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North Carolina Lighthouses (History and Facts)

Larry Slawson received his master's degree from UNC Charlotte in 2018. He specializes in history.

From Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout, this article provides an overview of North Carolina's numerous lighthouses.

From Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout, this article provides an overview of North Carolina's numerous lighthouses.

The North Carolina coast is renowned for its large number of lighthouses, which stretch from its northern and southern borders along the Outer Banks. Combined, these lighthouses represent a large array of architectural styles and history dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.

This article provides an in-depth analysis of North Carolina’s currently active (or standing) lighthouses, with an emphasis placed on the unique characteristics and traits espoused by each of these fascinating beacons. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding and appreciation of lighthouses will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

List of North Carolina's Lighthouses

  1. Currituck Lighthouse
  2. Bodie Island Lighthouse
  3. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
  4. Ocracoke Light
  5. Cape Lookout
  6. Oak Island Lighthouse
  7. Bald Head Lighthouse
Currituck Lighthouse.

Currituck Lighthouse.

1. Currituck Lighthouse

  • Date Built: 1 December 1875
  • Location: Corolla, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: 1939
  • Construction Type: Brick
  • Original Lens: First-Order Fresnel Lens
  • Height: 162 feet (49 meters)
  • Steps: 220
  • Range: 18 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): 20-second flash cycle

History

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse (sometimes referred to simply as “Currituck Lighthouse”) is a lighthouse located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the small town of Corolla.

First constructed on 1 December 1875, the Currituck Lighthouse is strategically located between Bodie Island and Cape Henry Light to guide ships along the 40-mile stretch of dark coastlines in the region.

Deliberately left unpainted (in contrast to other lighthouses in the region), the massive structure continues to operate in the present day, warning ships to be cautious of the numerous barrier islands and rough waters in its vicinity.

Characteristics and Traits

Currituck Lighthouse is considered a “First-Order Lighthouse,” which refers to its large Fresnel-class lens that powers its light source. Originally, the lighthouse was powered by a hydraulic oil lamp that used a series of four wicks to project its beam. Kerosene was later incorporated in 1884, before it was finally automated in 1939.

With the ability to come on automatically during the evening hours, Currituck Light continues to play a role in navigation for ships in the region, and can be easily identified at night due to its 20-second flash cycle (on for 3 seconds, and off for 17 seconds).

Currituck Light is considered the last brick lighthouse to have been built on the Outer Banks and is believed to have saved countless ships during its relatively brief history of operation. Although still functional, the lighthouse is now considered a historical site and is maintained by the Outer Banks Conservationists group through the NHLPA.

Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Bodie Island Lighthouse.

2. Bodie Island Lighthouse

  • Date Built: 1847 (First); 1859 (Second); 1872 (Current)
  • Location: Oregon Inlet, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: 1940
  • Construction Type: Cast Iron, Stone, and Brick
  • Original Lens: First-Order Fresnel Lens
  • Height: 156 feet (48 meters)
  • Steps: 214
  • Range: 19 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): White 2.5 seconds on, 2.5 seconds off, 2.5 seconds on; followed by 22.5-second eclipse. Completes 2 cycles every minute.

History

Bodie Island Lighthouse refers to a series of three lighthouses that were built in 1847, 1859, and 1872. Located just below Nags Head, North Carolina, the current lighthouse stands at an impressive 156 feet tall and is considered one of the last remaining brick-based lighthouses in the United States.

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Understanding the need for a lighthouse to guide approaching ships through the treacherous waters surrounding its location, the United States government officially appropriated funds for the first Bodie Island Lighthouse in 1837. Nearly 10 years later (due to problems with the location and construction designs), the first lighthouse was finally completed by a Baltimore-based contractor known as, Francis Gibbons, for an estimated cost of nearly $5,000.

Characteristics and Traits

Similar to its neighbor, Currituck Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse is considered a “First-Order” model due to its large Fresnel Lens that powers the tower’s light. First implemented in the final 1872 version of the lighthouse, this First-Order Lens is visible for 19 nautical miles (approximately 22 miles) and displays a unique 2.5-second flash cycle that is followed by a 22.5-second eclipse of the beacon (allowing ships to easily figure out their location in the event of instrument failure at night).

Commonly pronounced like the word “body,” Bodie Island Lighthouse’s name is derived from the Bodie family who first owned the land that the tower is placed upon. Local legends, however, erroneously proclaim that the lighthouse’s name is derived from the number of “bodies” that have washed ashore from shipwrecks as the area is widely known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” (due to the treacherous waters there).

