The Fort Fisher Hermit

By David Paul

Nearly 42 years later, Robert Harrill is still attracting visitors to Kure Beach and still making people think.
The southern tip of Pleasure Island on the Cape Fear Coast had its very own hermit who lived in an old abandoned World War II bunker, just south of where the NC Aquarium is today. A 62 year old gentleman named Robert E. Harrill arrived here from the mountains of North Carolina one day back in 1955, and decided that our Kure Beach neighborhood was the perfect place to find peace and quiet. Guests enjoying one of our oceanfront vacation rentals in Kure Beach North Carolina are approximately 1.5 miles north of where the WWII bunker is today. 

Largest Tourist Attraction in Kure Beach

Harrill lived all by himself out in the marshes and among the trees with no electricity, no running water and no plumbing for 17 years. Before he moved into the bunker he first lived out of his car. The bunker was a cement structure with three walls and a roof, open to the cold winters and sweltering summer. He even survived raging hurricanes. During the 17 years he lived here, he survived on the generosity of thousands of visitors while becoming our areas biggest tourist attraction.

The hermit came here to get away from society and his troubles, and in the first years he lived here near Kure Beach, Harrill was genuinely considered a recluse, but ended up becoming famous. Many a visitor came to Pleasure Island for the specific intent of meeting the hermit and to try and understand why he would choose to live so differently, outside with the mosquitoes, the chiggers, the sweltering summers and cold winters.

He was a unique individual for sure. At one point in time he was the second most visited attraction in North Carolina, right after the battleship USS North Carolina anchored in the Cape Fear river near Wilmington, NC.

A Tragic Story of Fort Fisher's Hermit

His story still fascinates us today but it also makes us sad. For the hermit was murdered one night in June 1972 and to this day, no one has ever been caught. He was just trying to live his life as best he could but the more famous he got, the more some people despised him. They couldn't understand him and his way of life. For some people, Harrill's 'Henry David Thoreau' type of lifestyle and fame was intolerable. Harrill was constantly harassed, and one night was ambushed in his sleep.
There has been a lot of speculation as to his demise, a story marked by mystery and controversy. One theory is that a gang of drunken teenagers were looking to scare him, and the situation got out of hand. Another is that because the oceanfront land he was squatting on was valuable, somehow he needed to be removed from the land so it could be developed. Either way, whether Robert Harrill died at the hands of locals or out of town tourists, his demise was at the hands of ignorant cowards. 

A Hermit With Friends

One story told to me by a man who grew up on this island and lived here for over 74 years, is that our hermit received rides to the local A&P Grocery from time to time.  This man knew the hermit personally and considered Harrill a gentle man, and was glad to give him rides, even though he hoped the hermit would take more baths! 

A Documentary Film on Robert E. Harrill

An historical documentary film about the Fort Fisher Hermit was nominated for the 22nd Annual Midsouth Regional Emmy Awards. The documentary focused on the life and death of Robert Harrill. The film explores this unique individual through a series of interviews, photographs and vintage film footage. After much research for the film, and meetings with local historians, the filmmakers collected by December 2002 almost 25 hours of interviews of those who knew Robert Harrill, over 200 photographs, an audio interview recorded in 1967, as well as a collection of 8mm home movies.      

The Hermit is Still Collecting Donations

It has been 42 years since the tragic end of our hermits life, but his story still captivates us today. A marked trail from the Fort Fisher State Recreation area south of Kure Beach through the marshes and sand dunes will take you to the area of the WWII bunker. One can also visit his grave site in the Federal Point Methodist Cemetery. Park your car along Dow Road and walk along the dirt road until you reach the cemetery. He is buried off to the far left. His marker is inscribed,  "He made people think". The frying pan that he used to hold his collected donations is still there and people still leave money to this day. 

Additional Resources

Film: The Fort Fisher Hermit; The Life & Death of Robert E. Harrill

Article: The Fort Fisher Hermit
by Lois Carol Wheatley

Article: The Spirit of the Hermit Lives On