The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton may be the most famous lighthouse along the coast of North Carolina, but another black-and-white-striped brick structure—the Bodie Island Lighthouse in South Nags Head—is another popular Outer Banks landmark that attracts droves of tourists to the barrier island beaches all year long. Located fewer than four miles north of Oregon Inlet, the Bodie Island Lighthouse is situated on the western edge of Bodie Island, on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Although the present-day tower that still serves as a functioning navigational aid was constructed in 1872, two previous versions of the Bodie Island Lighthouse were built on the same site during the middle of the 19th century.
In 1837, the United States government sent Lieutenant Napoleon L. Coste to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to search for potential places to build a new lighthouse that would aid mariners attempting to navigate the shallow shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. According to the National Park Service, ships heading south toward Cape Point from northeastern North Carolina were in need of a beacon of light that could alert them to their position and let them know they would soon be nearing the treacherous waters where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current converge. To assist these mariners by providing them with plenty of time to alter their positions as they came closer to Cape Point, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of the Bodie Island Lighthouse that same year.
Despite the approval of a lighthouse on the southern end of Nags Head in the late 1830s, a series of complications during the process of purchasing the land delayed the construction until 1847. Work commenced on the site soon after, but because the project’s primary manager had no prior experience in the construction of a lighthouse, the finished product—a lighthouse that stood on an unsupported brick foundation—proved to be a total failure. Just two years after construction was complete, the 54-foot-tall tower began to lean to one side. Although several expensive repairs were performed in an attempt to fix the structural issues and save the structure, the first Bodie Island Lighthouse was deemed ineffective and ultimately demolished in 1859.
Armed with the knowledge of the proper way to build a lighthouse upon the sandy shoreline of the Outer Banks, the government promptly funded the $25,000 construction of the second rendition of the Bodie Island Lighthouse at a nearby site. This lighthouse was significantly sturdier than its predecessor; however, it also fell victim to an unfortunate fate just a few years after construction of the 80-foot-tall tower was complete. Because Confederate troops who were retreating from the Outer Banks during the Civil War feared enemy Union forces would use the structure as an observation post, Confederates blew up the lighthouse in 1861.
For the Bodie Island Lighthouse, the third time proved to be the charm. Fifteen acres of land was eventuallypurchased from John B. Etheridge 1.5 miles to the north of the locations where the previous lighthouses once stood, and construction on the present-day structure began on June 13, 1871. A seven-foot-deep pit was dug into the sand on the site in South Nags Head, and a wood grillage foundation was then laid at the bottom of the hole. Large chunks of granite and grouted blocks of rock were piled on top of the grillage to raise the foundation an extra five feet from the ground. The tower of the lighthouse was then set on top of the foundation and built to a total height of 156 feet. Outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens from France, the third rendition of the Bodie Island Lighthouse was first lit on October 1, 1872, casting a beam of light that can be seen for more than 18 miles.
For more than a century, the lighthouse has served as a successful navigational aid for mariners sailing the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and its light pattern—characterized by 2.5 seconds on, 2.5 seconds off, 2.5 seconds on and then 22.5 seconds off—has become well-known by both locals and tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks for decades. After years remaining closed to the public, extensive renovation efforts were performed between 2009 and 2012, and the tower officially opened for climbing in the spring of 2013.
Guided tours are now offered at Bodie Island Lighthouse from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, allowing visitors to climb 214 steps to the top of the structure, where they will be treated to incredible 360-degree views of Coquina Beach, the Atlantic Ocean, Roanoke Sound, Oregon Inlet, Nags Head and the neighborhood town of Manteo.