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Outer Banks Lighthouses

lighthouse stairway
Stairway in the Currituck Lighthouse

North Carolina’s coastlines, sounds and rivers are extremely difficult to navigate. So many ships wrecked along the Outer Banks that the coastline earned the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. The Outer Banks are barrier islands, basically large mounds of sand thrusting up out of the Atlantic from the Virginia border south to South Carolina border. The flat, level beaches and marshlands were a nightmare for sailors in the past. Safe passage required guiding lights, markers, bells and other type of safety equipment.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse For hundreds of years, most ships sailed blind when in the area, depending on navigation skills to get though the rough waters. The fledgling Continental Congress understood the problem and authorized the construction of lighthouses along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida. In 1796, the first of the Outer Banks lighthouses was constructed on Cape Hatteras. At that time, Hatteras Inlet was the only navigable deep channel along the islands. The Hatteras light was too low and too weak, and was replaced in 1870 with Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is now the tallest lighthouse in America. Read more about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse here.

In 1798, Ocracoke Lighthouse was built, a mere 54 foot tower at the entrance to Ocracoke Island. The inlet continued to shift, however, and in 1822 a new tower was built, and is now the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. Read more about the Ocracoke Lighthouse here.

In 1847, the original Bodie Island Lighthouse was constructed just north of the Oregon Inlet. The name is said to come from the numerous bodies that washed up on the beach from all the shipwrecks. The third version of this lighthouse is still in operation. Read more about the Bodie Island Lighthouse here.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is the smallest of all of the Outer Banks lighthouses. Instead of the usual tower overlooking a beach, this lighthouse is more of a house perched on a pier over the water. Classified as a screwpile lighthouse (a lighthouse that stands on piles which are driven into sandy or muddy sea or river bottoms), it served as both a light and a residence. Read more about the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse here.

The last Outer Banks lighthouse to be built was the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in 1875. Constructed near Corolla, this lighthouse illuminates the last blind spot along the Outer Banks coastline. Unlike the other lighthouses, which have been rebuilt, the original Currituck Beach Lighthouse is still standing. Read more about the Currituck Lighthouse here.

How did sailors know which lighthouse was which? All lighthouses are painted with either stripes or wide bands to create a unique pattern for identification. At night, the light is recognizable by the pattern, speed and rotation of the light. So, a ship sailing along the coast of Outer Banks would be able to distinguish Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from Bodie Island Lighthouse, and navigate accordingly.

Each of the distinctive Outer Banks lighthouses has a unique history to tell, with tales of mariners and heroes. Each lighthouse, unlike many that require a boat ride, is easy to get to. For the visitor, climbing to the top of one the towers can afford a spectacular view of sand and surf and give a glimpse of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. Most of the lighthouses are free to the public, but some request a small donation toward upkeep and expenses.

Several societies exist to help preserve the Outer Banks lighthouses, including the National Park Service, the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, and the Outer Banks Conservationists, Inc., which were instrumental in restoring the Currituck Lighthouse.

For more information on the Outer Banks, and the lighthouses, drop in at one of the Outer Banks Visitor Centers.

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