August 15, 2013
Cape Lookout: Visiting another of the
state’s famous capes and lighthouses
By SAM BLAND
millions of years of erosion, winds, tides, currents, storms and
hurricanes, the North Carolina coast is now decorated with barrier
islands and three prominent capes. Each of these capes -- Hatteras,
Lookout, and Fear -- has its own distinctive natural and cultural
As a native of Carteret County, I am very familiar with
and have visited Cape Lookout many, many times. Yet as a result, I have
also taken Cape Lookout for granted. The words “Cape Lookout”
immediately bring to mind memories of fishing, swimming, surfing,
boating, history, sea turtles, shorebirds, isolation, serenity, and, of
course, the lighthouse. Thus, I decided to refresh myself in the wonder
of this amazing place.
I recently hopped on one of the local
ferry service skiffs out of Harkers Island for a kidney-pounding ride
across Back Sound and Barden’s Inlet on a brilliant but windy summer
afternoon. Off in the distance, the lighthouse beacon was winking every
15 seconds as the ferry captain expertly skimmed the craft over the
crystal clear, shallow, turquoise waters. As we rounded the tip of
Shackelford Banks and before entering the famous Lookout Bight, a
welcoming committee of Banker horses lounged lazily in the hot, baking
An early morning squall had left most boats anchored at the
docks, leaving the Bight harbor practically empty. The Lookout Bight
has long been a refuge for mariners seeking shelter in a storm. The
Native Americans, known as the Coree, were most likely the first to ply
these waters in their dugout canoes.
Over the years,
Florentine explorers, Spanish and French privateers, British warship,
whalers, lifesavers and the U.S. Coast Guard all have dropped anchor
here. It has even been suggested that Blackbeard the pirate sailed out
of the Bight to prey on merchant ships. This site was so valuable to a
group of French privateers that they built a fort, called Fort Hancock,
to keep the British ships at bay during the Revolutionary War.
a pirate in sight, the ferry captain dropped me off at a dock just a
short distance from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Today, as a national
seashore, Cape Lookout conjres up images that in no way reflects the
impressions it had on ancient sailors. Some of the earliest maps of the
area name this sandy hook-shaped spit as Promontorium Tremendum, which
translates into Horrible Headland. Reaching out, up to 16 miles off the
cape, shallow sandbars snared unwary ships like a moth in the web of a
Owners and captains of merchant ships soon demanded
that a lighthouse be built to guide the ships. A 94-foot tall brick and
wood, red-and-white tower was built in 1812 to provide a beacon of
salvation. Yet, the height of the structure proved to be limited in
providing an effective reach of the beacon out to sea. This limitation
was rectified in 1859 when a new 163-foot lighthouse was built,
providing a light visible up to 18 miles.
One hundred and fifty
four years later, the lighthouse still stands tall and after some
safety renovations, the National Park Service is allowing visitors to
climb the tower. The early light sources were lamps fueled with whale
oil or kerosene and were magnified by the powerful prisms of a first
order Fresnel lens.
As I began my climb up the stairs, I
tried to imagine carrying a 45-pound, 5-gallon can of fuel all the way
to the top. Climbing 216 steps, the lighthouse keepers must have
developed enlarged quad muscles that would make a professional cyclist
jealous. The red brick interior stair case was wider than I expected
and the short steps made for an easy climb.
Near the top, the
short final staircase is quite narrow before reaching the landing that
accesses the exterior catwalk. I needed to crouch and awkwardly step
through the short steel-fortified hatch doorway that has sealed out
many of a hurricane. Outside on the gallery, I righted myself as the
view and wind took my breath away. Involuntary reflexes allowed me to
continue breathing as the beauty of Cape Lookout stretched out below
me, overwhelming my senses. Every direction was pure delight, eye candy
as some would call it.
limited number of visitors are allowed on the gallery at a time,
resulting in time limits. Fortunately for me, it took a while for
another group to reach the top, thus, I was allowed an extended stay,
causing my mind to imagine the past and what might have been.
the gallery I could see a long rock jetty on the west side of the cape.
