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Cape Hatteras Light

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Buxton, Dare Co., North Carolina (March 2012)

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Cape Hatteras Light

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The Cape Hatteras Light, unquestionably the most well-known lighthouse along the mid-Atlantic and one of the most recognizable in the nation, dominates the surrounding terrain. It's black-and-white spiral paint job beckons tourists down the spine of the Outer Banks to one of its more remote corners, requiring more than an hour of driving south from Nags Head. This treacherous stretch of coastline, the absolute epicenter of the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" required a magnificent lighthouse equal to the challenge. The result was the construction of tallest lighthouse in the United States.

Cape Hatteras, with its triangular shape, owes its existence to the collision of two mighty currents. The warmer waters of the Gulf Stream flowing north collide just off the coast with the cooler waters of the Labrador Current flowing south. Constantly shifting sands extend ten miles away from the cape to create Diamond Shoals, a shallow hazard that further heightens the danger. Throw a storm or a squall into that mix and its a disastrous set of conditions for passing mariners caught unaware. Ships began wrecking here almost as soon as they started arriving from Western Europe in the Sixteenth Century. If ever there was a place that desperately needed a lighthouse, this would be it.


Hatteras Lighthouse

Sentinel Above the Cape

The first light station appeared at Cape Hatteras in 1797. A second incarnation lasted until the Civil War when it was damaged by Confederate troops intent on causing harm to Union ships passing off the dangerous shoreline. The current version was constructed after the war, in 1870. It needed to be tall enough to cast a light far out to sea, to extend beyond the treacherous reaches of Diamond Shoals. This required an immense structure of 207 feet (ten of which are underground) with a focal plain of 192 feet. A spiral staircase ran up the middle of the shaft, with 268 steps or the equivalent of a 12 story flight of stairs. The government outfit Cape Hatteras Light with a first order Fresnel lens, which is quite large, so that mariners could observe it at least twenty miles out to sea during ordinary conditions and considerably further at times of optimal conditions.

Cape Hatteras Light continues to serve as an active aid to navigation although the original Fresnel lens has been removed. It was fully automated in 1936 and today it has a DCB-24 optic which was installed in 1972. That's a fairly common optic which is used to replaced original lenses in lots of U.S. lighthouses. The lighthouse, when built, stood some 1,500 feet away from the shoreline. Erosion in this stormy area atop a barrier island encroached ever more closely over the following century, nibbling precariously close to the lighthouse foundation. In a gutsy but ultimately necessary action, the National Park Service moved the lighthouse a half-mile further inland in 1999. Many feared that this would result in the destruction of the tower, but that was certain to happen in the next decade-or-so anyway as the ocean continue to encroach. Fortunately the critics were proved wrong and the lighthouse still stands after its inland migration.

It's possible to climb to the top of the tower, and tickets are sold at the Visitors Center. We traveled through the park during early March however and the tower was closed for the winter.


Cape Hatteras

Lighthouse Keepers Quarters

Other original buildings continue to exist as well. A two-story brick Victorian keepers quarters can be found on the lighthouse grounds. People can stop in and see the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea, with all sorts of exhibits about the Outer Banks. This is an easy visit because, truly, it's a national treasure and it's the one lighthouse on just about every visitor's list of "must see" attractions. The entrance is well-marked and the parking lot is enormous. There was only one other car in the lot during our wintertime visit, however the size of the lot indicated that a far different story probably exists during busy summertime weekends. This is very different from the vast preponderance of our other lighthouse visits.


Readers who have an interest in lighthouses might also want to check my Lighthouse Index page.