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Home of the Fort Fisher Hermit.

Memorial to a Bunker-Dwelling, Mysteriously-Dying Hermit

Field review by the editors.

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, 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.

On June 4, 1972, Harrill was found dirty, bloody, and dead -- spread-eagle in his bunker. Did he die of age and exposure? Was he killed by rednecks, or by thieves after his (supposed) money, or by drug-crazed hippies, or by a prank gone wrong? No one was ever arrested, and no one seemed all that interested in asking too many questions.

Harrill's bunker had been a tip on since 1997, but it wasn't until 2006, when a film documentary was made about Harrill's almost-forgotten life, that the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce were forced to reckon with their hermit history. In May 2007 memorial plaques were erected outside of the bunker, which is now along a hiking trail. Visitors can see photos of Harrill -- he often wore a straw sombrero and looked a little like Ernest Hemingway -- and read about his life. They can even walk around inside of the bunker, although a park ranger told us that, "There's nothing to see in there any more."

Memorial to a Bunker-Dwelling, Mysteriously-Dying Hermit

Fort Fisher

1000 Loggerhead Rd, Kure Beach, NC
Fort Fisher. I-40 until it ends, then south on Hwy 132/US 421 for 23 miles, through Kure Beach, to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. Left onto Loggerhead Rd, and park at the Recreation Area. From the south end of the parking lot walk south to the beach on the Ramsgate Trail, then west to the Bunker on the Basin Trail. The Basin Trail is clearly marked by park signs to the "WWII Bunker." It's about a mile from the parking lot along the trail and over some boardwalks.
Trail closes at dusk. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

North Carolina Military History MuseumNorth Carolina Military History Museum, Kure Beach, NC - 1 mi.
Venus Flytrap Nature TrailVenus Flytrap Nature Trail, Carolina Beach, NC - 6 mi.
Graves of the Gentleman Giant, Singing Ghost TonyGraves of the Gentleman Giant, Singing Ghost Tony, Southport, NC - 6 mi.
In the region:
Elvis Theme Barber Shop, Wilmington, NC - 18 mi.

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