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Orcracoke Island Lighthouse

The Five Lighthouses of the Outer Banks – Part One

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

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.

We opted to start at the furthest lighthouse would involve a little “Cruise”. We drove south along the very scenic Cape Hatteras National Seashore, passing the Bodie Island Lighthouse (which we would later visit since it is in very close proximity to Nags Head). Continuing south, we travelled through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and marvelled at the large sand dunes that shift with the wind. Known as unstable dunes, they have no vegetation to anchor the sand and strong ocean breezes result in sand drifting across the highway. We saw front end loaders scooping the sand and moving it back to the dunes. Signs warning people to stay off the dunes dotted the area in hopes of preserving the plants that were placed there to try and stabilize the dunes. It is easy to see why the sand ridges can prove to be a driving hazard when the wind is blowing, as sand drifts across the highway and during the night can form new drifts and sandy barriers.

We continued driving until we saw the signs for the Hatteras Island Visitor Center (straight ahead) and Buxton to the right. Holding to the right, we passed Buxton, Sandy Bay and arrived at the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry. We had a mere five-minute wait and then we were able to drive straight onto the ferry. For those who plan on visiting during the summer, we were told there is often a wait. Therefore, I suggest you phone ahead for information on wait times.

It was a perfect day to be on the water with the sun shining and the Pamlico Sound calm and smooth as glass. The ferry was our “cruise” and was quite enjoyable. There are washrooms onboard and the staff were friendly and well informed about the area. They were able to answer my questions and point out areas of interest. The ride took about an hour and was free. The hours of operation vary through different seasons so check before you go to ensure that any late stays don’t leave you stranded on the island.

Arriving at Ocracoke Island we could see the ravages of Hurricane Dorian that had hit the island in September 2019. Signs of the damage were everywhere, including a large dumping site along the highway where there were piles of damaged furniture, carpeting etc. Many of the stores and businesses were still closed. We had planned on eating lunch in a local restaurant but the restaurants were all closed. Apparently some opened for brief lunch periods and later for dinner but we had arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner. We were directed to a taco truck that we were told was the only place open. We located the truck, ordered, and ate our lunch at a picnic table in a back yard of a closed restaurant. We chatted with some of the locals who told us about the damage to the island and how quickly the storm surge rose to over seven feet. People had to be airlifted from their homes, while others were rescued by boats. We were told that every car on the island was damaged and there was sewage backup, electrical outages and a lack of fresh water. It must have been a frightening experience for those who did not evacuate.

After lunch, we drove around looking at the village and located the Ocracoke lighthouse. All white, the lighthouse was built in 1823 and replaced an earlier lighthouse built in 1794 on Shell Island. Apparently, the previous lighthouse was built of wood and unfortunately, in 1818 it was struck by lightening and burned. The current brick lighthouse was built on Ocracoke Island to avoid the shifting channel sands and stands 75 feet tall. We were not able to climb the 86 steps to the top of the lighthouse as it is closed to visitors.

The lighthouse is fully automated. The literature we obtained indicates that the stationary beacon from the lighthouse can be seen up to fourteen nautical miles away. It was originally an oil burning light used with reflectors but in 1854 the oil was replaced with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The white colour is the result of a mixture of rice, salt, lime and boiling water. During the American Civil War, the lighthouse was taken out of operation by Confederate troops in hopes of damaging Union shipping. The lighthouse was fully automated in 1955 and stands proud to this very day.

We learned that there had been a Confederate fort on the island, but it no longer exists. Since there was no fort to be seen, we moved on from the lighthouse to the British Cemetery. Seeing historic marker signs for the cemetery, and not knowing its history, we decided to follow the markers and explore the cemetery thinking that it might have something to do with the Revolutionary War. Located in the village, and well-signed, we found the place with little difficulty and learned that this fenced little cemetery is more modern than we had envisioned. It is land leased to the British as long as there are British sailors buried there. The on-site information board informed us that on May 12, 1942, a German submarine sunk the British ship the Bedfordshire. Over the next couple of days, the bodies of four British sailors washed ashore and were buried in this little graveyard. We also learned that there is a memorial service there every year on the anniversary of the sinking.

Leaving the cemetery, we drove around the island taking in the various sites of devastation as well as the signs of renewal in the form of new building projects. We stopped at a few stores clearly geared towards the tourist trade and then decided it was time to take the ferry back to Hatteras. Although we had planned to take in another lighthouse that day, we found ourselves headed back to Nags Head as dusk was falling, the wind was picking up and we knew we would have to navigate the shifting dunes.

Part Two of the Lighthouses will detail the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum 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.

Ocracoke lighthouse looking up at it

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