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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Five Lighthouses of the Outer Banks – Part Two

Staggered along the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, are five historic and inviting lighthouses, each with a story to tell.

Recap from Part One

Prior to our visit to the Outer Banks, I confess to being totally in the dark about the five lighthouses. We arrived in Nags Head for a three-month winter stay in January 2020, and the idea was to walk the beaches, enjoy the water views, and I was hoping the ocean would be an inspiration as I finished my next book, which focuses on cruising. We also thought we might see a few of the sights that we had heard about on a quick visit to Nags Head in 2018.

One day, while looking at items in one of the ubiquitous antiques stores in the Outer Banks, I found some old postcards of the area and I came across two depicting lighthouses. I asked the proprietor about the subject of the postcards and he provided me with a brief history about the five lighthouses located nearby. Once back at our rental home, a little internet research produced more information and we were soon set to start out on our lighthouse exploration.

Our lighthouse journey continued the following week with a trip back to Cape Hatteras where we visited the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum.

In retrospect, we found this lighthouse to be the best of the lot, as there was more to see and do at this stop. It was easy to find, with plenty of parking and a site map greeting visitors at the entrance off the parking lot.

The current Cape Hatteras light house was moved 2,900 feet inland in 1999 along with the oil storage house, water collecting cisterns and the light keepers’ houses but I am getting ahead of myself. I will write about that move further on in this blog. Right now, a little history.

There has been a lighthouse in Cape Hatteras since 1799. The North Carolina coastline is dotted with shoals which makes navigation along that coast difficult and dangerous. The lighthouse was needed to warn mariners of the dangerous sandbars of the Diamond Shoals, thus the expenditure of public funds for the building of a lighthouse was approved in 1794. The lighthouse came to fruition in 1799, thereby assisting in nautical safety along the coast of the Outer Banks. I was given two different dates for the commencement of operations by staff in the museum, but a check of various websites showed a consensus that 1803 is the most likely date.

The first lighthouse was originally built of sandstone and was 90 feet in height but grew when another 60 feet was subsequently added. By the time it was all said and done, the final height was 150’ and the light was reported to be visible from 14 nautical miles out to sea. Lighting was achieved with whale oil and as with the other lighthouses, it was later converted, and a Fresnel lens was installed. That lighthouse eventually needed replacement and five years after the Civil War, in 1870, a second lighthouse was built of brick. In 1873, rather than remaining the same whitewashed sandstone colour of the original, the new lighthouse was painted a distinctive white with black stripes; a design that we see to this very day. As with it’s predecessor, this light house also had a Fresnel lens installed which was wound manually daily by the lighthouse keeper. It is my understanding that the old lighthouse was destroyed over the years in various storms but that information is anecdotal and not obtained on site.

This second lighthouse faithfully serviced the coastal area for decades with the light electrified in 1934. However, due to the erosion of the shoreline and the encroaching tides there were issues and in 1935 the lighthouse was decommissioned by the Bureau of Lighthouses. Work was done to stabilize the beach in front of the lighthouse and the lighthouse was returned to operation 16 years later, on January 23, 1950.

But the shoreline erosion continued and what do you do with a lighthouse that constantly needs to be shored up (pun intended)? As mentioned earlier in this blog, it was decided to move the lighthouse 2,900 feet inland. The idea of moving the lighthouse took hold and on June 17, 1999, the process of moving it began. The transfer to the octagon-shaped brick and granite base was completed on July 9, 1999 and the lighthouse became fully operational again on November 13th of that same year. The light at the time of the move could be seen for 20 miles (32 km), off the coast.

For those wondering what happened to the warning beacon during the time the lighthouse was decommissioned, its duties were filled temporarily by a steel tower with an electrified light.

There are two residences at this stop. The larger building is called the Double Keeper Quarters (1851), and the sign in front said it was built for the “staff” of the first lighthouse. The second residence is called the Principal Keeper Quarters (1871), and it accommodated the head lighthouse keeper.

We walked to the lighthouse through a delightful little wooded area and marked path until we came to an open field where we could see the lighthouse. We were able to climb the entrance steps to the door of the lighthouse but the structure’s interior was closed to us due to the time of the year (off-season), so we had to satisfy ourselves with photos in front of the lighthouse and on the steps. In season, you can purchase tickets to climb the 248 spiral steps of the lighthouse and you must be at least 42” in height.

Walking back to the visitor center we visited the little museum and gift shop. We bought a few souvenirs and talked to the people who worked at the center. Exiting the building you will find that there are washrooms and fresh water onsite that can be easily accessed. We also walked around an interesting area of arranged stones. The names of the lighthouse keepers and the years they served at Cape Hatteras, have been carved into the side of the stones which I thought was a nice touch.

We drove to the beach parking area and walked to the old lighthouse site. There are markers in place where the lighthouse originally stood. In season, the beach has on duty lifeguards, but the place was deserted when we visited so I have no sense of how busy it would be in the summer months. We found the markings for the old location of the lighthouse and noted just how close to the water it had been. I imagine a good fall storm with rising wind and surf would have battered that location and given anyone inside cause for concern.

For those visiting this site, I advise taking a couple of hours to look at the site. You can climb the lighthouse when open and walk the area. A quick visit to the gift shop resulted in a few purchases (charm, map and postcards).

I strongly suggest that if you are in the area, that you visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, NC. It is located about 10 miles southwest of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and is well worth a visit. Hosting an array of fascinating, historical items and nautical memorabilia, it is a treasure trove to be explored. It will be the subject of another blog as it deserves more than just an honourable mention.

Having spent a great deal of time in Hatteras, my husband and I were late driving north and our plan to tour the Bodie Island Visitor Center and the Bodie Island Lighthouse had to be put off to anther day. Touring lighthouses and learning their history was becoming a much more time-consuming activity than I had anticipated. The Outer Banks is a fascinating place and the maritime history abundant.

Part Three of the Lighthouses will detail the Bodie Island lighthouse stop.

If you have any questions about this blog entry or wish to make comments, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

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