Cape Hatteras Lighthouse protects one of the most hazardous sections of
the Atlantic Coast. Offshore of Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream collides
with the Virginia Drift, a branch of the Labrador Current from Canada.
This current forces southbound ships into a dangerous twelve-mile long
sandbar called Diamond Shoals. Hundreds and possibly thousands of
shipwrecks in this area have given it the reputation as the Graveyard
of the Atlantic.
Visiting the Light Station
The Cape Hatteras Light Station is located near Cape Hatteras, its
namesake, which is roughly in the middle of Cape Hatteras National
Seashore. The street address is
46379 Lighthouse Road
Buxton, North Carolina 27920
From the third Friday in April to Columbus Day in October the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is open for self-guided climbs.
of a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was first authorized in 1794 when
Congress recognized the danger posed to Atlantic shipping. However,
construction did not begin until 1799. The first lighthouse was lit in
October of 1803. Made of sandstone, it was 90 feet tall with a lamp
powered by whale oil.
1803 lighthouse was unable to effectively warn ships of the dangerous
Diamond Shoals because it was too short, the unpainted sandstone
blended in with the background, and the signal was not strong enough to
reach mariners. Additionally, the tower was poorly constructed and
maintained. Frequent complaints were made regarding the lighthouse.
1853, following studies made by the Lighthouse Board, it was decided to
add 60 feet to the height of the lighthouse, thereby, making the tower
150 feet tall. The newly extended tower was then painted red on top of
white making the lighthouse more recognizable during the day. At the
same time, the tower was retrofitted with a first order Fresnel lens,
which used refraction as well as reflection to channel the light,
resulting in a stronger beam.
the 1860s, with the need for extensive repairs, Congress decided to
appropriate funds for a new lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board prepared
plans and specifications and construction on the new lighthouse began
in October of 1868.
Since the lighthouse was built before the present-day pile driver was
perfected, an intereting problem immediately arose. The ground water
levels on the Outer Banks are quite high and, therefore, when they
began digging out the pit for the lighthouse foundation, it filled with
water about 4 feet down. Working with the natural conditions, the
foreman, Dexter Stetson, used a “floating foundation” for the Cape
Hatteras Lighthouse. This meant that layered 6 foot x 12 foot yellow
pine timbers were laid crossways in the foundation pit below the water
table. Granite plinths (rock layers) were placed on to the top of the
The new lighthouse was lit on December 1, 1870. The 1803 lighthouse was
demolished in February of 1871. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received
the famous black and white stripe daymark pattern in 1873. The
Lighthouse Board assigned each lighthouse a distinctive paint pattern
(daymark) and light sequence (nightmark) to allow mariners to recognize
it from all others during the day and night as they sailed along the
The lighthouse is a conical brick structure rising from an
octagon-shaped brick and granite base and topped with an iron and glass
lantern. It is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and
measures 198.49 feet from the bottom of the foundation to the top of
the pinnacle of the tower. This height was needed to extend the range
of the light-beam from the tower’s low-lying beach site. The tower’s
sturdy construction includes exterior and interior brick walls with
interstitial walls resembling the spokes of a wheel. There are 269
steps from the ground to the lens room of the lighthouse.
Fresnel lens installed in the 1870 lighthouse was powered by kerosene
and could be seen approximately 16 miles from the shore. The keeper had
to manually rewind the clockwork apparatus each day. The Fresnel lens
usually took 12 hours for a complete cycle. When the lamp was
electrified in 1934, the manual mechanism was no longer needed. Damaged
by vandals, the giant glass Fresnel lens had to be replaced by a modern
aero beacon in 1950. Today, electricity provides the rotating power and
a photocell turns the light on and off.
to threatening beach erosion, the Bureau of Lighthouses decommissioned
the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1935. The beacon was then moved to a
skeletal steel tower until 1950. On November 9, 1937, the Cape Hatteras
Light Station was transferred to the National Park Service. While the
park was not operational at this time, the lighthouse and the keepers'
quarters became part of the nation’s first National Seashore.