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

3. Cape Hatteras

  • Date Built: 1845 (first); 1870 (current)
  • Location: Hatteras Island, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: 1950
  • Construction Type: Brick
  • Original Lens: First-Order Fresnel Lens
  • Height: 210 feet (64 meters)
  • Steps: 257
  • Range: 24 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): White flash every 7.5 seconds.

History

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located on the Outer Banks along Hatteras Island, North Carolina. Standing at an impressive 210 feet high, the massive structure is considered the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and the second tallest (brick-based) in the world.

The impressive structure was first developed in the late 1700s at the request of Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of Treasury). After a near-death experience along the coast of North Carolina, Hamilton advocated for the structure in Congress, securing approximately $44,000 for its construction costs. Construction began quickly, ending in 1802.

It wasn’t long, however, before additional improvements were needed for Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with reflectors and lights being upgraded in 1845 and 1848, respectively, followed by the establishment of a first-order Fresnel lens shortly after. Nevertheless, the outbreak of war between the North and South ultimately doomed the original structure, as it was promptly destroyed in 1862.

Characteristics and Traits

Cape Hatteras is considered a “First-Order” lighthouse due to its possession of a First-Order Fresnel Lens that was installed in the 1870s. Like most of the lighthouses scattered along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Cape Hatteras is strategically located to highlight the series of dangerous shoals that stretch for nearly 10 nautical miles in the region.

The structure’s unique light pattern (shining with a strength of approximately 800,000 candle power) can be seen for nearly 20 kilometers, and is easily identifiable by sailors due to its white flash that occurs every 7.5 seconds (followed by a 6.5-second ellipse period).

Due to its age, numerous repairs of Cape Hatteras have taken place over the last two centuries to replace aging lamps, cracks, and damages incurred by the Civil War period. Due to erosion and its close proximity to the ocean, a massive relocation of Cape Hatteras was also initiated in 1999 to prevent it from being overcome by the sea. Although highly controversial at the time, the project proved highly successful with Cape Hatteras now sitting 1,500 feet from the shore and out of harm’s way.

Ocracoke Light.

Ocracoke Light.

4. Ocracoke Light

  • Date Built: 1798
  • Location: Ocracoke Island, Ocracoke, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: 1955
  • Construction Type: Brick and mortar with stone and timber foundation
  • Original Lens: Fourth-Order Fresnel Lens
  • Height: 76 feet (23 meters)
  • Steps: 86
  • Range: 15 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): Fixed white light

History

Ocracoke Light is a lighthouse located on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Standing approximately 76 feet tall, the tower is currently listed as the second oldest lighthouse in operation within the United States.

Ocracoke Lighthouse was originally built in 1798 to guide ships through the narrow Ocracoke Inlet that enters the Pamlico Sound. The original wooden (pyramid-shaped) tower, however, was quickly deemed inadequate (due to the incredible number of ships passing through the area) and was officially replaced by the U.S. government in 1823.

After purchasing two acres of land on Ocracoke Island for $50, work began immediately and was carried out by a Massachusetts-based builder by the name of Noah Porter. The site was completed in only a year.

Characteristics and Traits

The Ocracoke Lighthouse originally possessed a fourth-order Fresnel Lens; however, the tower was fully automated in 1955 after undergoing numerous restorations throughout its long history.

To this day, the lighthouse can be seen for approximately 15 nautical miles (17 standard miles) and is distinguishable due to its fixed-white light and absence of a fog signal.

Cape Lookout.

Cape Lookout.

5. Cape Lookout

  • Date Built: 1859
  • Location: Cape Lookout, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: 1950
  • Construction Type: Brick
  • Original Lens: Third-Order Fresnel Lens
  • Height: 163 feet (49.6 meters)
  • Steps: 207
  • Range: 12-19 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): Light follows a 15-second flash cycle.

History

Cape Lookout is a lighthouse located along the Southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. First constructed in 1812 (at a cost of approximately $20,000 at the time), the original 96-foot structure took approximately 8 years to construct, embodying a red and white design, along with wooden shingles attached to its roof.

Unfortunately, it was quickly discovered that the tower was too short to provide light over the nearby “Lookout Shoals” (nicknamed by locals “Horrible Headland”). As such, a new lighthouse was ordered to be built in place of the former.

The current structure (as we know and love today) was completed on 1 November 1859 at a cost of approximately $45,000. It wasn’t until 1873 (following the American Civil War), however, that the lighthouse was finally painted its distinct black and white “diamond” pattern.

