“The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” That’s what Southern seafarers used to call the North Carolina Outer Banks. Before the advent of electronic navigation, countless ships ran aground during furious storms, crashed into hidden shoals, or sank in the Gulf Stream’s fierce, turbulent current.
To prevent such shipwrecks, four towering lighthouses were erected along the Outer Banks – the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, completed in 1812 and rebuilt in 1859; the Ocracoke Lighthouse, constructed in 1823; the Bodie Island Lighthouse, initially built in 1847 and rebuilt twice afterward; and the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, completed in 1870.
But one stretch of OBX coastline still remained unprotected – the 40-mile northern section between Cape Henry and Bodie Island. Here, in this treacherous “dark space,” vessels continued to wreck, with loss of both life and cargo.
A Light in the Darkness
Finally, in 1872, the U.S. Light-House Board approved construction of a massive brick light station at Corolla, in the heart of the “dark space.” By late 1875 the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was completed. And on December 1 of that year, the lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens began flashing its guiding light 18 nautical miles out across the Atlantic.
Today this legendary lighthouse still stands at its original site near the historic Whalehead Club. It still has its rotating Fresnel lens, now completely automated. And it still sends out its familiar signal nightly from dusk to dawn, flashing for three seconds out of every 20.
Best of all, you can visit this beautiful beacon and climb its spiral staircase to the observation deck at the top, where you’ll enjoy a thrilling 360-degree view of Currituck Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, Currituck Beach, and more.
What’s Special About the Currituck Beach Lighthouse? (Hint: It’s Red!)
If you’re familiar with other Outer Banks lighthouses, you know about their distinctive designs – those iconic white brick walls painted with bold black stripes.
But the Currituck lighthouse has no painted pattern at all. It was deliberately left unpainted so seafarers could tell it apart from the other OBX light stations.
Today, when you visit this unique lighthouse, you’ll find the original structure intact: a majestic red brick tower, 162 feet tall, built with a million bricks. In late afternoon, the setting sun gives this impressive structure a warm red-golden glow.
Nearby you’ll find the Lighthouse Keepers’ House, a clapboard Victorian structure completed in 1876. Two families shared this duplex, one on either side. A third house – for another keeper’s family – was moved to the site in 1920.
Today these historic structures are in the process of being restored. While the original duplex still needs some interior work, the smaller 1920 house has been completely renovated. Now transformed into a gift shop, it’s open daily during the season, selling lighthouse replicas, T-shirts, books, art, souvenirs, and more.
What to Expect When You Climb the Tower (220 Steps in All)
The lighthouse’s rugged iron stairwell may be steep and winding, but it’s surprisingly easy to climb. Most people reach the top in about five or six minutes, but you can take as long as you like. Plus, you can pause and catch your breath on the staircase’s nine landings.
You’ll pay $10 per person to climb (plus sign a liability waiver). Kids 7 and under climb free, but they must be accompanied by an adult.
Before you begin your ascent, check out the ground-level Archives Room. Here you’ll find period photos, handwritten letters, and other historic artifacts offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the early light keepers. You’ll learn about their trials and hardships, their family relationships, and even their feuds. (One keeper actually accused his colleague of poisoning his dog!)
As you climb, be sure to linger at each of the first three landings, where museum-quality exhibits highlight the light station’s colorful history. Plus, look for special window displays indicating your exact position – the direction you’re facing and your altitude above sea level.
When you reach the top (158 feet above sea level), you’ll view a breathtaking vista that literally stretches for miles. You’ll feel the exhilarating sea breeze and taste the tang of the salty air.
And when you look upward, you’ll see the original Fresnel lens, still used to guide local mariners. As a “first-order lens,” it’s the largest-size Fresnel lantern available. In the beginning, it was fueled by lard oil. Later this was changed to mineral oil. By 1939, it had switched over to electric-powered automation.
That meant light keepers were no longer needed to operate the intricate mechanism for rotating and flashing the beacon. The keepers left, and an era ended.
As you gaze around the lantern room, take a moment to drink it all in. You’ll get a powerful sense of the romance and mystique of this chapter in Outer Banks history. The Currituck Lighthouse is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from mid-March through December 1. On Wednesdays and Thursdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the lighthouse and grounds stay open till 8 p.m.