Cape Hatteras lighthouse
The most famous of all the lighthouses in the South, Cape Hatteras towers 198 feet
above the sea, the tallest lighthouse in the United States. Approaching it is a
magnificent sight either from sea or from land. Even as a small boy the name Cape Hatteras
has conjured up thoughts of shipwrecks and the sea. These boyhood images have been a
reality to the 2,300 ships that have been lost along this "Graveyard of the
Atlantic" since the 1500s.
In 1803, the first Cape Hatteras lighthouse was built but that light had a less than
good reputation and many mariners complained that they never even saw it when passing the
area. Construction began on the present lighthouse in 1868 and took three years of hard
labor to complete. Its difficult to imagine how this huge structure was built on
such an isolated spot over a century ago. There were no roads into Cape Hatteras so nothing
could be trucked in. In fact, there were no trucks or cars at that time. Steam power or
brute manual labor was how things got done. Everything had to be constructed especially
for the job including places for the workmen to stay.
Small steamers or sailing vessels were used to bring all the materials into the sound
on the back side of the cape. Difficulties started before the materials even got to the
Cape Hatteras lighthouse and several ships were wrecked in gales within view of the construction site
resulting in a loss of over 150,000 bricks. The bricks that made up the tower, all 1,
250,000 of them, had to be transferred from the ships to specially built shallow draft
boats. Even these shallow-draft boats could not get in close enough to offload the
material so a long pier had to be built. One of the boats capsized and lost a load of cut
granite that was to be used on the base of the lighthouse and the struggles continued. The
wharf and loading dock was over a mile from where the lighthouse was being built and that
distance consisted of soft sand and a marshland consisting of thick soft muck, so a tram
railway was built to take the materials the last leg of their journey.
During the Civil War the lighting equipment was removed by the Confederates as was the
case with many lighthouses during that time but it was back in service shortly after the
Cape Hatteras has been in danger because of sea erosion for many years.
Originally it was 1500 feet from the sea and when work began to move the lighthouse in
1999, it was less than a 100 feet from the waters edge. Large nylon sand filled bags and a
concrete and steal pile groin extending out into the water had been placed there to help
keep the light safe but there is no stopping erosion to barrier islands like these. The
islands actually move from front to back. Its called "island migration" or
"island rollover." As land is lost on one side of the island it is usually
gained on the back side. The task of moving the Cape Hatteras lighthouse seemed the only
solution and after lots of debate and controversy it was moved to its present location
about 3,000 feet from where it once stood along with the keepers house and oil house. Even
the bricks in the walkways were numbered and placed back in their original configuration.
What seems to me to be a monumental job was according to the people that moved it from
the International Chimney Corporation, "a very simple process." Lifting a 4,800
ton lighthouse still seems to me a miraculous undertaking especially when I have trouble
moving a half filled wheel barrow from one side of my yard to the other.
This is one of the easier lighthouses to get to and clearly visible from the highway as you approach.
There are many motels nearby for an easy stay. The public visitation season for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is from approximately the Friday before Easter Sunday to Columbus Day each year. Lighthouse tours will begin at 9 a.m. daily and will run every 10 minutes with a limit of 30 visitors per tour. The last tour will be at 4:40 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day the last tour will be at 5:40 p.m. Tour fees are $6.00 for adults and $3.00 for senior citizens (62 or older), children (12 and under), and those holding Golden Access passes.
The ticket booth at the lighthouse opens at 8:15 a.m. daily. Tickets are available on a first come, first served basis and are only available at the ticket booth on site. Tickets are only available for the day of purchase. Advance ticket sales are not available to the public or commercial tours. Tours will likely sell out by noon each day, so visitors should plan to arrive early to purchase their tickets. The lighthouse may close at any time if weather conditions are unsafe for public visitation.