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History of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

History of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

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.

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The Bodie Island Light Station, South Nags Head

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.

View West
View of the Roanoke Sound from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

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.

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Photo Credit: National Park Service

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.

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The Bodie Island Lighthouse in a snowstorm, January 2016

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.

Lighthouse Renovations
The Bodie Island Lighthouse undergoes extensive renovations from 2009-2012

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.

Lighthouse View East
The view of the Atlantic Ocean and Coquina Beach from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

Exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

If you’re searching for an escape from everyday life, look no further than the pristine beaches and secluded salt marshes of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, this 13-mile-long stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to more than 400 species of wildlife ranging from migratory birds to endangered sea turtles. Whether you’re a local looking for a relaxing place to spend a day away or a visitor to the Outer Banks enjoying a family vacation for the week, taking a trip to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is an activity that should not be missed when visiting North Carolina’s barrier island paradise.

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Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

The roots of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge date back to 1937, when the United States government designated the section of Hatteras Island north of Rodanthe as an important breeding ground for area wildlife. Bordered by Oregon Inlet to the north and sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, Pea Island served as the perfect spot for birds migrating from colder regions to make a series of seasonal stops. The lush salt marshes of the region attracted an assortment of species ranging from ducks and swans to geese and egrets, making it a popular place among waterfowl hunters in the early-20th century, long before the Outer Banks became the bustling vacation destination it is today. When the land was deemed a wildlife refuge, hunting was no longer permitted, and huge congregations of birds began to take up permanent and seasonal residence along the soundside ponds and shallow salt flats.

Richmond Navigator
Photo Credit: Richmond Navigator

Today, visitors can take a trip over the Bonner Bridge from the southern edge of Nags Head to Hatteras Island, where they will be treated to beautiful stretches of unspoiled shorelines and opportunities for a wide array of recreational activities, including birdwatching, surfing, shelling, kayaking and standup paddleboarding. A small visitor center is located on the west side of NC Highway 12, about five miles south of the bridge. Here you’ll find a set of informational kiosks, public restrooms and a gift shop, as well as a staff of volunteers who can direct you to the various spots of the refuge you’d like to visit.

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Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Comprising 5,834 acres of land and over 25,000 acres of water, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique vacation destination that can be explored by foot or by sea and sound. Two nature trails wind their way through the refuge: the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail. Access to the half-mile-long North Pond Trail begins behind the visitor center and takes hikers around a series of ponds where they will witness various types of wildlife up close and personal. A wooden boardwalk allows visitors to cross what is known as “turtle pond,” a body of water full of freshwater turtles that can easily be spotted from the walkway above. This trail also features a double-decker observation tower and three observation decks—all of which contain mounted binoculars and interpretive panels—that give visitors a higher vantage point for viewing area wildlife and scenery.

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Birds soaring over the Oriental, a shipwreck off the coast of Pea Island

The Salt Flats Trail, which is situated at the northern end of North Pond, meanders along the top of the dike that separates North Pond and the Salt Flats area. This trail boasts an off-the-beaten-path type of terrain and is a bit more challenging to travel than the neighboring North Pond Trail. Hikers can expect to see various species of birds ranging from falcons to snowy egrets as well as more than two dozen species of reptiles. The trail ends with a scenic overlook station that gives visitors the chance to see a large cross-section of the soundside portion of the refuge. In the summer months, volunteers provide programs that discuss the various animals and habitats that comprise the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and are on hand to answer any questions visitors may have about the area.

pea island lifesaving station
Pea Island Lifesaving Station

While the region is most commonly explored by foot, experiencing the refuge by canoe or kayak is an Outer Banks activity unlike any other.  The New Inlet boat ramp provides easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the Pamlico Sound, where paddlers can put their vessel in the water and embark on a unique journey through the wide canals and salt marshes along the margins of the refuge. As you paddle through the calm waters of the sound, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of species of migratory birds and various species of amphibians that thrive within this saltwater habitat.