January 23, 1950, the Coast Guard returned the beacon (250,000
candlepower) to the lighthouse since the beach had rebuilt over the
years in front of the lighthouse. In 1972, the beacon was increased to
800,000 candlepower. From the 1960s to the 1980s, efforts were made to
stabilize the beach in front of the lighthouse, which had started to
erode again. In March of 1980, a winter storm swept away the remains of
the 1803 lighthouse and caused significant dune erosion.
1999, after years of study and debate, the Cape Hatteras Light Station
was moved to its present location. The lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet
in 23 days and now lies 1,500 feet from the seashore, its original
distance from the sea. The Double Keepers’ Quarters, the Principal
Keeper’s Quarters, the dwelling cisterns, and the oil house were all
relocated with the lighthouse.
The National Park Service currently maintains the lighthouse and the keepers’ quarters. The U.S. Coast Guard operates and maintains the automated light.
Moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
1999, the Cape Hatteras Light Station, which consists of seven historic
structures, was successfully relocated 2,900 feet from the spot on
which it had stood since 1870. Because of the threat of shoreline
erosion, a natural process, the entire light station was safely moved
to a new site where the historic buildings and cisterns were placed in
spatial and elevational relationship to each other, exactly as they had
been at the original site. While the National Park Service has met its
obligation to both historic preservation and coastal protection, the
much-heralded move of the historic station, especially the lighthouse,
was hotly debated and closely watched.
Why it had to move
completed in 1870, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was located a safe
1,500 feet from the ocean. Even then, however, storm-driven tides
completely washed over Hatteras Island, eroding sand from the ocean
side of the island and depositing it on the sound side. By 1970, this
process, which has caused the gradual westward migration of the Outer
Banks for at least the past 10,000 years, left the lighthouse just 120
feet from the ocean’s edge and almost certain destruction. The
key to preserving the 1870 tower is its "floating foundation". Yellow
pine timbers sit in fresh water on compacted sand, with a brick and
granite foundation on top of them. This foundation was built because
pilings could not be driven through hard sand located barely 8 feet
below ground level when construction began. As long as the sand
surrounding the foundation remained in place, and the timbers remained
bathed by the fresh water in which they were placed in 1868, the
foundation was secure. If a storm eroded the sand or the fresh water
was disturbed by salt water intrusion, the timbers would rot and the
foundation would eventually fail.
the 1930s, efforts have been made to protect the Lighthouse from the
encroaching sea. The Coast Guard installed the first sheetpile "groins"
(walls built perpendicular to the shore) to try to protect the tower.
In 1936, however, they abandoned the lighthouse to the sea and moved
its light to a skeleton steel tower in Buxton Woods. In the 1960s and
1970s, as the ocean continued to creep closer, various attempts to
"stabilize" the coast included beach nourishment and three new groins
installed north of the lighthouse. A severe storm in 1980 accentuated
the island's westward movement washing away the foundation of the first
(1803) lighthouse, which had been 600 feet south of the existing
lighthouse. In 1803, that lighthouse had been one mile from the
1980, the National Park Service began planning, under the National
Environmental Policy Act, for long-term protection. A three-year
process that included public meetings yielded several alternatives.
Relocation was considered but quickly discounted as impractical. The
option finally selected was a concrete and steel seawall revetment that
would have protected the lighthouse in place but would eventually have
created an island as the coastline receded to the southwest. As moving
technology advanced during the decade and additional information became
available about relocation versus the approved seawall, the National
Park Service examined the alternative that allowed it to accommodate
natural processes while still preserving the historic structures of the
1987, the NPS requested the assistance of the National Academy of
Sciences, a group of scientists and engineers who advise the federal
government on technical matters. The Academy's 1988 report, Saving Cape
Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea: Options and Policy Implications,
considered ten options but recommended relocation as the most
cost-effective method of protection. The National Park Service also
considered this the best overall solution in that it would preserve the
structures and accommodate the natural shoreline processes.
many people feared destruction of the brick lighthouse, the tallest in
the United States. From 1988 to 1995, the relocation option was debated
and discussed, with no funding requests made at the Congressional level
or concerted fund-raising campaigns undertaken in the private sector.
