History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Few attractions that dot the coastline of North Carolina are as famous as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Located in Buxton, this iconic black-and-white spiraled structure is the crown jewel of Hatteras Island and attracts nearly 200,000 visitors each year. If you’re planning a trip to our barrier island paradise, your vacation won’t be complete without a visit to this Outer Banks landmark that has protected the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic for centuries.

Just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, the Labrador Current—a current of cold water that flows south from the coast of Canada—and the Gulf Stream—an ocean current comprised of warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico—collide and create one of the most dangerous spots for ships and sailors in Atlantic Ocean: the Diamond Shoals. When Congress recognized the hazards posed by this stretch of shoreline in 1794, the construction of a lighthouse was authorized to protect those attempting to navigate their way around the 12-mile-long sandbar.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The construction process began in 1799, and in October 1803 the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—a 90-foot-tall sandstone structure that boasted a lamp powered by whale oil—was lit for the first time. Despite its builders’ good intentions, the lighthouse was unable to effectively warn the sailors out at sea that they were entering the perilous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Deemed too short to send a strong enough signal to those whose ships were nearing Cape Hatteras, the lighthouse received numerous complaints, and in 1853 the Lighthouse Board approved the addition of 60 feet to the height of the structure.

Taking into account other complaints sailors had frequently made about the original lighthouse—namely that the unpainted sandstone exterior didn’t provide a stark contrast to the sky during daylight hours—the second version of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was painted white on the bottom and red on the top so it no longer blended into the background. To ensure the structure’s signal was strong enough to reach mariners sailing toward the treacherous coastline, the new lighthouse was retrofitted with a kerosene-powered Fresnel lens that allowed it to emit a much stronger beam of light that could be seen nearly 20 miles from shore. After years of use, however, the structure was in need of extensive repairs, and funds were soon appropriated for a new lighthouse that could better serve the needs of sailors traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

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Construction got underway in October 1868, and in February 1871—two months after the new lighthouse was first lit in 1870—the 1803 lighthouse was demolished. In 1873, the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received its characteristic spiral marking of black and white stripes. Assigned by the Lighthouse Board, this distinctive daymark pattern as well as a unique light sequence—known as a “nightmark,” in which the light flashes every 7.5 seconds—helped to distinguish the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from other navigational aids along the East Coast.

Although the newly constructed third rendition of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was both tall enough and bright enough to successfully warn ships of the dangerous shoals that lay ahead, the structure soon found itself facing another major challenge: Mother Nature. The tower was originally built in a spot deemed safe from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean; however, with each year that passed and every hurricane and nor’easter that hit the Outer Banks, more of the shoreline was stripped away, leaving the lighthouse increasingly vulnerable to imminent destruction.

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In 1893, the lighthouse stood 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but by 1975 only 175 feet separated the structure from the pounding surf—and cracks in the tower resulted in the lighthouse being closed to the public. In 1980 the lighthouse sat just 50 feet from the ocean, and the following year the “Save the Lighthouse Committee” was formed by U.S. Senator Helms and North Carolina Governor Hunt, among others. An independent study requested by the National Park Service (NPS) recommended relocation of the Outer Banks landmark, and the NPS later announced that moving the lighthouse to a safer spot posed less of a risk than leaving the structure in its perilous position. Restoration of the damaged tower began in 1990, and the lighthouse was reopened to the public in 1993.

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Six years later, in 1999, the keepers’ quarters, oil house and two cisterns were moved to a new site further inland, and soon after, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began a journey that would garner worldwide attention. Over a period of just 23 days, in an effort to combat the ever-present threat of shoreline erosion the lighthouse faced as it stood precariously perched mere feet from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The 4,830-ton historic structure was lifted off its foundation at the edge of the encroaching sea, loaded onto a transport system and moved 2,900 feet to the southwest from the spot where it had stood since 1870. In 2000, the lighthouse finally reopened to the public. Now safely situated 1,500 feet from the shoreline, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse resumed its longtime duty of serving as a sentinel on the southern shores of the Outer Banks and continues to provide warnings to mariners brave enough to navigate the Diamond Shoals to this day.

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At a height of 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, visitors can climb 257 steps to the top of this Outer Banks landmark, where they will be treated to unparalleled 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound and the villages that surround this historic structure located in the heart of Hatteras Island.

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