August 3, 2010

New York’s 1853 ‘Great Exhibition’ reveals a new discovery in the
storied history of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse’s historic Fresnel lens


“There it is. Look there—the Cape Hatteras Light!”

Surely, these words, or similar expressions of relief, gratitude and amazement, were spoken for the better part of nine decades, as legions of mariners navigated around the deadly dangers of Diamond Shoals.

For more than 25,000 nights, this light flashed from a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, delivering its signal of assurance, caring, and guidance through the green-tinted crown-glass of its French Fresnel lens. Throughout countless storms, impenetrable fogs, and even an earthquake, the counterweights fell, the gears and rollers turned, and the 12-foot-tall apparatus of 1,008 prisms and bullseye lenses gracefully rotated around its 4-wick hydraulic lamp. And night after night, the light flashed faithfully, once every 10 seconds.

Today we know that one of the most historic and perhaps the most abused Fresnel lens in America graced the lantern rooms of two lighthouses at Cape Hatteras—the octagonal stone and brick tower of 1854, and later, the “modern” barber-pole, black-and-white striped 1870 tower.

The long-lost history of this intrepid lens manufactured by the Henry-Lepaute Company of Paris has been found. Remnants of the vandalized lens have been rescued. And, along with its substantial cast-iron pedestal and clockwork mechanism, what has survived of the Victorian-era lighthouse artifact is now exhibited at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village for the world to see.

How many eyes have gazed upon this wonder of the industrial age, the great lens and its radiating light of Cape Hatteras? No doubt, untold thousands of seafaring souls saw it, its Parisian lens makers saw it, and a select group of lighthouse service engineers, builders and keepers saw it. But now, as the fog of time continues to clear, another new remarkable chapter has been revealed in the astonishing odyssey of the Henry-Lepaute lens. At the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations at New York’s Crystal Palace, as many as one million people were dazzled by the same Cape Hatteras Fresnel lens.

The world was rapidly changing. It was an exhilarating, dynamic time, as the first industrial revolution was soon to give birth to its successor—the pivotal age for the practical applications of steamships, railroads, telegraphy, mechanization, and worldwide sharing of technological knowledge.

Nations were anxious to promote their achievements in science, industry, and manufacturing, and the idea for a world’s fair was born, built upon a model of industrial expositions established in France in the 1840s. The first international world’s fair was held in London in 1851 in a cavernous iron and glass building called the Crystal Palace, itself a stunning demonstration of new advances in British glass-making.

The “Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations” at Hyde Park was a milestone event, vigorously championed by Prince Albert and opened by Queen Victoria. It featured the exhibits of 39 British colonies and 50 nations. Among the nearly 500 exhibits touting American life-changing products were Cyrus McCormick’s harvester and vulcanized rubber patented by Charles Goodyear.

Impressed by the enormous attendance figures and economic windfall of Britain’s “Great Exhibition,” visionaries in the U.S. were eager to replicate a similar event in New York City. The Americans even adopted plans for their own Crystal Palace, although at roughly 183,000 square feet, its size was relatively tiny compared to its Hyde Park inspiration, which housed an expansive 990,000 square feet of exhibit space.

The 1853 “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” at New York’s Crystal Palace was located at what was then the outskirts of the city, between 40th and 42nd streets, in an open area known today as Bryant Park. Designs for the building suffered from numerous budgetary compromises, but the end result still stood as a monumental source of civic and national pride.

Designed as a symmetrical Greek cross crowned by a large dome at its center, the prefabricated iron and glass Crystal Palace became the talk of the town and inspired Walt Whitman to wax patriotically of its imposing facade: “Gladdening the sun and sky—endued in the cheerfullest hues, bronze, lilac, robin's-egg, marine and crimson, over whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath thy banner, Freedom.”

American pride swelled in the hearts of those citizens who attended the Great Exhibition—pride in the nation’s rapid westward expansion, exploration of the distant seas, growth of its scientific knowledge and its contributions to the quality life. At the same time an ominous concern burdened many of those same hearts as the debate over slavery became increasingly divisive, worrying many that the nation might soon be torn asunder. A hopeful New York Times editorial extolled the Crystal Palace’s symbolic power to hold the United States together:

“Let the great West and the great South roll their voices along the Palace aisles, and tell the world what stuff they are made of and what strides they have taken in the arts of the business of life. The impulse which this exhibition will give to the mechanical and artistic glories of this country is insignificant when compared with the moral power which it may exert over the fortunes of our happy Union.”

Of the 4,000 exhibits showcasing the artistic glories of mankind, one towered above all of the rest, as it symbolically greeted and guided new arrivals through the doors of the south nave off 40th Street, just as it would later perform its intended function for seafarers attempting to avoid “the doorstep of death”—Diamond Shoals. It was the first-order Fresnel lens scheduled to be transferred to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the succeeding year upon completion of renovations, including a 40-foot brick addition to the top of the 1803 stone tower.