As Federal budgets became leaner, the NPS worked with the Army Corps of
Engineers on a short-term (10-20 year) protection option to build a
fourth groin south of the lighthouse. Officials hoped that it would
protect the most vulnerable section of the lighthouse area, and would
give the NPS time to raise Federal funds for relocation. However, North
Carolina Coastal Resources Commission staff stated that it would not
recommend a permit for building the fourth groin since placing any
hardened structures on the North Carolina coast is prohibited by state
1996, North Carolina State University independently reviewed the
National Academy of Sciences’ report and then issued its own report,
Saving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea, in January 1997. It
not only endorsed the National Academy of Sciences’ findings, but also
recommended that “the National Park Service proceed as soon as possible
with its present plans to obtain the financial resources necessary to
preserve the lighthouse by moving it.” NPS managers then initiated a
concerted effort to begin the planning and funding process to move the
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Funding was finally appropriated by Congress
beginning in fiscal year 1998.
How it was moved
decision to relocate the Cape Hatteras Light Station was a sound public
policy decision based on the best science and engineering information
available. International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, New York was awarded
the contract to move the lighthouse, assisted, among other contractors,
by Expert House Movers of Maryland. In simple terms, the concept of
moving the 4,830 ton structure consisted of lifting it off its
foundation, transferring the load to a transport system, moving the
tower along a prepared move route, and installing it on the new
accomplish this feat, the original foundation down to the pine timbers
was replaced by temporary shoring beams and supports. Then a steel beam
mat was inserted over the timber mat with temporary posts on top. As
cross beams and main beams were set, the temporary shoring parts and
beams were removed. Hydraulic jacks built into the main beams were used
to effect the 6 foot raise so that roll beams and rollers could be
introduced. After all jacks were shored, using oak cribbing, the system
was pressurized and the jacks began lifting. At each lift level, jacks
were retracted and shored up in sequence and the system lifted again to
6 feet. At this point it was ready to roll.
it was lifted, the tower moved along to its new location 2,900 feet to
the southwest on steel mats starting on June 17, 1999. Steel track
beams became rails and roller dollies permitted the support frame to
move along the track. Three zones of hydraulic jacks kept the
lighthouse aligned. Push jacks, clamped to the track pulled the frame
forward 5 feet at a time. The lighthouse was equipped with sixty
automated sensors to measure the transfer of the load, tilt, vibration,
and shaft diameter. A weather station was installed at the top to
monitor wind speed and temperature.
Principal Keeper's Quarters, Double Keepers’ Quarters, oil house,
cisterns, and sidewalks, which were moved during February, March, and
April, awaited the lighthouse. On July 9, 1999 the lighthouse was
carefully placed onto its new foundation, which foundation consists of
a 60' x 60' steel-reinforced concrete slab 4 feet deep, 5 feet of
brick, and 1 1/2 to 2 feet of rock. The light station was whole once
again with all the buildings being in the same relative position as
they were originally. The
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, sentinel of the perilous Diamond Shoals,
where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current, witness to the tragic
sinking and triumphant rescues claimed by the "Graveyard of the
Atlantic," resumed its duties on November 13, 1999 and continues to do
so to this day. Now safely 1,600 feet from the ocean, it should not be threatened by the indomitable ocean waves for another 100 years.
Move at a glance
Took over a year of preparation
Moved from June 17, 1999 to July 9, 1999 (23 days)
Moved using horizontally mounted hydraulic jacks which pushed the tower
along a track system in 5-foot increments.
After the tower was pushed approximately 5 feet, the jacks were retracted and reset along the grid beams.
