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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, known as “America’s lighthouse”, was the first lighthouse built on the Outer Banks. At 208 feet tall, it is the tallest lighthouse in the United States, and the tallest brick light in the world. Resembling a white and black spiral striped barber pole, “America’s Lighthouse” is also the international symbol of North Carolina’s coast.

The Continental Congress commissioned the lighthouse in 1796, and the first structure was completed in 1803. The lighthouse was placed at Cape Hatteras due to the hazardous Diamond Shoals, shallow sandbars that jut out 14 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to the sandbars, the offshore currents flow in opposite directions, causing fog and treacherous storms. Though the water is shallow, the currents can fool sailors into thinking the water is deep, which can result in a shipwreck.

The Caper Hatteras Lighthouse was the first light to warn sailors. The first tower was 90 feet tall with whale oil lamps to power the light. Unfortunately, the light was too weak, and ships came close to running aground.

The lighthouse was extended from 90 to 150 feet in 1854. Rooms were added to house the keepers and a first-order Fresnel lens was installed to increase the intensity of the light. The tower was built on a sand dune that kept shrinking, however, and soon faced erosion problems.

During the Civil War, the lighthouse saw trouble of another type. The Confederate Army wanted to destroy it to keep Union ships from utilizing it, and the Union wanted to protect the lighthouse. Several battles raged until 1861. The Confederates retreated, taking the first-order Fresnel lens. The tower was severely damaged, but the lighthouse was relit in 1862 using a second-order lens, which was later upgraded to a first-order lens.

After the Civil War, a U. S. Light House Board inspection determined that building a new structure would be less costly than repairing the existing one. The original building was demolished with dynamite and the Fresnel lens was sent to California to use in the Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

The present Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was constructed in 1870 and lit using a first-order Fresnel lens on December 1, 1870.

Erosion, however, continued to be a problem. Salt water threatened to corrode the foundation, so from 1936 to 1950, the lighthouse was taken out of service. A skeletal steel tower set further back on the dune served as a replacement. The National Park Service took custody of the old tower.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Double Keepers' Quarters
Double Keepers' Quarters (1854)
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Principal Keeper Quarters
Principal Keeper Quarters (1871)

A series of wooden embankments were put around the tower by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration to check the erosion of the beach. The Coast Guard took control of the tower in 1942 and used it as a lookout station until 1945. Finally, the tower was far enough inland (500-900 feet) to be used as a light again and was commissioned on January 23, 1950.

By 1987, though, erosion left the lighthouse only 120 feet from the ocean. The National Academy of Sciences suggested in 1989 that the lighthouse be moved away from the ocean.

Many people protested, fearing the structure would not withstand the move. Between 1999 and 2000, however, the structure was moved 2,870 feet (roughly a half mile) inland in a massive operation that would be named the “2000 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was rededicated in 2000 and reopened to the public.

"There have been words written to the effect that the lighthouse keepers and their families had a very lonely life; however, we did not have this experience. In fact, just the opposite would be more apt tp apply. The lighthouse was always a favorite place to visit by the village folk so we would have lots of company, especially on Sunday afternoons and the evening hours, when the heat of summer was unbearable in the wooded areas of the villages. Swimming, baseball games, croquet, chasing wild horses and penning them in the yard for breaking to the saddle, and climbing the lighthouse were all a big part of our lives."

Rany Jennette, son of the last Principal Keeper at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The 208 foot, black and white, barber-pole-striped lighthouse required over 1.2 million bricks to construct and stands 210 feet above sea level. The foundation is now made of steel-enforced brick with a light powered by two 1000-watt lamps that emit 800 kilo candelas each.

Ironically, the “new” lens installed in 1870 was discovered in 2002 to be the same lens used in the original tower. During the Civil War, the Confederates had kept it hidden. After the War it was discovered and shipped to Paris to be cleaned. Later it was placed in storage at the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot until the new lighthouse was ready to receive it.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is both a National Historic Landmark within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and an operational beacon for ships. For a magnificent view, visitors can climb the 268 steps to the top of the lighthouse from mid-April to Columbus Day.

Two residences served the keepers and their families at the Cape Hatteras Light Station. The larger building, the Double Keepers' Quarters (1854), was built for the staff of the first Lighthouse and today serves as Cape Hatteras National Seashore's Hatteras Island Visitor Center. The smaller building is the Principal Keeper Quarters (1871). Constructed from material left over from the present-day lighthouse. It accommodated the head lighthouse keeper and his family. Both are open every day of the year, except Christmas Day. During the summer season, the museum presents historical and environmental programs.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse oil house
Oil house

At left is the oil house. After kerosene was introduced as a light source in the late 1800s, brick (or even metal) oil houses were built so this more volatile fuel could be stored safely. Previously, the fuel - like whale oil or lard oil - was often stored in the base of the lighthouse.

For more information on tours contact the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Visitors Center as 252-995-4474.

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