Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Buxton, North Carolina

  • Site Established: 1803
  • Current Bldg. Erected: 1870
  • Height of Light Structure: 198 ft.
  • Focal Plane of Light: 192 ft.
  • Active: Yes
  • Tower Lens: DCB-224
  • Beacon Visibility: 24 N Miles
  • Information: (252) 473-2111

Historic Significance Score: 5

Arguably the most recognized and marketed lighthouse and in America, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is inarguable the tallest. At 208 feet from foundation to top, Cape Hatteras is the tallest lighthouse in the western hemisphere and finishes second only to the light tower known as the Lanterna in Genoa, Italy (measured at 245 feet) as the tallest in the world.

Establishing a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was considered a severe necessity based on its the geographic location on the Cape. This location was seen as an extremely import waterway for shipping fleets on North Atlantic trips and, due to the extremely flat, redundant geographic characteristics of the Outer Banks, it was very difficult for ships to gauge their positions without any distinguishing landmarks.

In addition, the location of Cape Hatteras marks the location where the Gulf Stream currents change their direction which cause a shifting of bottom sand and the appearance of dangerous shoals known as the Diamond Shoals. Also, these currents tend to gravitate ships toward land and shallow water. So many ships have been lost here over the centuries the location around Cape Hatteras is known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” There have been estimates of the number of lost ships through the centuries off of the Outer Banks ranging from 600 to over 2,000.

Realizing the danger of this waterway, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1794, and in 1803 a 90 ft. sandstone tower was completed.

However, this first light tower met difficulties with the consistency of keeping its light lit and casting a sufficient beam so in 1852 the U.S. Lighthouse Board raised the height of the tower to 150 ft. and fitted the lighthouse with a first-order Fresnel lens.

In 1861, after a few attempts to destroy the lighthouse failed, Confederate soldiers heisted the Fresnel lens in the lighthouse to ensure that the Union army would not use this as a navigation aid during the American Civil War.

After the Confederate soldiers’ efforts to destroy the tower left the tower damaged but still standing, and a numerous amounts of complaints arose over the limited visibility of the first Cape Hatteras light tower, The Lighthouse Board recommended the building of a new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and it was construct in 1870. This red-topped and white-bottomed tower was built under the watchful supervision of Dexter Stetson and still stands presently.

What made this lighthouse an engineering marvel was that it was built on a “make-shift” foundation. This foundation was comprised of yellow pine timbers criss-crossing as a base, then granite stones and cement filled in around the wood. This type of foundation was necessary because of the high water level of the selected location and unsophisticated tools of the time did not make the ability to burrow a sufficient foundation into the ground. This foundation has been referred as a “floating foundation” and assured the foundation would not sink into the beach front. Surprising enough, when the tower was recently moved this foundation was found perfectly in tact.

In 1873, the tower received its defining black and white candy cane, diagonal stripes and forever became identifiable to all based on these day marks. Day marks are the painted markings on a lighthouse that make it identifiable and distinguishable to all distant ships out on the water in the daytime. There are two black and two white stripes that spiral up the majestic tower and were originally needed to carry its visibility farther during the day and make it stand out better on the low level coast.

In the summer of 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse re-entered the national limelight as erosion threaten its actual existence and the light had to be relocated. From June 17, to July 9, 1999, the majestic 200 ft., 4,800 ton tower was raised on over one-hundred hydraulics and “rolled” 2,900 ft. inshore to a new, safer location. The project, lead by the International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, N.Y., came in at $12 million and was awarded the 2000 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

To a lesser degree of notoriety, the two large light keeper’s and assistant light keeper’s houses were also moved to remain close to the light and protected.

On October 18, 2003, a two-hundred year celebration was held for Buxton, North Carolina’s most famous structure.

Today the mighty Cape Hatteras Light is one of only nine existing lighthouses that have been deemed a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.

Majesty Score: 5

At 208 ft. tall from underground foundation to top, Cape Hatteras is the tallest lighthouse in America and defines the word majestic. As with its southern counter part at Bodie Island Light, Cape Hatteras is one of the very few lighthouses in the U.S. that you can spot from miles and miles away as you approach it. The stark contrast of the bold black and white strips also really contribute in giving this light an awe inspiring presence.

It also seemingly sits on what aesthetically appears to be a very regal, ornate maroon base which the design of it looks like it came out of the royalty of the European middle ages, also really contributing to its majesty.

Probably the best example in relaying this light’s majesty to you is to convey that upon developing our pictures, 90 percent of them were closely matching vertical shots of this tower. The reason why this came to be was that when considering the clearance for the light station complex and its height of the light tower, it is very difficult to get a horizontal shot of the tower because once you turn your camera parallel to the ground, you can’t fit the whole tower in your Cape Hatteras Lighthouse picture. It is massive!

269 steps to the top and an estimated 1,250,000 bricks used in the tower’s construction also enforce the majesty of this great structure.

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