Cost $11.8 million
Set back approximately 1,500' from the shoreline
original light was Argand style lamps mounted in front of parabolic
reflectors. In 1839, Cape Hatteras was fitted with eighteen 14”
reflectors. By 1849, the light had been upgraded to fifteen 21”
reflectors. This system used whale oil for fuel and, if in perfect
operating condition, produced a medium intensity light that could be
seen up to 20 miles.
first order Fresnel lens, installed in 1854, initially burned whale oil
as well. However, due to over-hunting, the sperm whale was becoming
scarce and, by the 1870s, the US Lighthouse Service was in need of
alternate fuels. There is no known record of exactly when the last
whale oil was used in a US lighthouse but it is still mentioned in the
1871 Instructions to lighthouse keepers along with colza (wild cabbage
or rapeseed) oil. Colza oil was one of the replacements that the US
Lighthouse Service considered, but it was difficult to get because it
was a low profit crop for US farmers. By 1880, whale oil had
disappeared from the scene and, according to the 1881 Instructions to
lighthouse keepers, the available fuels were lard oil and mineral oil
(kerosene). There was a very short experiment at Cape Hatteras using
porpoise oil. It was found to be totally unacceptable and was not
adopted. From 1913 to 1934, the light was provided by an incandescent
oil vapor (IOV) lamp using pressurized kerosene in a mantle. Official
records show that kerosene still fueled the Cape Hatteras light as late
The Fresnel lens
most late 19th-century lighthouses, this one used a Fresnel lens.
Fresnel lenses were manufactured in a series of sizes, or orders, with
first order being the largest—over 17 times more powerful than the
smallest (6th order). In this case, over 1,000 prisms were used and,
all told, about 2,500 lb. of glass and bronze made up the 12 foot tall
first order assembly. Triangular prisms projected light into a
continuous 360 degree beam, and, in this case, 24 bulls-eye lenses
provided the flashes. The light has always been white; at other
lighthouses, red and green have also been used (mainly harbor and range
lights because color reduces the range of the beam).
original lens assembly, which rotated on a chariot at ½ rpm, was turned
by three 150 pound iron weights suspended on a cable and dropping down
the center. The cable was wound around a drum in the clockwork
mechanism beneath the lens, which worked much like a grandfather clock.
Each morning, the weights were slowly cranked by hand to the top and
then released at dusk when the lamp was lit, causing the lens to
rotate. The gears in the mechanism provided the leverage to turn the
1-½ ton lamp/lens assembly. The speed of rotation could be adjusted by
a fan governor in the clockwork. A gentle hand push was used to start
the lens rotating but, once it was in motion, it maintained its
rotation until the weight reached the bottom of the tower and had to be
rewound. Regulations required that the weight be rewound to the top of
the tower every morning. In many shorter lighthouses, cranking was
needed every few hours.
Electrifying the light
1934, shortly before the light was moved to the tower in Buxton. A
36-inch (nominal) airport beacon was originally used. The current
24-inch (nominal) beacon, type DCB (Directionally Coded Beacon) 224,
was installed in 1982.
to the installation of the airport beacon, the Fresnel lens only used
electricity for the light source but still used the clockwork and
weight system to turn the optic.
Current optics and bulbs
separate units, similar to search lights, are mounted side by side
facing in opposite directions, and are turned by an electric motor. The
beacon is controlled by a photocell, which automatically turns the
light on at sunset and off at dawn. Each 1,000- watt bulb (120 volts -
same as your house), less than 10 inches tall, puts out an
800,000-candlepower beam focused by two parabolic reflectors. A spare
bulb and primary reflector automatically rotate into place when the
primary bulb burns out. GE makes the bulbs. They are halogen/argon
filled, with a tungsten filament, and cost about $240 each. The
mechanism is similar to an airport beacon.
