Lighthouses of the Outer Banks
By Christina Calvino
Dare County is home to two historic lighthouses, Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras. Lighthouses play an important role in Outer Banks’ history because of our extended continental shelf. More than 2,000 ships have sunk off the coastlines of Virginia and North Carolina, earning the title of “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
To reach the Bodie (pronounced “body”) Island Lighthouse, travel about 8 miles south of the US-158 and US-64 intersection. The current 156 foot lighthouse is the third Lighthouse built under the Bodie Island name. The first two were destroyed by poor construction and damages during the Civil War. Decorated by horizontal black and white stripes, the tower has 214 circling stairs to the top. The public is no longer permitted to climb this lighthouse, but it is still worth the visit. The Keeper’s Quarters has been transformed into a ranger’s office and visitor center. Artifacts, maps, pictures, lighthouse and keeper’s history fill the building with interesting displays and learning materials. The grounds allow for a picture-perfect shot of the lighthouse, from any angle or direction.
I personally love the stripe pattern of the Bodie Island Lighthouse and have taken beautiful photographs there, in addition to learning a great deal about the history through the visitor’s center. Surrounded by natural ocean habitat, grasses, and plants, it is a peaceful afternoon escape from busy beaches and strip malls.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most recognizable landmarks of North Carolina. Standing at 208 feet from the bottom of the foundation to the peak of the roof, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation. Its diagonal white and black stripes mimic the familiar barber shop pole pattern. Like Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras’ predecessor was damaged during the Civil War and later destroyed due to safety concerns. The current lighthouse is the second, completed in 1870, and has faced many obstacles since. In 1879, the tower was struck by lightning, requiring a metal rod to be added for support due to cracks in the structure. From 1935-1950, threatening beach erosion and the approaching sea resulted in the tower light being temporarily replaced by a skeleton tower, located further inland. In 1950, the lighthouse was again found safe for use, it was equipped with new lighting equipment and the Keeper’s Quarters were renovated into the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum. Again, in 1999, beach erosion threatened the lighthouse’s safety. The lighthouse was moved 2,870 feet inland between 1999 and 2000.
I was able to visit and watch the process of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being relocated with my family. Moving inch by inch, on steel railroad beams, the lighthouse moved so slowly you could not visibly notice progress. Workers were bent over the beams, rubbing soap bars back and forth, bragging that this discovery helped keep them ahead of schedule by reducing friction. Another worker came to the viewing line and showed us a pancake-sized piece of flat metal, explaining it used to be a quarter, but the lighthouse had crushed it on the track. He broke the metal into smaller fragments, and passed them around to onlookers as a souvenir. We were one of the lucky recipients and my mom still keeps the flattened quarter piece, pulling it out for visiting family and friends to see.
After watching the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse moving process, we walked to its previous location, then an empty base with a big hole in the center leading down into the ground, going so far below sea level angry seawater swirled below. I remember thinking how unstable it must have been, balancing on such a questionable foundation, really just wet sand and saltwater a few inches away from ruining it. The lighthouse reached a newly constructed base in 2000 and suffered none of the anticipated damage. It is still reached by traveling south on Route 12 and is once again safe and fully open for the public to climb its 268 spiral steps to the top, enjoying a breathtaking 360° view.
If planning a lighthouse climb during your visit to the Outer Banks, please keep in mind some considerations. Most lighthouses require children to be at least 42” tall and accompanied by an adult to make the journey. There are a lot of narrow stairs with two-way traffic and lengthy climb distances between landings. Lighthouses are not air-conditioned and only feature small windows every few levels, so there is minimal air movement inside. Lots of people, climbing, and summer weather adds to really hot temperatures inside. Please climb carefully and use your personal discretion if you are elderly or have medical problems.