Ocracoke Lighthouse

Ocracoke LighthouseOcracoke Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina, and the second oldest in the United States. Prior to the lighthouse’s construction, Ocracoke had a few distinctions of its own, specifically Sir Walter Raleigh’s visit in the 1580s to attempt colonization for England, and being the favorite anchorage of Edward Teach, better known as the notorious pirate, Blackbeard.

In the early 1700s, Blackbeard made Ocracoke a regular stop, which did not make the local citizens happy. Help arrived in the form of Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy. Blackbeard and Maynard engaged in battle. Blackbeard lost the battle, and his head. Local legend claims that Blackbeard’s ghost still wanders the island searching for his head.

Once the pirate problem was resolved, the Ocracoke Inlet became one of the busiest trading inlets on the East Coast. The U. S. Lighthouse Service quickly recognized that Ocracoke Inlet needed a lighthouse. Construction began in 1794 on Shell Castle Island, a 25 acre, shell-covered island located between Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island. The a 54 foot tall, wooden, pyramid-shaped tower, along with a small keeper’s house, cargo wharves, gristmills and other facilities were completed four years later.

By 1818, the lighthouse was completely useless. The channel had migrated and now flowed in a location almost a mile away. To add insult to injury, both the lighthouse and the keeper’s house were struck by lightning and destroyed.

Plaque at Ocracoke Lighthouse
Plaque at Ocracoke Lighthouse

In 1822, the federal government bought two acres for a new lighthouse on the southern end of Ocracoke Island. The tower and a new one-story keeper’s house were completed in 1823. The new Ocracoke Lighthouse was 75 feet tall, built of solid brick, painted completely white and topped by an octagonal lantern with a reflector system.

A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1854, and greatly increased the intensity of the light. The lens was dismantled by Confederate hands during the Civil War, but was recovered and reinstalled by Union troops in 1864.

In the early 1900s, electricity replaced oil. After World War II, steel stairs replaced the original wooden ones, and the keeper’s house was expanded from one story to two. The U.S. Coast Guard utilized the expanded keeper’s house prior to automation, and afterwards continued to use the building to house personnel.

The U. S. Coast is now only responsible for keeping the light burning. The National Park Services owns the lighthouse and adjoining property. In 1988, the NPS, the Coast Guard and the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office joined together to restore and preserve the lighthouse.

Today the Ocracoke Lighthouse still provides navigational aid to mariners sailing along the shoal-ridden Ocracoke Inlet. It is the shortest lighthouse on the East Coast, but since it’s a harbor light and not a coastal light, the tower’s 75 feet is more than adequate. Still outfitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, the light produces 8,000 candlepowers of energy in a stationary beam, and reaches 14 miles out to sea.

Ocracoke Lighthouse and keeper's quarters
Ocracoke Lighthouse and keeper's quarters

Visitors can tour lighthouse grounds year round, but the tower is not open for climbing. Because Ocracoke Island is accessible only by air or water, visitors will need to take the ferry from the southern end of Hatteras to the northern end of Ocracoke Island. Visitors can drive their car onto the ferry; enjoy a short 45 minute ride across the channel, then take NC 12 south to the lighthouse.

The Cedar Island ferry and the Swan Quarter ferry sail to Ocracoke Island from the south. These ferries, however, are much longer rides and charge a fee. Click here for more information about ferry service.

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