If you’re into maritime history or just want to learn more about it, then the Outer Banks is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. As the shifting sands of these barrier islands go, so goes the history of the mariners facing the some times turbulent waters surrounding them. This area off the North Carolina coast is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for the many shipwrecks collected by the ocean. The stories emerge from the depths at the many lighthouses, life saving stations and maritime museums on the Outer Banks from Currituck to Ocracoke and beyond.
To learn about this remarkable history, visit Cape Hatteras (1870), the tallest U.S. brick lighthouse, probably the most recognized attraction. The conical-shaped black and white swirl design tower rises nearly 200 feet or 269 steps for climbers who ascend to the light. The lighthouse was built to warn mariners navigating the treacherous Diamond Shoals off the coast of Hatteras. Visitors will find the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea adjacent to the lighthouse in Buxton. Lighthouse aficionados will be pleased to discover that when the lighthouse was moved because of erosion in 1999, the oil house, two cisterns and double keepers’ quarters were all moved. Of special note: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is currently closed to climbing the tower for the remainder of 2022 due to restoration work.
Farther up the coast in Nags Head, the black and white horizontal-striped brick tower of the Bodie Island Lighthouse (1872) is cradled between pine trees and marshland. It is 156-feet tall with 214 steps. Climbers will be rewarded with the original First Order Fresnel lens at the top. Be sure to secure an appointment to climb the tower. Bodie was built to assist mariners with navigating coastal waterways from Cape Hatteras to Currituck Beach.
For a quick day trip from the Outer Banks, visit the Currituck or Ocracoke Lighthouses. The 162-feet, unpainted red brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875) in Corolla is the northern-most lighthouse just outside of Dare County's Outer Banks. It was constructed to ensure the safety of sailors traveling the coast between Nags Head and Cape Henry in Virginia. Visitors climbing the 220 steps can pause at the base and first two landings to view exhibits on the way up to the First Order Fresnel lens. The complex of buildings at the site includes a Lighthouse Keepers’ House, the Little Keepers’ House—museum shop and the Currituck Maritime Museum.
Past the southern end of the Outer Banks sits Ocracoke Island. The Ocracoke Lighthouse (1823) is the oldest operating lighthouse of North Carolina and second oldest in the U.S. While the other lighthouses mentioned are accessible by vehicle, this one requires a ferry from Hatteras Village to get you there. Built to aid navigation through Ocracoke Inlet into Pamlico Sound, the whitewashed brick tower is 75 feet tall. It is the only one of the four main Outer Banks lighthouses that can’t be explored by climbing.
Another picturesque two-story building to visit is the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse (1877, replica 2004) in Manteo. The screw-pile white with red roofed lighthouse is settled at the end of a pier in Shallowbag Bay by Roanoke Sound. The lighthouse is equipped with a Fresnel lens and historical exhibits for the viewing. You can take a quick peek next door at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum to see an 1883 Shad boat and other marine treasures.
Just as lighthouses and their keepers relay the area’s maritime stories, so do the Life Saving Stations and their guardians, which were the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. There have been many Life Saving Stations, which were active starting in the 1870s along the coast. With the sole purpose of saving lives from the sea, at one time Hatteras was home to 10 of the 29 stations. Some have been destroyed by fire or storms over the years, others became private residences or businesses and a few merged to become U.S. Coast Guard Stations. One fine example that you can visit today is Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station.
Chicamacomico (1874) was the first life-saving station in North Carolina. This historic site in Rodanthe is representative of others that were located on the coast. Each station had a keeper and crew (surfmen), usually 6-8 people. These men were known as “soldiers of the surf and storm.” To this day a crew at Chicamacomico demonstrates its Beach Apparatus Drill for the public. It is because of the intense training they received that the Chicmacomico team earned the “most highly awarded maritime rescue in U.S. history” when it rescued 42 crew members of the British Oil Tanker MIRLO.
On Aug. 6, 1918 the ship was sinking after being torpedoed seven miles off the Hatteras coast by a German U-boat during World War I. Captain John Allen Midgett led his Chicmacomico team to launch their surfboat through 18 to 20 foot breakers into the sea filled with gas, oil, debris and flames to rescue the MIRLO crew. This was but one of the many rescues along this stretch of the Atlantic coast.
The station was decommissioned in 1954. Restoration of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum began in 1983. Today visitors can view some of the buildings, the displays, artifacts, exhibits and equipment used to save thousands of lives from the operation of this U.S. Life-Saving Service Station. With many of these historic attractions, be sure to check their status on websites or by calling as restoration work is ongoing and hours of operation are often changing.
What to remember when visiting a lighthouse or other historic site
- These architectural wonders were built before modern day standards, so watch your footing.
- Before you climb a lighthouse tower, check the abilities and fear of heights of your climbing group.
- Wear comfortable, non-slip shoes.
- Be hands free while climbing.
- Secure loose items.
- Take your time climbing.
- Pass other climbers on landings, not on narrow winding steps.
- Check the weather for high winds, heavy rains and thunderstorms—the tower many be closed.
- Have fun.
Summer and early fall are ideal times to explore lighthouses. There are tours and special events aplenty. And, don’t forget, Aug. 7 is National Lighthouse Day. We’ll see you at the top.