Among the few and scattered sources confirming this forgotten chapter of the Hatteras lens’ history, is the New York Journal, published by Frank Leslie in January 1855:

“One of the most imposing and remarkable objects that arrested the attention of the visitor on entering the southern nave of the late exhibition at the Crystal Palace, in the evening, was a large and costly light-house lantern, known as the Fresnel Light. Its exterior, composed of clear and polished crystal, supported on a small base, and rising to a height of about twenty feet, presents the singular appearance of a tall monument, revolving continually upon its base, and flashing out at intervals rays of the brightest and purest light. It is denominated a revolving Fresnel light, of the first order, and was manufactured by Lepaute, of Paris, for the United States government. It is designed to be placed on a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, which is now erecting.”

The lens of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, not long from having been shipped to America from Paris, was the crown jewel of the Crystal Palace exhibits featuring the newly formed United States Lighthouse Establishment.

And the “imposing” Hatteras lens possessed another distinction heretofore uncertain. The lens, of the largest size made at the time known as a “first-order,” was one of the first two first-order lenses, commissioned by the U.S. Lighthouse Board (the governing body of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment) to be installed in important seacoast lights along the American coasts.

The Hatteras lens was also the sixth lens of any size purchased for a U.S. lighthouse.(Other lenses included second-, third-, and fourth-order sizes, and one experimental first-order lens installed at Navesink, N.J., in 1840.)  Over the next 50 years, the government would purchase and install 766 Fresnel lenses in American lighthouses. Fifty-seven of them were lenses of the first-order.

It is no longer mere speculation. The Cape Hatteras lens at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is among the oldest in the nation.

Consequently, on the eve of the first “world’s fair” at New York, there were few engineers or machinists who had any experience at all erecting, calibrating, and operating this latest lighthouse technology from France. So, to supervise the installation of the Hatteras lens exhibit at New York’s Crystal Palace, the Lighthouse Board enlisted the expertise of a 38-year-old captain of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, G. G. Meade.

Capt. Meade had been summoned from the Florida Keys, where he had been supervising the construction of the Sand Key Lighthouse. Sand Key had been the recipient of the first of the first-order Fresnel lens commissioned by the U.S. Lighthouse Board, which was scheduled to be lighted for the first time in July, 1853. Meade’s newly acquired experience with Sand Key’s Henry-Lepaute lens made him just the man for the job awaiting him in the south nave of the Crystal Palace. In an interview with a correspondent with Philadelphia’s American and Gazette, Meade described the Cape Hatteras lens:

“Fancy a twenty-four sided structure of glass... the whole being about ten feet high and six feet in diameter... being composed of... prisms so scientifically calculated, so artistically constructed, and so nicely put together, that each prism refracts the ray from one of its surfaces, reflects it from the second, and refracting it again from the third, shoots it forth in a sun like beam of light. Thus, from its twenty-four sides and 1,008 lenses and prisms, at the same instant and perpetually, this marvelous contrivance darts forth its dazzling flash, and revolving as it flashes, only intermits its light still more to startle the beholder.”

No doubt the glittering lens destined for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse dazzled its beholders at the Great Exhibition in New York when it opened on July 14, 1853. Among the many strolling the floor and galleries of the fair and whose perspectives were broadened by the wares of the world was the 11-year-old future novelist Henry James. The exhibition must have also made an indelible impression on 10-year-old New York native Edward Horsman, who later became a noted importer of dolls, toys, fancy goods and novelties. “Beautiful beyond description,” recalled another awed youngster and future writer, 17-year-old Sam Clemens of Hannibal, Mo., who wrote to his sister that the 6,000 daily visitors to the Crystal Palace was double their hometown population.

Attendance at the Crystal Palace eased the worries of its investors, and throngs of out of town visitors were accommodated in new hotels built just for the world’s fair. The event marked the beginning of New York’s long reign as the nation’s premier tourist destination.

In order to promote the continuation of the exhibition into 1854, a lithograph of the Crystal Palace interior was published, derived from a daguerreotype image taken on Dec. 1, 1853, by the New York printing firm of Louis Nagel and Adam Weingärtner. The stunning view—curiously evocative of a modern retail mall—looks across the 100-foot diameter rotunda and features in the center a “colossal” equestrian statue of George Washington by Baron Carlo Marochetti. However, the enormous plaster sculpture was not considered one of the finer features of the exhibition—one reviewer described it as “not a statue of Washington, but of a huge man on a huge horse.”