Originally provided with a First-Order Fresnel lens, the current light is powered by two 1,000-watt DCB-24 aerobeacons. In order to save power, however, plans are currently in the making for a solar and LED upgrade to the tower.

Characteristics and Traits

To date, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only American lighthouse to maintain a checkered paint scheme. This coloration was chosen deliberately so that the tower could be easily identified by approaching ships. The central “black diamonds” are also unique, in that they were designed to point in a north/south direction, allowing observing ship captains an added directional aid during bad weather or instrument failure. As can be expected, the signature “white diamonds” point east and west.

Another of Cape Lookout’s most distinguishing characteristics is its periodic “flash” that occurs every 15 seconds. The beam is visible for approximately 12 miles out to sea, as well as 19 miles away by inland observers. It is also one of the few lighthouses in the world that operates on a 24-hour cycle and can be seen throughout the daylight hours.

Oak Island Lighthouse.

Oak Island Lighthouse.

6. Oak Island Lighthouse

  • Date Built: 1957
  • Location: Oak Island, Cape Fear River, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: 1958
  • Construction Type: Concrete
  • Original Lens: DCB-436 Aerobeacon
  • Height: 153 feet (47 meters)
  • Steps: 131 steps
  • Range: 24 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): Four 1-second flashes every 10 seconds.

History

Oak Island Lighthouse (sometimes referred to simply as “Oak Island Light”) is a lighthouse located in the town of Caswell Beach near the Cape Fear River.

Situated in Southeastern North Carolina, Oak Island Lighthouse was strategically constructed for the purpose of guiding ships upwards of 20-miles away through the region’s treacherous waterways. The massive structure was designed to replace the Cape Fear Light which was demolished during the year of its inception.

Characteristics and Traits

Oak Island Lighthouse was first constructed in 1957 and was lit the following year (1958). Following a cylindrical shape, the massive 153-foot tower utilizes Portland concrete for its foundation, along with a fully automated LED light that can be seen 20.5 nautical miles away.

Between 1958 and 1962, Oak Island Lighthouse was officially recognized as the brightest lighthouse in the United States; a feat that was superseded by Charleston Light in South Carolina (only a few decades ago).

Bald Head Lighthouse.

Bald Head Lighthouse.

7. Bald Head Lighthouse

  • Date Built: 1817
  • Location: Bald Head Island, Cape Fear River, North Carolina
  • Year Automated: N/A
  • Construction Type: Brick
  • Original Lens: 15 Lewis Lamps (1817); Third Order Fresnel Lens (1855)
  • Height: 110 Feet (34 meters)
  • Steps: 112
  • Range: 14-15 nautical miles
  • Unique Characteristic(s): Fixed white light (1817); Red flash with 30-second delay (1834); Flashing white light (1893); Fixed white light (1903)

History

Bald Head Lighthouse (also known as “Old Baldy” or “Bald Head Light”) is an abandoned lighthouse located along the western side of Bald Head Island in North Carolina.

Considered the oldest standing lighthouse in the state, the original Bald Head Lighthouse was first constructed on 23 December, 1794, for the purpose of directing traffic along the Cape Fear River and coast of Wilmington. Due to severe erosion, however, the lighthouse was replaced by “Old Baldy” in 1817 for a cost of approximately $16,000.

Characteristics and Traits

The Bald Head Lighthouse is a remarkable sight to behold, with its octagonal shape and design, along with its stucco exterior that originally took on a white appearance (but has since faded due to the effect of heat and weather).

Stretching upwards of 110-feet, “Old Baldy” spans an impressive 36-feet in width, with the top portion measuring 14.5-feet in diameter. Protecting the lighthouse from the elements is a massive series of walls that were constructed with 5-foot thick concrete.

When lit, the lighthouse maintained a series of unique light patterns to distinguish its beacon from other lighthouses in the region. Until 1834, “Old Baldy” maintained a solid (fixed) white light, that was eventually changed to a timed “red flash” with a 30-second delay. A flashing white light was later installed in 1893, but was eventually replaced with another fixed white light in 1903.

Works Cited

Articles/Books:

  • Lighthouse Friends. “North Carolina Lighthouses.” Accessed: 11 March 2022. Web.
  • Outer Banks Lighthouse Society. “The Guiding Lights of North Carolina.” Accessed: 11 March 2022. Web.
  • Visit NC. “7 Coastal Lighthouses to Explore in North Carolina.” Accessed: 13 February 2022. Web.

Images/Photographs:

  • Pixabay Commons.
  • Wikimedia Commons.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Larry Slawson

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