The Outer Banks' lighthouses shed light on history, geography

CAPE HATTERAS, N.C. -- The waters surrounding the Outer Banks bear the fitting epithet "graveyard of the Atlantic."

It is here that more than 2,000 ships have been lost since the early 1700s, prompting President Washington and Congress to provide legislation for the erection of several lighthouses to help correct the problem.

The Outer Banks are home to four of the original lighthouses in the 1789 legislation: Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, Ocracoke and Currituck.

  • The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which, at 208 feet, is the tallest in the U.S., is the second of three erected on the cape. The original structure was built in 1794 and became badly damaged during the Civil War.
  • The second lighthouse was erected in 1869. It was abandoned in 1935 and promptly vandalized. A temporary lighthouse was built of steel in 1936 for use during repairs to the earlier structure.

    The present lighthouse became fully operational again in 1950 and has just been moved 1,600 feet inland to prevent damage from erosion. A relighting ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 4, and reopening for Memorial Day 2000.

    Also included in the move were both keeper's quarters buildings. A temporary visitor's center is open between the two sites from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Along the viewing path are several exhibits.

    Hatteras Island Visitor Center
    Phone: (252) 995-4474
    National Park Service
    Phone: (252) 473-2111

  • The Bodie Island Lighthouse was originally built in 1847 and rebuilt 12 years later with improvements. During the Civil War, Confederate troops destroyed the structure to prevent its use by Union forces occupying the Outer Banks.
  • In 1872, the third and present structure became operational, and -- except for a mishap in which a flock of wild geese flew into the lantern, causing severe damage -- the tower has been illuminated ever since.

    Because this lighthouse is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, it is not open for climbing, but the keeper's quarters are open year-round as a visitor's center. A nature walk through the surrounding marsh is available.

    Bodie Island Visitors Center

    Phone: (252) 441-5711

  • The Ocracoke Lighthouse, with the oldest operational guide beam in North Carolina, is built near where Blackbeard the pirate once lived. Legend has it that Ocracoke got its name from the events leading up to the capture of the area's most notorious resident.
  • In 1718, the English Crown put a price on Blackbeard's head, and Lt. Robert Maynard took up the challenge. On the night before what was to be Blackbeard's final battle, he was heard to cry repeatedly, "O cock, crow!" in hopes that dawn would come sooner and he could make his getaway.

    Dawn did not come soon enough: Blackbeard was captured and eventually beheaded.

  • Brightening the last dark spot of the North Carolina coast is Currituck Beach Lighthouse, operational since 1875. To distinguish itself from other regional lighthouses, the structure was left unpainted in natural brick red.
  • When the lighthouse became automated, the lands surrounding it were left in ruin. In 1980, concerned with the preservation of the property, the Outer Banks Conservationists signed a lease to take responsibility for restoring the keeper's house.

    With restorations ongoing, a smaller building on the grounds operates as a museum shop. The lighthouse is open to the public for climbing, weather permitting, with a nominal fee charged to help with the restoration and maintenance of the compound. It is open daily from Easter to Thanksgiving.

    Currituck Beach Lighthouse

    Phone: (252) 453-4939

    JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI