If you’re anything like me, one mention of founding father Alexander Hamilton sends you bursting into song. I am a huge fan of the eponymous musical, one of the top five highest-grossing musicals of all time. It falls just behind Phantom of the Opera which secures the number three seat, but now that Phantom has officially closed, only time will tell if Lin Manuel Miranda’s genius will continue climbing. Regardless, Hamilton will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its premiere in 2025.


While it’s quite common to see Hamilton landmarks in American cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, these historic sites in the South are a little harder to find. Interestingly, however, there is an intriguing connection to the first secretary of the treasury in the Outer Banks, and it will come as no surprise that the link between Hamilton and OBX has to do with the area’s nickname as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”


oriental shipwreck rodanthe


According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the first U.S. Congress under President George Washington created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. That group was founded in 1789, and it added 12 colonial-era lighthouses to the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department which as we all know was headed by Hamilton. He along with his congressional peers became responsible for administering the nation’s lighthouses and navigational aids.


Old Cape Hatteras Lighthouse


The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was commissioned in 1794 under Hamilton’s leadership and was completed in 1803. The National Park Service says Hamilton recommended a lighthouse be built on the banks of Cape Hatteras. The reason? Hamilton himself had reportedly passed Diamond Shoals as a 17-year-old on his first journey from St. Croix to New York. It is said the Thunderbolt, the ship carrying Hamilton, caught fire and nearly sank a few miles away from the cape. This experience inspired the secretary to establish a lighthouse there. Congress authorized $44,000 in 1797 for constructing a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. It later came to be known as “Hamilton’s light.” Ironically, many years later, another famous historical character was lost at sea amid the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks. It claimed Theodosia Burr, daughter of Hamilton’s foe Aaron Burr.


That iteration of the lighthouse was ultimately found to be ineffective. Mariners frequently complained about the tower’s unpainted sandstone blending into the surrounding landscape. Plus, it was much too short and had a weak signal making it difficult if not impossible to see from the water. Fifty years after it opened, a 60-foot height increase was added, and it was repainted red to make it more visible. A Fresnel lens was also added. This was not the last time the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was amended. In fact, the tallest lighthouse in the United States is currently undergoing a massive renovation.


cape hatteras lighthouse night stars


The National Park Service asserts, “Approximately 500,000 people visit the Cape Hatteras Light Station annually and 1,500 people climb the lighthouse daily between April and October.” With that amount of traffic, it was imperative that the lighthouse be brought into 2024 and beyond. During the 18-month construction, repairs will be made to deteriorated masonry, metal components, windows, marble flooring, and the lantern. Specifically, a replica of a first-order Fresnel lens will be added. Other architectural components like missing pediments over the lighthouse windows and missing interior doors will also be restored. New paint will be added to the interior and exterior of the lighthouse.


Visitors who head to the lighthouse before renovations are complete might be greeted with scaffolding around the iconic structure at least until the summer of 2026, but historians, visitors, and locals alike are confident the results will be well worth the wait.


While Cape Hatteras undergoes its renovations, hit these other historic maritime sites in the Outer Banks:


  • Bodie Island Lighthouse: A 156 feet tall structure on the Roanoke Sound built in 1872. Guests can climb the steps to the lighthouse during the summer.
  • Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station: The historic Life Saving Station museum in Rodanthe. It was the first staffed station in North Carolina.
  • Pea Island Cookhouse Museum: The small but informative museum tells the story of the only lifesaving station in the U.S. to have been manned by an all-Black crew.
  • Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum: Located on Hatteras, the museum honors the thousands of shipwrecks that happened off the banks of the Atlantic.