Shoals extending out ten miles into the Atlantic make this area around Cape Lookout
extremely hazardous to shipping especially in the early days of sail and steam. It was
nicknamed the "Horrible Headland" by many mariners and a necessary place for a
lighthouse. The first lighthouse at this site was built in 1912 and was quite different
than other lighthouses of the day. It had an inner tower built of brick with an outer
shell constructed of wood. It rose to a height of 104 feet but its light was not very
effective and seamen often complained about it. It was replaced in 1859 with the current
lighthouse rising 150 feet high and crowned with a first-order Fresnel lens. During the
Civil War the Confederates badly damaged the lens and a third-order lens was put in its
place. After the war the first-order lens was repaired and is back and operating to this
day. The wooden staircase up the lighthouse was used only four years when it was replaced
with a metal one to lessen the fire hazard.
Erosion is always a threat to lighthouses and the Cape Lookout lighthouse hasnt
escaped mother natures plans. Its been a little different here however, as it is not
the Atlantic side of the island that is disappearing. In fact the ocean side has actually
built up over past years. Its the inlet side, nearer to the lighthouse that is
loosing ground. The channel and tidal currents have cut almost a thousand feet of beach
from in front of the lighthouse in recent years. The keepers house now stands only
about twenty feet from the high tide mark. In order to help save what is left of the beach, an
old channel was dredged and reopened diverting much of the water flow to other areas and
somewhat reduced the risk of further erosion to the beach.
The lighthouse doesnt have many trees or vegetation around it like so many other
lighthouses I have visited so the full impact of its size and strength can be realized
when looking at it from most any angle. Being an old sign painter, I wondered how they
drew those large black and white diamond patterns on the lighthouse but it occurred to me
that they are just two opposing spirals that intersect each other. I havent found
out how they first actually layout the spiral pattern to paint but it appears that the
painter would perhaps measure down eight bricks and over four and strike a point. That
would give him an angle to draw a straight line. He would then repeat the same procedure
all the way down. The spirals appear to be at forty-five degree angles, so if a brick is
twice as long as it is high then that formula would be about right. The diamond pattern
was painted on the tower in 1873 to increase its effectiveness as a daymark and the nearby
town of Diamond City got its name because of the lighthouse pattern.
You wont be driving your car to Cape Lookout but
several ferry services that run
from Harkers Island will take you there for a fee of ten dollars.
there are four ferries on the island that can
take you out to the lighthouse and are spread out from one end of Harkers Island
to the other. The first ferries will take 12-15 minutes and the ferry on the end
takes 10-12 minutes and they take different routes. Actually you get more for
your money with the ferry called the "Local Yoke" because you ride
down Shackleford Banks through the marshes. All adult fares are $10.
Children six and under are $6.00 except the Local Yokel which is $6.00 for
12 and under. It's the only ferry owned and
operated by true locals with down East hospitality.
ferrys, actually just small power boats, are privately owned and run quite regularly
or on demand. It takes about fifteen minutes to get to the island. There is a dock on the
island but the boats usually pulls up on the beach for passengers to jump out onto the
sand. A ferry also runs from Beaufort. There are a few small motels on Harkers
Island but dont look for anything very fancy.
If youre lucky you might see some wild horses on your way out to the lighthouse
on nearby Shakleford Banks. Once you get there, the lighthouse is impressive and if you like to take
time to examine the little things in nature or to observe the many species of birds
its a good place to visit but its also a somewhat barren place. Flocks of birds stop
here during the spring and fall migrations and in the summer, terns, egrets, herons, and
shore birds make this their nesting area.
You cant get to the top of the lighthouse as its not open to the public but
you can walk around it. The keepers house is open from April until Thanksgiving. During
that time a couple lives in the keepers house and runs the book shop and tends to the
displays and the many visitors that come to the island. There are few trees and little
shelter on the island. That can make it uncomfortable and very hot in the summer months.
If you visit, be sure to bring something to keep from getting sun burned. Insect repellent
is also a good idea. There are also 4 wheel
drive tours on Cape Lookout that last about 1/12 to 2 hours. Adults $10
-Children 12 and under are $6
For more information contact the Visitor
Center on Harkers Island. (252) 728-2250.