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History of the Ocracoke Light Station

History of the Ocracoke Light Station

Photo Courtesy of VisitNC.com

The most famous lighthouse along the Outer Banks of North Carolina may be the iconic black-and-white spiraled structure that stands on a spit of sand at Cape Hatteras, but when it comes to navigational aids guarding the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a lesser-known but equally important lighthouse should not be overlooked. Located on the southern edge of Ocracoke Island—a 16-mile-long stretch of sand accessible only by boat—the Ocracoke Light Station has a storied past that dates back to the days when Blackbeard the Pirate sailed the seas surrounding the barrier islands that comprise the Outer Banks.

An unincorporated community in Hyde County, Ocracoke is situated south of Hatteras Island and just a few nautical miles northeast of Portsmouth Island. Ocracoke Inlet—a narrow waterway that lies between Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island—became a popular channel during the late 1500s for ships needing to gain access to inland ports ranging from Elizabeth City to Edenton and New Bern. Because of the island’s convenient location between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound where ships often traveled along area trade routes, a small village soon developed in what is currently known as Ocracoke Village in the 1730s.

Photo: Bob Muller

Due to the constantly changing sandbars beneath the surface of the sea, navigating the coastline near Ocracoke Island became extremely difficult, and many mariners experienced issues with shoaling and found themselves shipwrecked on the sandbars. To assist with the navigational troubles these mariners dealt with during their journeys from the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean to points inland, numerous “pilots” who were familiar with the shoals were hired to help steer ships safely through what was quickly becoming one of the busiest inlets on the Eastern Seaboard. Because these pilots eventually settled on Ocracoke Island, the tiny village was originally referred to as “Pilot Town.”

Recognizing that a crew of pilots was not quite enough to assist mariners sailing the sound and sea near Ocracoke, the U.S. Lighthouse Service deemed the spot worthy of further aid to sailors, and in 1794 construction on a navigational structure began. The lighthouse—a wooden tower in the shape of a pyramid—was built on a 25-acre island between Ocracoke and neighboring Portsmouth Island to the south called Shell Castle Island. A small house was also constructed on Shell Castle Island to provide accommodations for the resident lightkeeper, as well as a handful of additional facilities such as gristmills and cargo wharves.

Although this first lighthouse was extremely successful in helping to warn mariners of the nearby sandbars and assisted them in navigating their way from the ocean to their inland destinations, after fewer than 20 years the structure was deemed obsolete. Shoaling had caused the channel itself to shift its location by nearly a mile, and, according to the National Park Service, the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters were both destroyed by lightning in 1818, leaving mariners in the dark once more.

A few years later, the U.S. government purchased a two-acre area on the southern end of Ocracoke Island and hired Noah Porter, a builder from Massachusetts, to construct a new navigational aid for Ocracoke Inlet near the channel’s new location. The property was purchased for a total of $50, and, despite budgeting $20,000 for the lighthouse and the one-story keeper’s quarters, both were completed for just $11,359 in 1823.

At a height of 75 feet, the Ocracoke Light Station is significantly shorter than many of its counterparts along the coast; however, its light—which can be seen as far as 14 miles at sea—provided the perfect solution for sailors searching for assistance in safely navigating the shifting shoals off the North Carolina coastline. A sturdy structure whose solid, white brick walls are five feet thick at the base and taper to two feet thick at the top of the tower, the Ocracoke Light Station has withstood hundreds of storms and dozens of hurricanes in the nearly two centuries it has stood watch over the southern portion of the Outer Banks.

Photo: Our State Magazine

Unlike many other lighthouses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Ocracoke Light Station is not open to the public for tours or climbing; however, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the United States still attracts thousands of visitors each year who stop by Ocracoke Village to see this unique piece of Outer Banks history in person.

Torpedo Junction & Ocracoke Island’s British Cemetery

If you’re a history buff visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, your itinerary likely includes popular attractions such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Corolla’s Whalehead Club, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the site from which an entire colony vanished on the northern tip of Roanoke Island. But to fully experience everything the Outer Banks has to offer those with an affinity for learning about the past of this stretch of seashore between sound and sea, a stop at the British Cemetery is a must.

