5 Awesome Facts About Old Lighthouses in the Outer Banks
November 07, 2020
By Chelsea Reed
Lighthouses are a special form of architecture. They’re useful for safety, have sentimental value, and are an important part of American history. The lighthouses in the Outer Banks are especially valuable. They guide mariners home safely across the Graveyard of the Atlantic and are iconic tourist attractions found nowhere else in the world. Do you know these fun facts about the Outer Banks lighthouses? Test your local knowledge and find out!
1. Ocracoke Lighthouse is the Oldest in the State
Most of the Outer Banks lighthouses are over 150 years old. Did you know that Ocracoke Marshes Light is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina? It was established in 1823. Ocracoke Light is also the second oldest operating lighthouse in the nation. Its sturdy concrete walls are five feet thick at the base! Though the lighthouse is closed for climbing, it’s a great site to take photos of… or in this case, paint a beautiful portrait.
2. Cape Hatteras Light’s Lens was “Lost” in the Civil War
The Outer Banks lighthouses were a hot point of contention in the Civil War. Whoever controlled them gained access to the whole state. Fearing the worst, the Confederates removed the original first-order Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and hid it from Union forces in a farm 200 miles away in Granville County, NC. Union armies and spies searched everywhere for the valuable lens, but never found it. It remained “lost” to the sands of time.
Finally, the journey of the lens was discovered in 2002 by the Raleigh researcher Kevin Duffus. It turned out to be back where it belonged! Five months after the Civil War, the U.S. Lighthouse Society quietly returned it to the iconic lighthouse, but half the prisms were looted by souvenir hunters by 1942. In 1949, the Coast Guard replaced it with an automatic model that’s used to this day. The original lens now rests in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
The Bodie Island light you see today had two predecessors, and both of them were south of Oregon Inlet. After the second structure was blown up by Confederates in the Civil War, a third structure was built in 1872 in South Nags Head, where it sits today. Even after all these years, Bodie Island Light is still a navigational aid for mariners. Its signature light pattern can be seen from afar to keep boats safe passing through Oregon Inlet.
Nope, we’re not pulling your leg. Bill Tate was the last keeper of the Currituck Lighthouse who was employed by the Bureau of Lighthouses. He was the one credited for bringing Orville and Wilbur Wright to Kitty Hawk so they could test the power of flight! Mr. Tate was also the Kitty Hawk postmaster.
5. One Outer Banks Lighthouse Isn’t Actually Old!
Surprise! It’s Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, the newest member of the Banker lighthouse family. Though it was built in 2004, the structure is a replica of old screw-pile lighthouses that were a common sight in the Croatan Sound during the 1800s. Fun fact: the Town of Manteo wanted to build it as part of the 1999 centennial celebration. It was delayed by objections from the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers and Hurricane Isabel, but plans resumed in 2004. It even has a real Fresnel lens.
The Outer Banks lighthouses have a special romantic draw that welcomes visitors near and far. Locals take pride in these national treasures, too. Native lightkeeper families have taken special care of them through generations of service. You can see artwork inspired by the lighthouses in Seaside Art Gallery’s seascape collection. They’re a beautiful way to admire this part of American history.
Chelsea Reed is a copywriter who writes online content, articles, blogs, and websites from her base in North Carolina.
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