top of page

Roanoak Marshes Lighthouse

The Five Lighthouses of the Outer Banks – Part Five

Roanoke Island is located between the Outer Banks, where we were staying, and the mainland.

Staggered along the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, are five historic and interesting lighthouses, each with a story to tell. The lighthouses are the actual buildings that contain the lights that warn vessels of danger, while the term light station refers to the buildings that form the entire complex (lighthouse, light keeper house etc.).

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.”

So what is the fifth lighthouse of the Outer Banks, North Carolina? Is it the Lighthouse at the Roanoke Marshes in Manteo? The lighthouse we found there bore no resemblance to the other lighthouses we had seen and certainly did not look like the white lighthouse sporting black diamond-shapes that was on the fridge magnet we had purchased. That fridge magnet reportedly depicted the five Outer Banks lighthouses so we were a little confused. Was there another lighthouse somewhere else that was the true fifth lighthouse?

Our trusty tourist map listed the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse as the fifth lighthouse, as did our little guide pamphlet. An internet search of the five lighthouses of the Outer Banks kept bringing up the Roanoke Island lighthouse, so we decided to pay it a visit.

We found the lighthouse off US Highway 64 which we took to Fernando Street and that connected us to Queen Elizabeth Avenue which was listed as the address. There are stores nearby and a park called George Washington Creek Park.

Before I talk about the lighthouse, I would like to touch on the fascinating history of this area. Roanoke Island is located between the Outer Banks, where we were staying, and the mainland. The first English Settlement in America was located in this area and a visit many years ago had introduced us to the story of the lost colony. It is my understanding that Sir Walter Raleigh, a one-time favourite courtier of Queen Elizabeth I and a well known explorer, talked a number of people into settling in the new world and Roanoke Island was his destination of choice. One hundred seventeen (117), people arrived in July 1587 and started work on establishing a settlement in the area. Two of the settlers were Eleanor and Ananias Dare and a little over a month after arriving, on August 18, 1587, Eleanor gave birth to the first known child of English descent to be born in what would become the USA. The child was named Virginia Dare.

The grandfather of the child was a fellow named John White who returned to England with a promise to return with more supplies. However, when he returned three years later, he found the settlement deserted and the area overgrown which indicated it had been deserted for some time. He located the word Croatoan carved into one of the palisades which he believed was a sign that the settlers had moved inland. None of the settlers were ever found, leading to various theories as to what happened to them. The mystery continues to this very day.

Now back to the lighthouse which, in my opinion, looks like a white house with a light on top. Rising to a less than impressive height of 37 feet, it is indeed quite different from the tall imposing lighthouses we had seen on our previous four lighthouse outings.

The first light house was built in 1831 and was operational for about 8 years before being abandoned. In 1858, another lighthouse was completed, and it was operational until the early 1870’s. Its foundation suffered from erosion and by the early 1870’s it was in danger of being swept into the water or just collapsing. It therefore had to be abandoned which left the area with no lighthouse beacon to guide the boats. Given that it is a body of water with quite a narrow channel, the absence of a guiding beacon of some sort needed to be remedied.

A decision was made that given the marshy ground which endangered buildings along the shore, the next lighthouse would fare better if it was built off-shore in a new location, on screw-pilings. In 1877, the third lighthouse was built and became operational on the southern entrance to Croatan Sound. Like the other lighthouses, it used a Fresnel lens but was distinctive in its appearance as it was short, squat and square in shape. Apparently, the Roanoake lighthouse “version 3” fared better than its predecessors and lasted until 1955 when it was decommissioned and sold to a private buyer. This buyer decided to move it off the pilings however during the attempt to relocate it to the mainland, the lighthouse slid into the sound, never to be seen again.

Once again, the sound was without a lighthouse until 2004 when “version 4” was built with the same look as version 3. I am told that this current lighthouse, which can be seen in the pictures, is identical to its predecessor right down to the Fresnel lens. The only difference is the location and the fact the light is powered by electricity.

You can get to the lighthouse via a long boardwalk/dock which makes the lighthouse a rather attractive destination and pretty to photograph. In my opinion, it has no bad angles and photographs well from all sides.

From what I learned about its appearance, the reason it differs in height and look from the other lighthouses in the area is because it is built in the style of a river lighthouse and not an ocean/sea lighthouse. Because it was designed to guide boats into a channel, the light does not have to reach far out to sea and the light is designed to shine lower.

The lighthouse is open in the spring through to the fall so call ahead to make sure you can access it. This lighthouse is located in an interesting and storied location but is only six years old, so for those looking for an historic building, this is a replica with a great story.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me or post them on this article.

bottom of page