Other noted statuary of the time surrounding the “huge man” in the rotunda, included even less recognizable sculptures of Daniel Webster and Ethan Allen, and Bertel Thorwaldsens’ acclaimed, “Christ and His Apostles.” Four grand staircases led to the upper galleries filled with seemingly endless examples of the world’s fine arts, textiles, furniture, scientific instruments, and toys. Looking upward, visitors would gain the full effect of the large dome, its decorative design described in an event catalogue as particularly splendid: “The rays from a golden sun, at the centre descend between the latticed ribs, and arabesques of white and blue, relieved by silver stars, surround the openings.”

Regrettably, the subject of this article, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens, does not appear in the Nagel-Weingärtner lithograph.

Or does it?

To the untrained, unsuspecting eye, it might never be apparent, but if one looks closely enough and in the right place, the storied lens is there.

A clue to its location is the sign in the far left attached to one of the dome’s iron columns, identifying the entrance to the east nave. That tells us that the “huge man on a huge horse” is facing into the west nave, in the direction of Sixth Avenue. So the nave to the left of center is the south nave, where the Hatteras lens was situated.

And there it is, nearly hidden behind classical statues -- the future light of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse!

Upon making this discovery of the image of the Cape Hatteras lens in the Crystal Palace lithograph, this writer placed a phone call to Jim Woodward, nationally-recognized Fresnel lens expert who supervised the restoration and installation of the very same lens and pedestal at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in 2005 and 2006.

Woodward, who has seen just about everything in the world of lighthouses, was astonished.

“Wow, you’re right,” he said. “That’s it! It’s clearly a 24-panel lens. You can even see that bracing bar in the upper catadioptric panels that is unique to this lens. Unbelievable!”

So now, after all these years, there is a prologue to the already amazing story of the well-traveled Henry-Lepaute lens of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Who among those visitors to New York’s Crystal Palace could have imagined what fate held in store for the great Hatteras lens? Surely, no one—not even Henry James or the future Mark Twain—could have conceived a story with more plot-twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies, redemption and dishonor, with a surprise ending to boot.

The ironies of this saga cannot be ignored.

New York’s Crystal Palace and the exhibition there were looked upon to be the symbolic unifying achievement that might bind the fractured nation together. Within four years of the close of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, the Crystal Palace caught fire, and within 25 minutes, the entire structure burned to the ground. Three years later, the War Between the States began.

Seven years after the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens was viewed by more than one million people in New York, the apparatus was removed from the lighthouse by Confederate authorities and was hidden, first in a warehouse in Washington, N.C., and then most likely buried in an ice house on a plantation 200 miles inland near the North Carolina-Virginia border.

Throughout the war, Union leaders endeavored to recover the lens and to re-establish the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as a symbolic pronouncement proving that the Union, like the lighthouse, would prevail. The Hatteras lens was not found until September, 1865, five months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Ten years after the lanky topographical engineer, G.G. Meade, supervised the installation of the lens at the Crystal Palace, he became better known as General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and was responsible for stopping Lee’s advancing army at Gettysburg, widely accepted as the turning point of the war. As a result, Meade accomplished what the Crystal Palace could not -- he contributed to the preservation the Union.

Following the war, the Hatteras lens was returned to its maker, Henry-Lepaute Co. of Paris, for repairs. The lens was returned and installed in the existing Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1870.

Even though modern historians frequently, and erroneously, reported that the lens had been vandalized by Confederate troops during the Civil War, it was not until the 1940s, when the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had been temporarily abandoned by the federal government, that the lens was ravaged by souvenir hunters who stole more than two-thirds of the crown-glass prisms and the entire brass incandescent oil vapor lamp, effectively destroying the light.

Today, this historic but tragic national treasure can be viewed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at Hatteras – just as it was at the Great Exhibition in 1853.

In words written by the great newspaper editor Horace Greeley in reference to the Great Exhibition, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse first-order Fresnel lens is “a thing to be seen once in a lifetime.”

(Editor’s note: The amazing history and tumultuous odyssey of the Cape Hatteras Fresnel  lens, its near destruction, and its resurrection at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is the subject of a book written by Kevin Duffus and published by Looking Glass Productions, Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., titled, “The Lost Light—A Civil War Mystery.” Duffus is also the author of “Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks—An Illustrated Guide,” and “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate.” Documentary DVD films he has produced include “War Zone—WWII off North Carolina's Outer Banks,” “Move of the Century—Cape Hatteras Light,” and “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Duffus is a popular public speaker and travels throughout North Carolina promoting the fascinating history of the Outer Banks. For more information call 1-800-647-3536 or visit

Also, the author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the indispensable contribution made to this discovery by author and antiquarian book dealer, Larry Hoefling of McHuston Booksellers in Broken Arrow, Okla.)

 Kevin P. Duffus
©2010 All Rights Reserved.

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