North Carolina Lighthouses: Shedding Light on Our State’s History
“There is no fog so dense, no night so dark, no gale so strong, no mariner so lost but what its beacon light can rescue. It beckons through the storms of life. It calls, ‘This way to safety; this way to home.’” -Thomas S. Monson
Lighthouses were born out of necessity—to guide mariners into harbors and to warn them of perilous shoals, shallows, and coastlines. To those seafarers, lighthouses soon became symbols of hope, safety, and home.
North Carolina is fortunate enough to have seven historic lighthouses. Having survived hundreds of years along our coastline, battling not only hurricanes and shifting sands, but also legal disputes, these lighthouses remain steadfast because of preservation efforts by the government and individuals alike.
History of the Lighthouse
Before the modern lighthouse structure was born, massive bonfires were built at the highest point on coastlines to signal to sailors at night. This concept was improved over time until tall towers were built, and fires lit within them. The first known lighthouse was the Pharos of Alexandria, a nearly 400-foot-tall spire of white marble, built in Egypt between 300 and 280 B.C. The structure was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1300s.
Battle for Control: States v. Federal Government
More than 400 years later, in 1789, the 9th Act of the First Congress of the United States created the United States Lighthouse Establishment or Lighthouse Service—the first Public Works Act of the new federal government. This Act provided that the twelve existing lighthouses in the country would be transferred from the control of the individual state to the federal government which would fund provide necessary support for the maintenance and repairs of the lighthouses. States were wary of the new central government and therefore hesitant to turn over control of the lighthouses. However, all eventually complied and by 1800 there were twenty-four lighthouses along the Atlantic coastline.
Over the years, charge of the direction of the country’s lighthouses was transferred between the federal government’s Department of Revenue, Treasury, Commerce, and Transportation. In 1910, Congress created the United States Lighthouse Bureau, which assumed responsibility for the lighthouses until it was absorbed by the United States Coast Guard in 1939.
Advancements in Technology
When placed within the charge of the Coast Guard in 1939, lighthouses were still operated by individual lighthouse keepers. However, technological advances led to the development of automated lights and the need for a day-to-day lighthouse keeper waned. Further advancements in technology, including the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) nautical charts, and other navigational aids, are now capable of effectively warning mariners as lighthouses once did. While the Coast Guard still owns or partially owns some active lighthouses today, these technological advancements have far lessened the number of lighthouses necessary for navigation. Therefore, many lighthouses have been decommissioned.
Decommissioned Lighthouses and the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act
Although decommissioned, the United States National Park Service (NPS) has previously provided various programs, including the National Park Services Historic Surplus Property Program and the Federal Lands to Parks Programs, for individuals or groups who wished to preserve these lighthouses by continuing their care. Currently, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 (NHLPA) provides means for disposal of lighthouses owned by the federal government that have been deemed in excess to the needs of the Coast Guard. Through the NHLPA, federal agencies, state and local governments, and non-profit organizations can acquire lighthouses through stewardship transfers at no cost. If unable to find a suitable public steward, the lighthouse can be sold in a public auction. Under the Act, the entity to which the lighthouse is transferred must make the lighthouse available to the general public for recreational, educational, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.
North Carolina Lighthouses
The North Carolina coast has seven lighthouses still standing today: Old Baldy Lighthouse, Ocracoke Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and Oak Island Lighthouse.
While North Carolina’s lighthouses have been decommissioned, they are preserved by continuing efforts. These lighthouses have been subject to changing ownership and even legal disputes. Nevertheless, these beacons are still a towering presence in our State today.
