and onto the people standing across the street.
Someone else crawled under the building next to me with an air pack for me to use to protect me from all the smoke I was inhaling. I put on the facemask, but couldn’t figure out how to put the tank on my back or how to turn the air on. So, I gave up and sent it back out. I learned later that I had the air tank upside down.
When it was obvious the fire had complete control of the building and there was no way to extinguish it, I crawled out and began to spray water on two large fuel oil tanks on the adjacent property while what was left of Capt. Ben’s burned. We didn’t want the heat to cause the tanks to rupture or explode.
Capt. Ben’s burned completely to the ground. At sunrise, after spraying water on the smoking debris to extinguish all live embers, I walked to the parsonage and began preparing to lead worship later that morning.
The following Monday night, the Civic Club held a special meeting to discuss Capt. Ben’s Restaurant burning down. The room was packed with Ocockers and the atmosphere was tense. Ben Mugford was there, understandably angry at the incompetence of the “fire department.” There was a lot of finger pointing to put blame on someone for the debacle: the deputy sheriff who discovered the fire; Womac, the fire chief; the designated fire truck driver who failed to keep the battery charged; etc.
I spoke and said I was to blame because I had never gone to one of Womac’s training sessions. I said I knew when they were scheduled but just didn’t make the effort to go to them. I then described what happened at Capt. Ben’s (pretty much what I’ve written above, but with more details than I can now remember). As I told the story, the atmosphere began to relax with laughter breaking the tension.
When I finished, the Civic Club discussion moved away from pinning blame for the failure of the Volunteer Fire Department to organizing to make it better. We didn’t want another property on Ocracoke to burn to the ground because we didn’t know what we were doing. It was clear that Womac wasn’t getting support from the community and that he couldn’t make people come to training.
Womac said he was ready to retire from his position – he’d been trying to retire for years, but no one would step up to take his place. So, we elected David Fletcher to be fire chief and created a committee to develop policies and procedures for the fire department. Following that meeting, those wanting to be in the fire department met to elect officers. We scheduled training sessions to be led by expert trainers coming from Raleigh, and made it a requirement for everyone to participate in all training sessions in order to be members of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department. We also began fundraising to purchase new equipment.
The fire at Capt. Ben’s Restaurant was a major loss and embarrassment for Ocracoke, but it also served to initiate a trained and professional volunteer fire department for the island.