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Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Although both nature trails and the majority of wildlife are found on the sound side of the refuge, visitors to the Outer Banks shouldn’t skip a trip to the wide, natural beaches bordered by towering sand dunes on the eastern edge of the park. Stroll the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean and search for the assortment of incredible shells that wash up on these secluded stretches of sand, and be sure to keep a lookout beyond the breakers for pods of dolphins that can be found dancing in the surf. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is also known for attracting several species of sea turtles to its undeveloped and unpopulated shores. While loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly found species to venture out of the sea and lay their eggs safely above the high tide line here, a handful of other species—including leatherback, green, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill sea turtles—have also been spotted nesting within the confines of the wildlife refuge.

SeaTurtle-Orsulak-520x289 FWS
Photo Credit: FWS.gov

Whether you visit the Outer Banks in the middle of a cold winter or during the dog days of summer, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge—with its hundreds of diverse species and array of recreational opportunities to enjoy—offers something for everyone to enjoy during their time spent on the barrier islands of North Carolina.

Wild Horses of the Outer Banks

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In the northernmost corner of the Outer Banks, a narrow stretch of sand between sound and sea called “Carova” is home to a herd of wild horses who freely roam the region’s beaches. An unincorporated community situated to the north of the village of Corolla and just south of the Virginia line, Carova’s name comes from its unique location on the border of two states: “Caro” for Carolina and “Va” for Virginia.

Although the community contains hundreds of Outer Banks vacation rental homes that require guests to use four-wheel drive in order to gain access, many visitors to this barrier island paradise are unfamiliar with this one-of-a-kind spot that has served as a sanctuary for Currituck County’s wild horses for centuries.

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The origins of these majestic Spanish mustangs can be traced back nearly 500 years to the days when pirates patrolled the coastline of the Outer Banks and shipwrecks within the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic were common. Many theories attempt to explain how exactly these mysterious colonial Spanish mustangs ultimately ended up on the sandy shoreline of the northern Outer Banks, the most popular of which claims they swam to shore from vessels that became shipwrecked in the shallow waters of the sea.

The Diamond Shoals—a constantly shifting collection of sandbars that lie along the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks from Carova to Cape Hatteras—lie hidden on the seafloor and have been blamed for hundreds of shipwrecks for hundreds of years. While modern technology has made it much easier for vessels to navigate the moving sandbars and avoid running aground, in centuries past many mariners found themselves shipwrecked when their ships encountered an unseen stretch of sand beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

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With the expansion of English colonization that occurred in the late 1500s came a trade boom that resulted in an increased demand for products to be shipped from ports in the West Indies to Europe and the United States. While the most common forms of cargo found on ships that traversed the seven seas ranged from rum and molasses to sugar and spices, livestock—including Spanish mustangs—were also frequently transported on the trans-Atlantic trips.  

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According to local legend and historic accounts of some of the island’s earliest settlers, ships sailed by European explorers often encountered issues navigating the Outer Banks, and the Spanish mustangs onboard were forced to swim the short distance to shore in an attempt to save their own lives when shipwrecks occurred. Foraging among the sand dunes and salt marshes of this desolate island habitat, the horses fought hard for survival and consumed a diet of native vegetation, such as sea oats, acorns and grasses. Able to sustain their lives in one of the harshest environments of the Outer Banks, the hardy herd of horses continued to breed as the years passed, and their descendants still roam the beaches and neighboring maritime forests and marshes to this day.

A wild Banker Pony mare and her foal, Outer Banks, North Carolina

While the herd was once able to freely roam a much larger area, development and the paving of N.C. 12 from Duck to Corolla posed a potential threat to the wild horses, and they were eventually moved farther north to their current location—an area comprising more than 7,500 acres of both privately and publicly owned land—in 1995 to protect them from any harm. Research conducted by National Geographic states that as many as 6,000 wild horses resided on the Outer Banks as recently as 1926. Today, however, the number of horses in the herd is only around 110.

In an effort to protect the remainder of the wild horse herd that claimed the Outer Banks as its home more than five centuries ago, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund was established, and its team of employees and dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to educate visitors and locals alike about these creatures that earned the title of “State Horse of North Carolina” in 2010. Encountering the Spanish mustangs up close and personal is an incredible experience, and several companies located in the village of Corolla offer wild horse tours that allow visitors to view the Spanish mustangs in their natural environment—an experience that should not be missed on your next visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina!

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