Old Baldy Lighthouse—Bald Head Island, North Carolina
The Bald Head Island lighthouse, located in Bald Head, was the first lighthouse in North Carolina. Planning for this lighthouse began in 1783 but it was not until December 23, 1794, that the lighthouse was lit for the first time. However, around 1812, soil erosion left the lighthouse damaged beyond repair. Congress appropriated $15,000 for a replacement lighthouse which was finished in 1817 and became what is now known as Old Baldy. Old Baldy is maintained by the Old Baldy Foundation, a public not-for-profit organization dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of the lighthouse.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse—Ocracoke, North Carolina
The Ocracoke Island lighthouse is the shortest in North Carolina at only 75 feet tall. The original structure was created in 1794 between Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island but in 1818 was destroyed by lightning. In 1822, the federal government purchased two acres at the south end of Ocracoke Island for $50. This land became the site of the new tower which is still standing today. While the Coast Guard oversees the operation of the light itself, the National Park Service preserves the lighthouse as it is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Currently, the National Park Service is discussing preservation options surrounding the lighthouse as the NOAA predicts water levels on the island could rise an additional two feet in the next 30 years. The News and Observer reports that Park officials believe these water levels will, at some point in the future, overtake the light station necessitating its relocation.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—Buxton, North Carolina
Also on Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, located in Buxton. The original lighthouse, lit in 1803, only lasted until 1860 when Congress decided to appropriate funds for a new lighthouse. The new lighthouse was lit December 16, 1870. At that time, the lighthouse itself was 1,500 feet from the ocean. However, due to erosion, by 1970 the beacon was only 120 feet from the ocean. The National Park Service believed relocation to be the most cost-effective method of preserving the light station, which consisted of seven historic structures. Cautious that the relocation would result in the demolition of the lighthouse, Dare County sued the National Park Service in the U.S. District Court in Raleigh. However, after a federal judge backed the position of the NPS—that the lighthouse would not survive further beach erosion–the County dropped the lawsuit. On July 9, 1999, the relocation of the lighthouse (2,900 feet southwest) was completed and remains in this position still today.
Bodie Island Lighthouse—Nags Head, North Carolina
A third lighthouse located within Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the Bodie Island Light Station located in Nags Head. The original Bodie Island lighthouse was constructed in 1847 but because of structural issues was abandoned in 1859. A second lighthouse was constructed in 1859. However, during the Civil War, Confederate troops blew up the second lighthouse out of fear that it would be used by Union forces. After the war, construction began on the third Bodie Island lighthouse which was completed in 1872 and still stands today. Having been restored most recently in 2013, the lighthouse is now open for public tours.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse—Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
Cape Lookout Lighthouse is also maintained by the National Park service and located in a National Seashore—Cape Lookout National Seashore. In 1804, the 8th Congress of the United States authorized construction of a lighthouse “on or near the pitch of Cape Lookout.” This lighthouse was completed in 1812 but was reconstructed 1857 and 1859 because its height was inadequate. The new tower, and other lighthouse property was transferred from the United States Coast Guard to the National Park Service in a public ceremony in 2003. Due to safety concerns, the lighthouse itself is currently closed for renovation with plans to reopen in 2023.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse—Corolla, North Carolina
The northern most lighthouse in North Carolina is the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Completed in 1875, the lighthouse is located in Corolla and was the final lighthouse built on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. After the automation of the light, the keepers’ quarters was left vacant and the lighthouse fell into disrepair. In 1980, the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) formed with the intent to preserve the lighthouse and, in 1990, OBC and the Coast Guard negotiated an agreement under which OBC would fund the renovation of the lighthouse in exchange for the ability to be open to the public for a fee. OBC was able to make the lighthouse self-supporting and was also able to complete major renovations without government funding. In 2003, the United States Department of the Interior deeded the lighthouse OBC through the NHLHPA despite legal battles with Currituck County over ownership. Currituck County allegedly wanted ownership of the lighthouse in order to turn the site into a theme park. A county attorney noted that Currituck County spent nearly $100,000 in litigation over the lighthouse between 2001 and 2006. Despite the tug-of-war match with the county, OBC currently manages the lighthouse and its preservation.
Oak Island Lighthouse—Oak Island, North Carolina
The youngest lighthouse along the coast is the Oak Island Lighthouse, which was completed in 1958. The lighthouse was built to assist the nearby Bald Head Island lighthouse in aiding navigation of the Cape Fear River. In 1888, Congress authorized the transfer of a small parcel of land near the entrance to Fort Caswell from the United States Army to what is now known as the United States Coast Guard. The purpose of this land was to serve as the first Oak Island Life Saving Station. The Oak Island Lighthouse was owned and operated by the Coast Guard until 2003 when it was decommissioned and transferred to the town of Caswell Beach. The lighthouse, under the ownership of Caswell Beach, remains open to the public today.
While North Carolina’s lighthouses were originally used to guide seafarers into harbors and to warn them of perilous coastlines, they have since become valuable representations of our state’s history and even benefit the economy by increasing tourism in our small coastal towns. Despite change in ownership, legal battles, hurricanes, and shifting sands, these seven lighthouses have weathered many storms and remain on our coast today as symbols of our history, hope, and home.