OUTER BANKS, N.C. – The five lighthouses illuminating the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina – Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, Ocracoke and Currituck Beach Light and Roanoke Island Marshes Light – are magnificent and unique in their appearance and history.
The most famous of the five is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the nation’s tallest brick beacon, standing a proud 208 feet high. The famous beacon attracts 200,000 visitors annually and can be seen from 20 miles out to sea. For more than 100 years, it has warned sailors of the treacherous Diamond Shoals, the shallow sandbars that extend some 14 miles into the ocean off Cape Hatteras and an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a first-order lighthouse, which means it has the largest of seven Fresnel lens sizes.
The present lighthouse standing on Cape Hatteras is the second of three beacons built on Hatteras Island. The first, erected in 1804, was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. The present lighthouse, built as a replacement in 1870, was abandoned by the federal government and 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 and being 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. Adjacent to the lighthouse site are framed buildings that originally served as quarters to the keepers of the light and that now serve as a visitor center, maritime museum. A gift shop and bookstore also are on site. Lighthouse admission fees are $7 for adults, and $3.50 for seniors 62 or older, children 12 and younger. While the lighthouse is open daily from Good Friday through Columbus Day, the visitor center and museum are open and free the public every day except Christmas. During the summer, the center hosts a variety of historical and environmental programs. For information on the tours, call the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Visitors Center at (252) 995-4474.
Following the chain of barrier islands southward, Outer Banks visitors will come by ferry upon 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 to illuminate 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 longest history, the beacon is the Outer Banks’ shortest in 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 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, which was 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 important 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 interesting 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 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 Banks newest lighthouse, The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse on Roanoke Island contains exhibits highlighting Roanoke Island’s 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 US Coast Guard in 1955. For more 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” left 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 the preservation of 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 from a nominal fee from March 24th through the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information about the lighthouse or Outer Banks Conservationists membership, call (252) 453-8152. Admission $7 for adults, and children under 7 are free to enter with an adult.