Bodie Island Lighthouse was my first. It was a birthday present. No not the lighthouse, though wouldn’t that be cool? The trip to see it, I mean. My partner gave me a weekend at Nag’s Head for my 45th birthday. I had lived in North Carolina for 10 years and never been to the Outer Banks. Of course, it would have been so much cooler if she could have come with me but someone had to stay home to take care of the kids. (We made a family trip a few weeks later.)
This one also has the distinction of having a creepy name, because it is pronounced “body.” After literally minutes of research on the internet, I was unable to determine whether the name of the island (and light) was derived from the family who owned the land or simply from the number of shipwreck victims who washed up on its shores as local legend attests. Since I’ve never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, I’m going with the latter.
A few fun facts: It was completed in 1872, is 156 feet tall and its Fresnell lens (more on that here) has a beam range of 19 feet. Since it’s built on the sound side of the island, it’s surrounded by pine trees and marsh, an unusual setting for a lighthouse. Bodie Island was completely undeveloped when the lighthouse was new and accessible only by boat. Even the keeper’s family probably lived on nearby Roanoke Island (where the nearest school was) except during the summer. It must have been wonderfully creepy. It’s kind of creepy now, actually.
The keepers’ quarters serve as a ranger’s office and visitor center for the Hatteras National Seashore. Most importantly, there’s a gift store where you can buy a hat. (I try to buy a hat at every new coastal place I go. It’s kind of a rule.) I believe it’s currently undergoing a major restoration and is temporarily encased in scaffolding.
A few weeks after my weekend trip, my family spent a week at a rented beach house in Avon, one of those tiny villages on Hatteras, and that’s when I got to see my second lighthouse, the granddaddy of all the Outer Banks lights.
At 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Light is the tallest brick lighthouse in the US and painted like a black and white barber pole. In 1873, the Light House Board decided that each of the lights on the Outer Banks should have their own distinctive daymark or color pattern so mariners could determine their location by day the way flash patterns allowed them to by night. That’s when the Cape Hatteras light got its stripes.
It was built in 1870 to protect one of the most dangerous sections of Atlantic coastline. Just offshore at Cape Hatteras, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador Current collide spawning storms, creating the ever-shifting Diamond Shoals and earning the area the nickname, the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Another fun fact about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Though it was originally a half mile from the ocean, a century of erosion threatened to topple it into the sea, so they moved it. That’s right. In 1999, while most Americans were busy making dire predictions about Y2K, a company called International Chimney Corp assisted by Expert House Movers of Maryland picked up the monster brick tower (and the keepers’ quarters) and moved them 2,900 feet – more than half a mile.
The lighthouse was open to the public again before the year was out. And, if you have a hardy masochistic streak, they’ll let you climb the 268 steps to the top.
Ocracoke Lighthouse was built in 1823 and stands 75 feet tall, making it the oldest and shortest of the Outer Banks lights. Its daymark is solid white. The original whitewash recipe was a combination of lime, salt, Spanish whiting, rice, glue and boiling water. Because there was a village at the busy Ocracoke inlet, keepers and their families had a social life and their children were schooled in the village.
The photo is a drive-by, or very nearly. It had been a long day, most of which we had spent in line at the ferry landing on Hatteras. Once we finally made it onto Ocracoke, we drove the length of the island, stopped in the quaint little village for an overpriced lunch, and drove by the very full parking lot of the lighthouse without stopping. I later stopped almost in the middle of a narrow road, blocking traffic and got out to snap this picture just before we drove back to the ferry.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse was completed in 1859 and is 163 feet tall. Like the other Outer Banks lighthouses, it was originally a red brick tower, and was painted with its current daymark pattern in 1873. Now I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that the diamond pattern assigned to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was meant for Cape Hatteras (to signify Diamond Shoals) but the silly nits mixed them up when they painted them. But again, I got tired of trying to verify the facts online (because lately I have the attention span of a gnat), so I’m just going to take it on faith because it’s a good story.
I’d like to say that I took this photo for effect – to show how the Cape Lookout light might have looked to sailors at sea, but that would be a fib. If you saw my last post, you know that this was taken from the shore of the nearby island, Shackleford Banks, which is as close as I’ve managed to get so far.
You can climb this one too – just 207 steps or the equivalent of a 12-story building. Good luck with that. I’ll be admiring it from the bottom (one day).
That just leaves Currituck for me to see. The northernmost light, the one that got to keep its red bricks bare.
Anybody out there have a favorite lighthouse? Favorite short story featuring a lighthouse? (I’m thinking Bradbury.) Cool lighthouse legend? Lighthouse featured in a movie? Lighthouse anecdotes or trivia? Have you climbed one recently (or ever)? Don’t be shy.