Many ships were lost off the coast in this area, more in fact than in any other area
along the Outer Banks. Ships heading south tried to hug the coast the best they could to
take advantage of the inshore current and to avoid from getting into the Gulf Stream so
the lighthouse at Bodie Island (pronounced "Body") was necessary. It allowed
mariners to stay on course and away from the dangerous shoals.
Two other lighthouses were built near here before this one. The first one, built on a
poor foundation of mud and only a few layers of brick to support the tower, was lit in
1847 but the desire to save money resulted in the lighthouse leaning one foot out of plumb
just two years later. A second lighthouse was constructed in 1859 but it didnt last
long either. Two years after it was built the Confederates blew it up.
The third and present lighthouse at Bodie Island was finished in 1872 just a year after the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was lit. Left over supplies and materials from Hatteras helped out in
the building of the Bodie Island light. They included left over bricks, the shallow draft
boats used to haul materials near shore, the tram railway used to transport materials from
the pier to the lighthouse, and even the storage houses were moved and used in the new
This is a sturdy lighthouse with a solid foundation. It has to be when you consider the
immense weight of a this 150 foot high lighthouse with its solid brick walls five feet
thick and the huge granite blocks making up the base. Building a foundation for such a
heavy structure posed a challenge. The sandy island would appear to make a poor foundation
to build on and generally speaking it is, but the sand at a depth of a few feet is damp
and very dense. Also knowing that certain types of wood will not rot if submerged in
water, a hole was dug seven feet below the water level where several courses of
six-by-twelve yellow pine timbers were placed crossways to each other making a flat base.
Then large blocks of granite blocks were cemented together on top of the wood to produce
the base for the tower. The hole had to be pumped out to keep from filling with water when
the work was being done but after all was completed the pumps were turned off and water
allowed to seep back in covering the pine timbers. Upon completion the lighthouse was
fitted with a first-order lens that crowned the 156 foot tower.
Only a month after it was in operation a flock of geese flew into the lantern and
damaged the lens. Geese can have wing spans of forty-eight inches and weigh up to
twenty-four pounds so its no wonder they can do a lot of damage. It was a problem
many lighthouses encountered so screens were often constructed to protect the glass. It
didnt help the birds any, but it did keep the lantern room safe. Lighthouse keepers
or their children would often end up having to shovel up buckets of the birds in the
morning, some of which would end up on the dinner table that night.
The Bodie Island lighthouse location was important to shipping as it was the only light at that
time between Cape Henry and Cape Hatteras. The lighthouse is set back from the Atlantic
Ocean behind the beach and dunes. A lawn around the lighthouse makes a handsome contrast
to the marshlands and gives it a striking appearance from any angle. The large white
keepers house was divided in the middle to accommodate separate living spaces for the
keeper, his family and for the assistant keeper and his family. Now one side is used for a
book store and the other for lighthouse exhibits. Theyre open to the public but the
lighthouse itself is not.
Just to the north is the Wright Brothers Memorial at Nags Head where the historical
flight of Orville and Wilber took place on December 17th in 1903.