Have you ever been to Manteo?
If you’ve visited this quaint island town in the NC Outer Banks, you may have noticed a picturesque structure at the end of a wooden pier just east of the downtown area. It’s the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse… and it’s unlike any tower-style lighthouse you’ve ever seen.
To begin with, it’s much shorter – just 37 feet high. Plus, it’s considerably newer – built in 2003-2004 as an exact historical replica of an identical earlier lighthouse.
Above all – as you’ll see at a glance – this lighthouse is designed very differently. Unlike those classic white brick towers with their iconic black stripes, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse looks more like a seaside cottage, complete with a sloping red roof, charming gabled windows, and traditional black shutters. Only the fenced observation deck and cupola-style lantern room clearly indicate its lighthouse function.
But, while it may not stand as high as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (198.5 feet above sea level) or the Bodie Island Lighthouse (156 feet high), the Roanoke Marshes light station is well worth a special visit… especially if you love exploring unusual sights in scenic, secluded spots.
Not only does it offer gorgeous waterfront views; it’s also packed with fascinating artifacts from a bygone seafaring era. Plus, it’s located right across from the Roanoke Maritime Museum, which offers a treasure-trove of cool displays showcasing the Outer Banks’ rich nautical heritage.
Different Style, Different Function
Why does the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse look so different from the tower-style lighthouses you’re used to? It’s a river lighthouse, not a coastal one, so it was originally built to handle a very different job.
Coastal lighthouses – like the one at Cape Hatteras – guided ocean mariners to safety. Their lights had to reach far out to sea – up to 20 miles – so their lanterns were hung much higher.
River lighthouses, by contrast, guided boat traffic on rivers, bays, inlets, sounds, and channel entrances. Their lights did not have to reach as far, so they could be hung lower down. That’s why most river lighthouses are shorter and squatter – usually square, hexagonal, or octagonal.
What’s more, since around 1850, most American river lighthouses have been built on screw-piles – long metal piles driven deep into the ground for structural support and stability.
A Colorful Outer Banks History
The story of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse goes back to 1831, when a simple, modest light station began steering merchant and fishing craft safely into Croatan Sound. Unfortunately, within eight years, this early lighthouse fell into disrepair. Its light keeper simply abandoned it, and that was that.
In 1858 a second lighthouse – a hexagonal structure – was built at the same site. But by the early 1870s, this station, too, was abandoned, after severe erosion had undermined its foundation.
The third Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse opened in 1877. Supported by screw-piles, it stood offshore, not on a pier, at the southern entrance to Croatan Sound. (That’s right – it was literally in the water.) Decommissioned in 1955, it was then sold to a private buyer, who tried to move it inland. That’s when this square, white lighthouse was lost in the waters of the sound. It has never been recovered.
Today’s Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse replicates this 1877 structure. Completed in 2004, it is authentic in every detail, right down to its fourth-order Fresnel lens (now powered by electricity, not whale oil!).
What to Expect When You Visit
Ready to explore the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse? It’s open to the public in spring, summer, and early fall, usually on Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Inside you’ll find colorful exhibits highlighting Roanoke Island’s storied history. You’ll learn about the legendary Lost Colony, about Civil War forts and battles, and much more.
Even when the lighthouse isn’t open, you’ll still find plenty to see and do. Stroll along the boardwalk, relax on a waterfront bench, and be sure to take plenty of photos of beautiful Roanoke Sound and bustling downtown Manteo. If you’re there in the evening, you can even snap some pics of sunset over the sound – a truly magnificent sight.
Plus, don’t forget to visit the nearby Maritime Museum in the George Washington Creef Boathouse. Here you can view historical watercraft, including the North Carolina Shad boat Ella View, built in 1883. You can also browse fascinating exhibits, participate in maritime-skills workshops, and even witness traditional Roanoke Island boat building in the working boat shop. Open year ’round, the museum offers special educational programs, youth sailing lessons, an annual regatta, and more.
For easiest access to the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, park in the free public parking area next to the bulkhead docks just off downtown Manteo.
So Much to See, So Little Time
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is just one of countless hidden treasures in the North Carolina Outer Banks. You’ll find many more fascinating sights throughout these breathtaking barrier islands – from the unspoiled Nags Heads Woods, with five miles of scenic hiking trails, to the legendary Canadian Hole, the windsurfers’ summer paradise on sparkling Pamlico Sound. Discover, explore, and enjoy!