The small island community of Ocracoke is also the site of the oldest
lighthouse still operating in North Carolina. Built in 1823, its considered
an inlet light rather than a coastal light but that made it no less important as
it guided an average of one hundred oceangoing vessels a month into the Ocracoke
Inlet during the mid 1800s. An earlier lighthouse built of wood in the late
1700s was built on nearby Shell Castle Island but was destroyed by a
lightning fire in the early 1800s, just fifteen years after it was completed.
It never worked out very well anyway as sand bars changed and the channel kept
shifting to where the light was one mile from the inlet. A light vessel was used
in the Ocracoke Inlet to replace the lighthouse but it didnt work out very
well either so Congress approved that a new lighthouse be built on Ocracoke at a
cost of just over $11,000 which included the cost of the keepers house.
The Ocracoke lighthouse stands today as it has for over a century and a half although
some changes have been made over the years. The wooden stairs were replaced with
ones made of steel after World War II and the two story keepers house that
stands now was originally a one story dwelling. The Coast Guard used it when the
lighthouse was manned and after automation in 1946, they continued to use it for
Coast Guard personal. Now the National Park Service owns it all and the Coast
Guard is only responsible to keep the light burning. The lighthouse is not very
tall, standing only seventy-six high but considering it is a harbor light it
didnt need to be as tall as lights guiding ships up and down the coast. Its
the shortest navigational light on the Atlantic Coast. Even at that, the
sixty-five foot lighthouse with its 8,000 candlepower fixed white light is
visible up to fourteen miles out to sea.
During the Civil War, the lens was removed by the Confederates as were so many but it
was replaced after the war was over and has been lit ever since. The oil house where whale
oil was once stored still remains next to the light. Kerosene was used later and now of
course electricity powers the fully automated light. The lighthouse is made of brick but
is covered with masonry as opposed to the many that maintain their brick exterior weather
painted or not. Ocracoke has always been painted white but the formula set forth by the
U.S. Lighthouse Board was quite unusual. It consisted of ingredients including a half
bushel of lime, a peck of salt, three pounds of ground rice, a half pound of whiting, and
a pound of clear glue. That would all be mixed in boiling water then applied as hot as
possible to the outside of the lighthouse.
A story about Ocracoke wouldnt be complete without mentioning Edward Teach
better known as the pirate Blackbeard. He once used Ocracoke as one of his
anchorages and hideouts. He was especially known around the Caribbean but
came to know Ocracoke as one of his homes in 1718. He owned, or better described
stole, four ships and had four hundred pirates under his control. His lifelong
illegal activities finally caught up with him at Ocracoke during a vicious and
bloody battle. Accounts vary but some say that he lost his life only after he
receiving five pistol wounds, twenty stab wounds and a deep gash to his neck
caused by a cutlass. Legends tend to grow over the years.
Permanent residents on Ocracoke only number seven hundred but many thousands
more visit every year. When I talked to the visitors center they told me that
90,000 people come through their facility every year and that 30,000 of them
visit the lighthouse. Although the lighthouse isnt open to the public,
visitors are welcome to walk around the grounds.
The only way to get here is by ferry. From May through October a free ferry runs about
every half hour between Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke. From November through April it runs
every hour, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Another ferry runs between Cedar Island, northeast of
Morehead City and the Beaufort area five times a day for a cost of $10. A ferry also runs
from the town of Swan Quarter to Ocracoke a three times a day and also has a fee of $10.