The Outer Banks' Lighthouse History

OUTER BANKS, N.C. – The shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are illuminated by not one but five lighthouses – Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, Ocracoke, and Currituck Beach Light, and Roanoke Island Marshes Light.

The Outer Banks' Lighthouse History
Photo: Unsplash

Lighthouses Illuminate Outer Banks' History

The most popular is Cape Hatteras Lighthouse; standing at proud 208 feet, it's the nation's tallest brick beacon. The lighthouse can be seen from over 20 miles out to sea and attacks more than 200,000 visitors annually.

Warning sailors For more than 100 years of the treacherous Diamond Shoals, the shallow sandbars extend more than 14 miles into the sea off Cape Hatteras. The area is also referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a first-order lighthouse that has the largest of seven Fresnel lens sizes. The present-day lighthouse erected on Cape Hatteras is the second of three beacons built on Hatteras Island.

The first, established in 1804, was demolished by Union forces in the Civil War. The present-day lighthouse was built as a replacement in 1870 and abandoned by the federal government after it fell into disrepair.

A third temporary structure was erected in 1936 several miles north in Buxton. This lighthouse was used until a 1,000-watt double rotating lamp was installed in the present Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1950, which still shines brightly today. The black-and-white, barber-shop-striped lighthouse recently reopened after renovations. It moved 2,900 feet inland for protection from the encroaching shoreline. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is part of America's first national seashore, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, established in 1953.

Following the chain of barrier islands southward, Outer Banks visitors will come by ferry to the fishing village of Ocracoke, N.C. – home of the Ocracoke Lighthouse. This whitewashed cement structure was built in 1868 and is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. Now lit by electricity, the Ocracoke Lighthouse was once fueled by whale oil. It is not the first beacon illuminating Ocracoke Island – a 54-foot wooden tower was built in 1798. The former lighthouse was rendered ineffective when the channel shifted.

Although Ocracoke is the lighthouse with the coast's most extended history, the beacon is the Outer Banks' shortest size. At 75 feet tall, Ocracoke's fourth-order Fresnal lens can be seen for 14 miles at sea. But what the lighthouse lacks in size, it makes up in swashbuckling lore. Edward Teach, also known as "Blackbeard, the Pirate," maintained his camp at the Ocracoke Inlet, a short distance from the lighthouse. Blackbeard is said to have been beheaded in a duel during the 1700s; and, according to some locals, still haunts the island.

The Ocracoke Lighthouse and keeper's quarters are used by the Coast Guard for observation and are not open to the public. However, lighthouse enthusiasts are welcome to visit the tower and its grounds. For details, call the National Park Service at (252) 473- 2111.

Farther north on the coast, the Bodie Island Lighthouse rises 150 feet above the island's marsh and nature walk. The lighthouse, built in 1872, is painted white with two 22-foot horizontal black stripes. Its first-order, 160,000-candlepower beacon shines 19 miles out to sea from Bodie (pronounced "body") Island. Like the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the beacon on Bodie Island plays an essential role in North Carolina's Civil War history. Confederate troops destroyed the former lighthouse in 1862 to prevent Union forces from using it as an observatory. The present lighthouse was rebuilt following the end of the war.

The three lighthouses that have stood on Bodie Island have sustained a variety of exciting events. According to one of the first light keepers of the present Bodie Island Lighthouse, the original lens was damaged when a flock of geese flew into the lantern and shattered the glass. The lens was repaired, and a wire screen was installed to prevent such mishaps from occurring again. The original Bodie Island Lighthouse, built-in 1837, was so poorly constructed that it began to lean and eventually was abandoned.

Though the Bodie Island Lighthouse is not open for climbing, the keeper's quarters have been restored as a visitor's center. For more information, contact the Bodie Island Visitor Center at (252) 441-5711. The Outer Bank's newest lighthouse, The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse on Roanoke Island, contains exhibits highlighting its maritime heritage, including a history of the Marshes Lighthouse and its keepers. The original screw-pile lighthouse was located in the Croatan Sound on the site west of Roanoke Island. Built-in 1857, it was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1955. For information on maritime museum exhibits, programming and events, call (252) 475- 1500, ext. 241.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse illuminates the northernmost island on the Outer Banks. To distinguish the lighthouse from others in the region, its exterior was left an unpainted red brick, displaying the multitude of bricks used to form the structure. At 158 feet, the beacon has a first-order Fresnel lens that can be seen for 18 miles at sea from its position in Corolla, N.C. Currituck was built in 1875 to illuminate the remaining "dark spot" between Bodie Island and Cape Henry in Virginia. A Victorian-style home was completed in 1876 to serve as the light keeper's quarters.

Although it is now one of the most beloved landmarks in the Outer Banks, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse has suffered from a lack of maintenance and vandalism. By the 1970s, the lighthouse keepers' house had no windows or doors, its porches had decayed, and vines invaded the house's north side. Much of the interior millwork of the lighthouse had been vandalized. Concerned about preserving the historic property, Outer Banks Conservationists Inc., a non-profit conservation group, signed a lease with the State of North Carolina in 1980 to begin a phased restoration.

Today the lighthouse and its grounds are rejuvenated and open to the public. Visitors can climb the 124 steps to the top observation deck for a nominal fee from March 24th through the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.