There is perhaps nothing as iconic to the Outer Banks as the lighthouses that stand above the shoreline from Corolla to Ocracoke Island. Soaring above the beach, they were some of the first guardians of the coast, warning mariners of dangerous shoals and treacherous seas. They maintain that function even today, their lights flashing distinctive patterns into the night sky and their particular color and paint arrangements giving sailors visual reckoning as they pass the North Carolina coast.
They also tell a remarkable story, a recounting of early attempts by the United States to support its maritime industry.
Almost from the founding of the United States, seafaring activity along the new country’s coastline was a concern of the government. In 1789 the ninth act of Congress and, what was the first public works act, placed all lighthouses under the Treasury Department and committed the government to building new lighthouses.
Initially almost all of the lighthouses were located in the Northeast where most of the population lived. However, the maritime industry had different needs. Taking advantage of the Labrador Current until it reached the Gulf Stream ship captains would hug the coast before turning east for Europe. There was also a robust trade within the Americas, and captains felt sailing closer to shore was safer and faster.
By the beginning of the 19th Century, it was obvious that the waters of the Outer Banks were some of the most treacherous in the world, and something had to be done.
The first lighthouse the government built on the Outer Banks was as at Ocracoke. Now a sleepy fishing and tourist village, the location may seem odd by modern standards, but, the town, and Ocracoke Inlet, was an important entry point for the ports of the Inner Banks.
The first attempt, built in 1798 was on Shell Castle Island, a small artificial island due north of Portsmouth Island and west of Ocracoke. A wooden structure, by the time it burned to the ground in 1818 the shoaling of the channel the light was marking was so severe that it no longer marked a safe passage.
Recognizing that a lighthouse was needed at Ocracoke Inlet, in 1822 Congress allocated $20,000 for the project and contracted with Noah Porter of Massachusetts to build the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage. Porter spent $8500 less than budgeted and he must have done something right because the lighthouse is still standing.
Completed in 1823 and originally coated with lime, salt, ground rice, whiting, and clear glue boiled and applied hot, the 75’ tower has always been a stark white. The lighthouse is still in use, flashing an automated beacon, making it the second oldest lighthouse in the country in continuous use. The oldest is the Boston Light which celebrated its 300th birthday last year.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse is the only Outer Banks lighthouse that cannot be climbed, although the grounds are open.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The early history of the Hatteras Lighthouse was troubled.
Diamond Shoals had long been known as one of the most dangerous stretches of coastline along the East Coast and Congress recognizing that, appropriated $44,000 in 1797 to build a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. It was not an easy build. Construction delays and engineering complications slowed the project and it wasn’t until 1802 that the first Hatteras Lighthouse was completed.
Standing 112’ above the sand, the new lighthouse had to wait another year before a lighthouse keeper would agree to move to Hatteras.
As a warning beacon to sailors the light was a miserable failure. Diamond Shoals extend 26 miles to the east of Cape Hatteras and the beacon from the Hatteras Lighthouse fell well short of that, something that was noted in an 1851 inspection.
“Hatteras Light, the most important on our coast is, without doubt, the worst light in the world,” Navy Lt. David Porter wrote. Adding that he had made numerous trips past the breakers of Diamond Shoals, that when he finally did see the light, “…I could not tell it from a steamer’s light, excepting that the steamer’s lights are much brighter.”
Porter’s report sparked action and the tower was raised to 150’ and a first order Fresnel lens was mounted in the tower.
First introduced in France in 1821, the Fresnel light used rotating prisms around a single light source to produce a more powerful and technically advanced light than anything else available in the 19th century.
The additional height and power of the lens was effective, but it was a short-lived triumph.
In 1861, concerned that Union troops would land on the Outer Banks, the Confederate army removed the Fresnel lamp. Their fears were well-founded. Northern forces seized Hatteras Inlet in August of 1861 and marched north.
To prevent their enemy from using the height of the tower as an observation post, the Confederates tried to destroy it. They were unsuccessful their destruction, but did considerable damage.
After the war, the Lighthouse Board inspected the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and decided it would be cheaper to build a new one.
In 1868 Congress appropriated $80,000 for a new light but cost overruns drove the new price tag to $167,000—about $2.7 million in 2017.
In retrospect, it was a bargain. Chief Engineer for the project Dexter Stetson seemed to have a clear understanding of what was required to build in an environment as harsh as the Outer Banks.
Rather than rely on the sandy soil of Hatteras to anchor his tower, Stetson created a lattice work of logs to bear the weight the structure. When completed in 1870, at 207’ the new structure was, and still is, the tallest all brick building in the United States.
The new light performed to expectations, warning ships far at sea of the danger of Diamond Shoals. In a tribute to the genius of Stetson, when the light was moved 1600’ back from the sea 1999, the log lattice base was still intact and the structure made the journey with no damage.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
Standing 165’ above the horizon just north of Oregon Inlet, Bodie Island Lighthouse looks a lot like Cape Hatteras. Which stands to reason since after completing Hatteras, Dexter Stetson took on the task of building the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Stetson had leftover brick and he had trained workers from the Hatteras project, and by 1872 a new light north of Hatteras was illuminating the night sky.
The Bodie Island Light that is now a part of the Outer Banks was the third attempt at building a lighthouse at that general location.
It had been recognized for some time that a warning beacon was needed north of Cape Hatteras; the light would have two purposes—warn of Wimble Shoals at Rodanthe and the approach of Diamond Shoals.
In 1847, a year after Oregon Inlet opened, the first lighthouse was completed. South of the Inlet, the structure, suffering from shoddy construction—the contractor did not follow the engineer’s recommendations, and it began to lean almost immediately. Attempts to right the tower failed, and it was destroyed in 1859 as another lighthouse was being completed.
The new lighthouse, adjacent to the old one, would have survived if Southern forces hadn’t blown it up in 1861. It’s doubtful, however, if it would have survived Oregon Inlet which has been migrating steadily southward since it opened. The location of both of the original lighthouses south of Oregon Inlet are now under water.
Of all the Outer Banks lighthouses, the grounds and marsh surrounding Bodie Island is the most interesting and is worth a trip just to explore the environment.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The lighthouses of the East Coast served multiple purposes. Certainly they warned mariners of dangerous waters, but almost as importantly they were—and still are—navigational aids. With the advent of the Fresnel lens, the timing of the beacon could be regulated, so the Cape Hatteras Light might flash every 20 seconds, and another lighthouse might flash every 15 second. That would be a visual cue to a ship’s captain giving their location. Similarly, each lighthouse was painted in a distinctive manner to aid in daytime navigation.
That works well as long as the lighthouses are regularly placed along the coast.
Which brings us to Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
By the mid 1870s about every 35 to 40 miles there was a lighthouse from Maine to Florida…except for a stretch between Cape Henry in Virginia and Bodie Island. The Lighthouse Board noted that in an 1872 report, point out specifically that ships sailing north, in order to avoid the Gulf Stream sailed dangerously close to the Currituck Banks shoreline.
In 1873 construction on a new lighthouse was begun. Utilizing techniques that had proven successful at Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse would be an all brick structure.
When the wick on the first order Fresnel lens was lit on December 1, 1875, the last dark area of the East Coast was illuminated.
To distinguish the Currituck Beach Lighthouse from the other lighthouses, it was decided to leave the exterior unpainted. It has remained unpainted and the exposed red brick is a amazing example of brick construction.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was one of the last brick lighthouses built.
The grounds and keepers’ cottages have been restored by the Outer Banks Conservation Society.