Coastal North Carolina and the Widow’s Watch

Brandon whisked me off to Holden Beach for a one-night getaway last month. We stayed at a friend’s canal-side house and spent two days splashing in the ocean.

The island is quiet and peaceful. Pelicans swoop overhead, coquina clams litter the shore, and candy-colored beach cottages dot the landscape. The beach bum in me is obsessed with these things, especially the houses.

Coastal homes are unique – bright and full of quirky features. As Brandon and I drove around the island, I pointed out porthole windows, outdoor showers, and my favorite: the widow’s watch.

What is a widow’s watch? And why do people in Coastal North Carolina add them to their homes?

A widow’s watch is a railed rooftop walkway that gained popularity on the American coast in the 1800s. These platforms are variations of the Italianate belvedere. Often constructed around the chimney, the earliest versions provided access to the smokestack in case of a fire.

Though Brandon had seen them before, he had never heard the term “widow’s watch.” Since he spent very little time on the coast growing up, I wasn’t surprised. The feature isn’t common outside of coastal communities.

Historians trace the decorative element back to the turn of the 19th century when maritime trade helped ship captains and East Coast merchants amass vast fortunes.

This may be why the walkways mimic the look of a crow’s nest. Which would make sense as there is some evidence that the widow’s watch was used by early shipping magnates to monitor the coming and going of their vessels.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that they became associated with widows. According to legend, faithful wives used the observation decks to watch the horizon for their husband’s ship’s sails. Many of them waited in vain, as their husbands had long ago died at sea.

Today, the walkways are added to beach houses to increase property value. They provide second and third-row homes with gorgeous views of the shoreline. Not as romantic as the myth, but purposeful.

Widow watches are a little more sleek and modern than they used to be. Still, it’s hard to see one without imagining a woman perched up there longing for her lost love’s return.

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