Nestled well off the main road in a wooded lot on Ocracoke Island, the British Cemetery is a historic spot within the confines of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Maintained by the National Park Service, the 2,290-square-foot cemetery marks the final resting spot of heroic British sailors who fought alongside American troops defending the Eastern Seaboard from attacks during World War II.

national parks traveler
Photo Courtesy of the National Parks Traveler

Soon after American was thrust into war with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Germany launched a covert mission code-named Operation Paukenschlag. This initiative—whose English translation is Operation Drumroll—called for a series of assaults on unsuspecting ships sailing within the merchant-heavy sea lanes along the East Coast of the United States. Although today this stretch of the southern Outer Banks is prized for its pristine beaches, minimal development and wide array of wildlife, the area was once characterized by fiery explosions at sea and referred to as “Torpedo Junction” due to the massive amount of submarine assaults that occurred here in the early 1940s.    

offbeattravel
Photo Courtesy of OffBeatTravel.com

Orchestrated by Karl Donitz, a German admiral and U-boat commander, the operation began when five submarines were sent on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in late December 1941. Unaware of the submarines making stealth underwater advances upon the shoreline of the Outer Banks, U.S. merchant ships continued upon their trade routes, protected only by a handful of naval vessels assigned to patrol this portion of the Atlantic—the majority of which were slow and unsuited to take on submarine attacks. According to the National Park Service, only one vessel—a 165-foot-long Coast Guard cutter named the Dione—patrolled the waters off Cape Hatteras, rendering the region extremely vulnerable to well-timed submarine attacks.

In addition to its lack of preparedness in terms of the types and number of ships patrolling the seaboard, the U.S. also failed to take proper precautions onshore to reduce the risk of underwater assaults on naval vessels. Local lighthouses—including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse—remained lit at night, and blackout restrictions were not enforced. With lights along the shoreline ablaze throughout each evening, a brightly lit backdrop was created, allowing German U-boat commanders to easily spot the location of merchant ships passing along the coastline of the Outer Banks.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo Courtesy of he U.S. National Park Service

Having not prepared properly for a potential attack—and unknowingly creating the perfect conditions for submarine assaults—U.S. ships were an easy target for the German sailors, who had years of experience conducting submarine attacks on unsuspecting victims. The result was devastating: In the first six months of 1942 alone, 397 Allied merchant ships were struck and sunk in the poorly protected sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Hatteras—with the bright beacon of light emitted from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the massive currents that converged at Cape Point in Buxton—became a navigational focal point for U-boat commanders. More than 80 ships were sunk in this particular spot that earned the area its nickname of Torpedo Junction.

islandfreepress

Relatively unchecked by unprepared American Naval forces, the German U-boats continued their slaughter of merchant ships. When those in command came to the realization that the loss of so many ships ultimately threatened the entire war effort, the U.S. finally accepted assistance from the British Royal Navy in patrolling the coast of North Carolina and began to strike back against enemy German forces. Bolstered by the aid of 24 British ships—including a transformed trawler called the HMS Bedfordshire—the U.S. was eventually able to regain control of the waters surrounding Torpedo Junction on the Outer Banks.  

geocaching
The HMS Bedfordshire. Photo Credit: Geocaching.com

Although Admiral Donitz called off the attacks on Torpedo Junction in the summer of 1942 and sent his submarines to places that provided less resistance, the U.S. and its British allies suffered greatly from Operation Paukenschlag. On May 12, 1942, the HMS Bedfordshire was struck by a torpedo while patrolling the coastline of the Outer Banks. All 34 British crew members were killed when the ship sunk, and several of their bodies washing ashore on Ocracoke Island in the days following the attack.

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Outer Bankers residing on Ocracoke Island buried the bodies of these brave British sailors who fought alongside American naval forces next to the grave of another British soldier who was killed when the San Delfino was sunk by a torpedo just one year earlier. The plot of land that serves as the final resting place of America’s allies at Torpedo Junction is now known as the British Cemetery in historic Ocracoke village and attracts hundreds of visitors to pay their respects each year. In honor of their sacrifice while assisting U.S. trips in the fight against German forces, memorial services—including a 21-gun salute and the placement of wreaths on all the graves—are held at the British Cemetery each year on the anniversary of the Bedfordshire’s sinking and attended by locals and visitors to the Outer Banks alike.

ocracoke observer
Photo Courtesy of the Ocracoke Observer

 

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