The Outer Banks of North Carolina are home to several historic lighthouses that have aided mariners sailing along the treacherous coastline for centuries. While most visitors to the area are familiar with the well-known beacons, such as Buxton’s Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse located in South Nags Head, far fewer vacationers have paid a visit to the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in downtown Manteo.
Constructed in 1877, the original Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was a screw-pile structure situated at the southern edge of the Croatan Sound, halfway between the village of Wanchese and the North Carolina mainland to the west. Like its counterparts that illuminate the coastline on the ocean side of the Outer Banks, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse served as one of many such screw-pile structures throughout the sounds that separated the barrier islands from the mainland. The lighthouse emitted a beam of light that helped sailors to orient themselves as they ventured from the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean and through shallow channels in the sound on their way to inland ports along the eastern portion of the state.
Outfitted with a Fresnel lens built in France that measured 2 feet 4 inches in height and weighed 200 pounds, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was operated by the U.S. Coast Guard until 1955, when it was deemed no longer necessary due to the advent of more modern navigational aids and subsequently decommissioned. The lighthouse was sold to a private owner, and an attempt was then made to relocate the structure to private property further inland, but it was damaged so severely in the process, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was ultimately destroyed and lost in the sound.
For decades, the lighthouse that once lit the waters of the Croatan Sound was all but forgotten—until 1999. At that time, the Town of Manteo was planning its centennial celebration, and residents came up with a plan to reconstruct a replica of the original Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, this time in the Roanoke Sound. Designs for a full-scale exact replica of the 1877 structure were drawn and approved; however, a slew of issues ranging from lack of sufficient funding to the devastating effects of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel forced the project to come to a temporary halt. Nearly half a century after the original lighthouse in the Croatan Sound was decommissioned, the brand-new version of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was completed in September 2004.
Today, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse can be found at the southeast corner of downtown Manteo in the waters of Shallowbag Bay. A long, wooden boardwalk stretches from the Manteo waterfront into the sound, where the square-shaped, white structure with a red roof and black shutters stands guard over the shoreline. Visitors to this area of the Outer Banks can tour the inside of the replicated lighthouse to learn about the maritime history of Roanoke Island via an assortment of education programs and exhibits. After taking a self-guided tour of the structure, guests can sit back and relax on one of the benches or picnic tables that line the decking behind the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse to watch boats and paddleboarders passing by and to take in a picturesque view of Roanoke Island Festival Park, downtown Manteo and the neighboring coastal community of Pirate’s Cove.