Memorial to a Bunker-Dwelling, Mysteriously-Dying Hermit
Kure Beach, North Carolina
Robert E. Harrill had a rotten family life, and wound up in a mental hospital in Morganton, North Carolina. One day, at age 62, he returned to his home in Shelby, packed one bag, and hitchhiked 260 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 17 years he lived in a World War II bunker in the salt marshes near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, eating crabs and fish that he caught and paying for groceries with whatever money was brought to him by visitors. That money may have been surprisingly substantial.
Although Harrill was called "The Fort Fisher Hermit," he was hardly alone. At the time of his death, it was reckoned that he was the second most popular tourist attraction in North Carolina. Harrill's self-imposed exile -- 1955-1972 -- coincided with America's fascination with bohemians and back-to-the-land lifestyles. It was cool to make a pilgrimage to Fort Fisher and listen to Harrill talk of his "School of Common Sense," although he was neither common nor sensible.
In June 1972, Harrill was found dirty, bloody, and spread-eagle in his bunker. Did he die of age and exposure? Was he killed by rednecks, or thieves, or a prank gone wrong? No one was ever arrested, and no one seemed all that interested in asking too many questions.
Harrill's bunker has been a tip on RoadsideAmerica.com since 1997, but his story had faded into general obscurity. Then, in 2006, a film documentary was made about his almost-forgotten life. This prompted the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce in May 2007 to erect memorial plaques outside of the bunker, which is now along a hiking trail. Visitors can see photos of Harrill and read about his life, and can even walk around inside of the bunker, although a park ranger told us that, "There's nothing to see in there any more."