Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Outer Banks, NC
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Photos Courtesy of the National Park Service.
The days of the blue uniformed lighthouse keeper checking his whale oil supply, slowly climbing the tower to clean his lenses, have passed forever. Yet the lighthouse he so faithfully attended remains on duty. Built of bricks noted by seaman and landlubber alike, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stand on a spot still dreaded by mariners.
Lighthouses have a long and colorful history. The earliest recorded data of regularly maintained light that guided mariners is 600 B.C. Even the ancient Egyptians built light towers; priests tended the beacon fires. By the 18th century, open fires on the platforms at or near dangerous points protected the coasts of Europe. Today, light probes more than 20 miles out to sea, still warning of hidden reefs and treacherous shoals that menace the navigator.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands on a spot of eastern North America dreaded by sailors since the 16th century when European ships regularly began sailing or "coasting" the Atlantic seaboard. A warm offshore current, the Gulf Stream, flows north at about 4 knots and veers eastward north to Cape Hatteras. Spanish treasure fleets returning from the mines of Mexico and Central America made good use of this northbound current on their voyages to Spain. Southbound vessels followed an inshore counter-current of colder water, the Virginia Coastal Drift. These might have been two very efficient marine highways, except that at Cape Hatteras the Gulf Stream pinches down on the inshore current and forces Hatteras southbound ships into a narrow passage around Diamond Shoals, the submerged fingers of shifting sand that cut more than 10 miles out >from the Cape. More than 500 ships of many nations, trying to find their way around the shoals, have foundered at or near Cape Hatteras, earning for the area the sinister reputation as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic". The absence of natural landmarks along the Carolina Coast added to the navigator's risk, as he was drawn dangerously close to shore to get a bearing.
Recognizing the very danger to Atlantic shipping, Congress, in 1794, authorized the construction of a permanent lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. It took almost ten years before a "light was raised" in October, 1803. Built in sandstone, 90 feet high, the tower was a start, but only a start in providing the protection needed in those hazardous waters. A major problem through years was illumination; the the small lamp fueled by sperm whale oil did not penetrate the darkness beyond the shoals. Storms shattered the windows and broke the lamps, putting the lights out for days at a time.
Complaints were numerous and vocal. In 1837, the Captain of a coasting vessel reported that "...as usual no light is to be seen from the lighthouse". In 1851, Lieutenant H.K. Davenport, skipper of the mail steamer, Cherokee, complained "Cape Hatteras Light, upon the most dangerous point on our whole coast, is a very poor concern."
Creation of the Lighthouse Board in 1852 made a decided improvement in the conduct of all United States lighthouse operations. Composed of men familiar with the problems involved, the board answered directly to the Secretary of the Treasury and soon acted to correct the deficiencies at Cape Hatteras. Among the first corrections was to raise the tower to more than 150 feet and to install a new lighting device, a first order fresnel lens. Developed in France by Augustine Fresnel, the lens utilized prime and magnifying glasses to intensify a small oil wick flame into a powerful beacon of many thousands candlepower. The improvements made the Cape Hatteras light one of the most dependable on the coast.
Cape Hatteras light burned steadily for seven short years before the fighting of the Civil War extinguished it again. Confederate forces wanted the lighthouse destroyed to deprive Federal vessels of the beacon. In a series of battles in 1861, Union forces managed to save the tower but retreating Confederated took the fresnel lens with them. Although the light shone again in 1862, the tower had been damaged and the Lighthouse Board recommended extensive repairs. Studies showed that it would be less costly to build a new tower than to repair the old one and the 1867 Congress appropriated $75,000 to reconstruct the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Because of erosion danger, it was built 600 feet north of the original tower.
The present brick tower, erected in 1869-70 by the Lighthouse Board, cost more than $150,000. Major George B. Nicholson, Assistant Engineer, Fifth Lighthouse District, supervised construction. Both this tower and the original structure were built before the present-day pile-driver was perfected; both therefore were set upon "Floating Foundation." This means that two layers of 6" by 12" yellow pine timbers were placed crosswise below the water table. Always submerged, the foundation timbers were preserved through the years. Recent examination showed no deterioration of the century-old beams.
A new Fresnel lens and oil lamp were installed and a light flashed >from the new tower on December 16,1870. The old tower, no longer useful and in danger of falling, was blown up and totally destroyed. The final "touch" for the new structure was the distinctive black and white striping ordered by the Lighthouse Board in 1873 to make the tower " a better day mark on this low, sandy coast." This practical application of paint turned an ordinary light tower into one of the most striking and beautiful structures on the Atlantic Coast.
The Lighthouse Service changed the luminate to an incandescent oil vapor lamp in 1913. Twenty years later, in 1934 the Service electrified the Cape Hatteras Light. A new lighting device was installed in 1950. The present, stronger device was installed in 1972. This illuminating equipment consists of a rotating beacon with two 1,000-watts about 20 miles. It appears at a distance as a short flash at intervals of 7 1/2 seconds. Under especially favorable atmospheric conditions, the light has been observed 51 miles at sea.
The type of mechanism changed several times over the years. With the installation of the Fresnel lens in 1854, the light changed from a fixed beam to a revolving flare. To rotate the lens, a weight descended slowly from the top of the tower into a well at the base, engaging a series of gears which turned the beacon. It usually took 12 hours to make a complete descent. The keeper then rewound the apparatus for another cycle. When the light was electrified in 1934, this rudimentary device was no longer necessary. Today, electricity provides the rotating power and a master clock of Swiss design, known as an Astronomic Tide Switch, turns the light on and off. The clock allows for the lengthening or shortening of the day and is adjusted to turn the light on 30 minutes before sunset and off 30 minutes after sunrise. Although the mechanism has changed, the light itself remained white.
Even with Cape Hatteras as the primary aid to navigation in the area, secondary warning devices were needed farther out and directly on the shoals. Such devices were considered as early as 1803. After storms ruined repeated attempts to erect a tower, the Lighthouse Service decided to anchor a Lightship at the outer limits of Diamond Shoals. Through the years, three lightships have been place on station; the first dropped anchor in 1826, but was broken up in gale three years later. Lightship #69, the first to be named "Diamond", took its position in 1897 and remained until 1967, when a Texas tower-type structure replaced it.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse climbing hours will be 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in the spring and fall, and 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., May 22 through Labor Day, Monday, September 7. Ticket sales for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse begin at 8:15 a.m. daily and close at 4:30 p.m. in the spring and fall, and at 5:30 p.m. May 22 through Labor Day.
Climb The Lighthouse:
Climbing tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for senior citizens (62 or older), children 11 years of age and under, and those holding a National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Access Pass. Tickets are available on a first come/first served basis and can only be purchased in-person at the site the day of the climb. There are no advance ticket sales.
Children must be at least 42” tall, and children under 12 must be escorted by a person at least 16 years old.
Climbing the lighthouses is strenuous—climbing the Bodie Island Lighthouse is equivalent to climbing a 10-story building; climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is equivalent to climbing a 12-story building. For more information on what to expect, check the park website www.nps.gov/caha.