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Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

Of all the lighthouses on the Outer Banks, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is perhaps the most unique. First, unlike the tall, conical towers, this lighthouse is a house with a light on top and sits on piles driven into the seabed. This type of structure is known as a screwpile lighthouse. At one time, twelve screwpile lighthouses assisted sailors along the Outer Banks, but today none of them are in their original location, and only one is intact.

Second, the current Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse (the fourth lighthouse with that name) is not a restoration but a reproduction built in 1999. This lighthouse sits at the end of a short pier near Manteo on Roanoke Island. The U. S. Coast Guard lent a fourth-order Fresnel lens for display in the lantern room, but the lighthouse is not operational.

The first lighthouse was built in 1831 to assist navigation into Pamlico and Croatan Sounds. Soon afterward, a local property owner claimed the lighthouse was on private property. A lawsuit arose and in 1839 the government discontinued using the lighthouse.

Locals petitioned the U. S. Lighthouse Board to build a new lighthouse, but construction didn’t begin until 1857. This lighthouse contained a fourth-order Fresnel lens which was first lit in April of 1858. Unfortunately, the wooden support piles were damaged by worms, which caused water to rise into the lighthouse. This structure was deemed unsafe and a third structure was commissioned to be built.

The third lighthouse (which is the model for the replica) was built 100 yards from the second one, and stood in nine feet of water on seven piles. Activated in 1877, the lighthouse first displayed a red light, then a white light with a red portion. A fog bell was added later.

The U. S. Coast Guard operated the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse until it was decommissioned in 1955. It was suggested that the town of Manteo purchase the lighthouse, but a private citizen bought it before Manteo could act. This citizen intended to move the lighthouse to a new location via a barge. Unfortunately, the seas were rough and the lighthouse fell off the barge and into the sound. Retrieval was deemed too difficult, so the lighthouse was abandoned.

As a part of its centennial celebration in 1999, Manteo decided to build a replica of the lighthouse. Delays due to funding problems and to Hurricane Isabel pushed the complete date to years later. On September 25, 2004, though, the replica was finally dedicated. Exhibits of Roanoke Island’s maritime history are on display in the lighthouse, which is operated by the North Carolina Maritime Museum on Roanoke Island. For information, contact the North Carolina Maritime Museum at 252-475-1750 or email them.

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