This jetty was built in 1914 to elongate and reinforce the sand spit in
anticipation of a railway from Beaufort to the Cape in hopes of
developing a significant coal port. A railway would have surely
resulted in development of this pristine shoreline. Indeed, the Cape
Lookout Development Co. was established to begin construction of a
residential community. However, the uncertainties of World War I caused
the project to stall.
Even the lighthouse itself almost came
tumbling down during the Civil War. When Union armies controlled the
Cape, Confederates tried to blow up the lighthouse to prevent its
beacon from benefitting Union. The explosion caused only minor damage.
1880, the Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station kept a presence on the Cape
and eventually closed over 100 years later as a U.S. Coast Guard
station in 1982. Numerous hurricane dispatches were reported from Cape
Lookout by the U.S. Weather Bureau Station for almost 30 years until it
closed down in 1904. During World War II, Battery Cape Lookout was
constructed and armed with large naval guns to protect the coast from
the German submarines that prowled just offshore.
stepped back through the hatch and into the watchroom. On this upper
landing, you can see into the lantern room and watch the two rotating
beacons that replaced the Fresnel lens in 1975. After I headed back
down a ways, I looked up at the twisting spiral staircase. With the
steps and central support post it looked like a giant auger spinning in
Once out of the lighthouse, I followed a long
boardwalk that protected the fragile dune fields and emptied visitors
out on the beach. Even though the wind had subsided quite a bit, the
gorgeous golden beach was practically empty except for a few tourists
-- called “dit dots” by the locals -- lying prone on beach towels
getting a sizzling sunburn on their alabaster bodies. At the end of the
boardwalk, I sat on a bench for a brief rest and watched the tumbling
surf crash on the beach.
Throughout the dunes, the sand
stabilizing plant, sea oats, were bursting open with fresh seed heads
that danced in the breeze. The roar of the surf and the swishing of the
sea oats were lulling me to sleep.
Off in a low dune valley, a
blanket of firewheel flowers created a colorful meadow that looked like
an inviting place to take a nap. But once out of the cool ocean breeze,
I knew that the searing sun would shrivel me up like the pink morning
glories that lined the trail.
I walked back towards the lighthouse, the black-and-white diamond
pattern looked different. When I first approached the lighthouse from
the east the diamonds were white, now, approaching from the south they
were black. This diamond, or checker pattern, was painted in 1873 to
uniquely identify the lighthouse location as Cape Lookout and the
black-and-white diamonds indicated direction.
I finished my
visit to Cape Lookout by walking along the shoreline of the Bight and
saw bits of the past in chips of broken china plates and hand blown
glass bottles. Out of nowhere, a group of black skimmers glided
gracefully above the surface of water and reminded me of the wildlife
surprises that the Cape has to offer. This is a place where you might
see a huge female leatherback sea turtle crawl ashore to lay her eggs
on a warm summer night or you might catch a glimpse of a harbor seal
resting and sunning itself on the beach on a cool late winter day.
often take long bicycle rides along our coastal barrier islands and
whenever I’m on Bogue Banks, I follow an urge to ride to Fort Macon and
look east out over Beaufort Inlet and find the lighthouse silhouette on
the horizon. I’ll stare intently until I see the flash of the beacon.
my early 20s, I worked as a park ranger at Fort Macon State Park and
loved it when the strong cool fronts pushed through in the early fall
erasing the sticky summer haze that often obscured viewing the
lighthouse. From the top of the fort, the lighthouse would pop out from
the horizon against a crisp brilliant blue sky background resembling an
Cape Lookout is beloved by many and in
eastern North Carolina it is easy to find miniature Lookout lighthouse
replicas adorning yards as lawn art. I have heard that some of the
lifelong locals that live under the sweep of the beacon refer to the
comforting flash of the lighthouse as the beating of their heart. Just
as the deep foundation that anchors the lighthouse firmly in the sandy
soil, this lighthouse is an anchor to my roots in Carteret County.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lookout National Seashore is located just south of Cape Hatteras
National Seashore. The lighthouse is accessible by passenger ferry from
Harkers Island in Carteret County. For more information on getting
there and visiting Cape Lookout, go to http://www.nps.gov/calo/index.htm.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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