Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Fresnel Lens

Throwback Thursday: OBX Style

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Fresnel Lens

This month’s Throwback Thursday is Part I in a two-part series about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  Today, we focus on the mystery of the lighthouse lens that disappeared after the Civil War.  Join The Coastal Cottage Company next month to learn about the daring relocation of the lighthouse in 1999.

Civil War, lightning strikes, hurricanes, earthquakes, encroaching ocean waters, and a risky relocation — the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has experienced it all.  Generations of mariners have relied on this beacon to guide them away from the treacherous waters and shifting sands around Diamond Shoals, an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 1893. Image courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Originally built in 1803, the lighthouse has experienced many changes.  The first tower stood at 90 feet and used whale oil lamps that weren’t visible beyond the shore.  As a result, shipwrecks continued to occur.  Fortunately, the U.S. Lighthouse Board used a $15,000 appropriation from Congress to raise the lighthouse 60 feet and install a French-made Fresnel lens.1  This lens, made from 1,008 prisms, was one of the first lighthouse lenses purchased by the United States government and reflected a piercing light that shone far across the ocean.  The 12-foot tall mechanism was considered a national treasure, even being displayed at the 1853 World’s Fair in New York City.2  But shortly after its glorious display, the Cape Hatteras lens would disappear for over 100 years.

Fresnel Lens Lithograph
The Fresnel lens

During the Civil War, lighthouses along the eastern coast were highly valued and Union and Confederate troops often fought over their possession.  In 1861, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse found itself at the center of such a conflict when Confederate soldiers decided to remove the Fresnel lens to prevent Union ships from benefiting from it.  They disassembled the 6,000-pound lens and stored it in pine boxes which were moved by steamboat, missing the invading Union troops by a mere 24-hours.  The lens possibly ended up at a plantation in Townsville, NC, though records are not completely clear about its hiding place.  Amazingly, after the Confederacy surrendered, Union troops marched through Townsville, yards away from the plantation.  While they located numerous lighthouse lenses removed by Confederate troops, they never did find the Cape Hatteras Fresnel lens.  After most of the Union troops had left the area, the lens appeared in Henderson, NC but then just as quickly disappeared for almost 140 years.3

Intrigued by the mystery, North Carolina author and filmmaker Kevin Duffus mounted a renewed search for the missing lens.  After three years of pouring over massive collections of documents, Duffus was ready to give up.  But one night before leaving the National Archives in Washington, DC, he turned one last page and found what he was looking for.  All along, the Fresnel lens was hiding in plain view atop the Cape Hatteras lighthouse!  Apparently, the U.S. Lighthouse Board returned the repaired lens to the Hatteras lighthouse in 1870 but no announcement was made of its homecoming.4  Thus, very few people realized that the lens in the tower was the original from 1853.  

In 1936, the lighthouse was decommissioned and acquired by the National Park Service.  Unfortunately, the lens was damaged by vandals and souvenir hunters, so what remained was transported to numerous warehouses and forgotten.  In 1987, parts of the lens were stolen from a National Park Service storage facility but were recovered by police after receiving an anonymous tip.5

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Image courtesy of National Park Service

In 2005, the remaining pieces of the original Fresnel lens were put on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.  The National Park Service is still looking for the missing pieces, which could be hidden in attics and basements or ground into thousands of unrecoverable shards of glass.  Regardless, an Outer Banks mystery was solved and pieces of its history reclaimed.  As Kevin Duffus remarked in 2005:

“We hope this remarkable symbol of our nation’s lighthouse history, having served seafarers and saved countless lives over two centuries, will serve a new purpose by guiding future generations on a voyage of discovery and understanding of our rich maritime past.”6

Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company 

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