beacon rotates, like an airport beacon. The 'flash' is visible when the
beacon points at you. The original Fresnel lens system cast 24 beams,
the current beacon projects two.
official range is 24 nautical miles (a nautical mile is 6,080 feet). At
night, most vessels in clear weather can see the lighthouse from up to
20 nautical miles at sea. Seen exactly at sea level, the direct visible
range is about 15.6 nautical miles. The USLHS standard was to allow an
extra ten feet of height to account for the height of the bridge deck,
giving 16.2 miles. At night, the glow or loom can be seen when the
light is actually below the horizon; in some atmospheric conditions
refraction causes the light to follow the earth's curvature, too. These
phenomena are also factored in. The range of the lighthouse depends
more on height and air clarity than on the power of its beacon.
The Lighthouse Keepers
staff of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse consisted of a Principal Keeper
and two Assistant Keepers. The keepers did not live in the lighthouse
but, when they were on duty, they would be found in the watch room at
the top of the tower. Originally, the Lighthouse Board provided
housing, staple foods, medicine, and a salary up to $800/yr. After the
1880s, keepers wore dark blue wool dress uniforms or fatigues.
worked at the lighthouse performing maintenance, repair, and
administrative duties. Each keeper was required to stand a four hour
watch during the night. The time of these watches alternated daily from
keeper to keeper. On one day, the Principal Keeper may take the 8 pm to
midnight watch, the 1st Assistant Keeper would take the midnight to 4
am watch, and the 2nd Assistant Keeper would take the 4 to 8 am watch.
The following night the Principal Keeper would take the midnight to 4
am watch, etc, etc. The keeper on watch at the end of the night would
be responsible for all morning maintenance of the lamp and lens to
prepare them for the upcoming night.
The keepers' duties included:
• Hand-carrying fuel up to the lantern room and fueling the lamp • Trimming the wicks (later, replacing the mantles and pumping up the oil vaporizer) • Regularly cleaning and polishing (with jeweler’s rouge and whiting) the glass chimney, lenses and windows • Polishing vast amounts of brass fittings and tools • Cranking up the weight, latching it, and letting it free when they lit the lamp at night • Lighting and extinguishing the lamp (it was wasteful and unnecessary to burn it by day) • Closing lantern room curtains by day to prevent damage from magnified
sunlight through the lens, and discoloration of the lens glass • Cleaning and lubricating the clockwork • Painting the structure • Routine maintenance and repairs of all buildings • Greeting and sometimes lodging visitors and inspectors • Writing reports, keeping records, and ordering supplies • Monitoring the light and nearby shipping at night
two Assistant Keepers and their families lived in the Double Keepers’
Quarters, built in 1854. The Principal Keeper and his family lived in
the small house that was built in 1870.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. How does the height of this lighthouse compare to others? It
is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. Also, according
to the National Maritime Preservation Initiative and F. Ross Holland,
the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse "…still may be the tallest brick
lighthouse in the world.”
Q. Has it been in continuous service since 1803? Yes
and no. There has been an established light tower of some kind in
service since 1803. However, like most Southern lighthouses, the light
was extinguished during the Civil War.
Q. How far was the ocean when the lighthouse was built? The l870 lighthouse was built approximately 1,500 feet from the shoreline.
Q. How many bricks were used? 1,250,000
were ordered from a Baltimore firm; the exact number used is unknown,
but this figure tallies closely with the engineering estimates. The
brick was manufactured at a kiln on the James River in Virginia, for a
Baltimore contractor. The bricks are not curved. Some extras went into
the facade and walls of the 1871 Principal Keeper's Quarters (however,
there are two kinds of brick in inside quarter’s walls. It is unknown
if both are original).
Q. What other materials were used? Black
slate and white marble quarry tile were used on most floors (quarries
unknown). The stairs and most other metal items are cast, rolled, or
drawn iron. Bronze was used for more demanding situations, such as the
lantern frame work. The roof is copper, lined with tin inside; the
lightening rod is bronze with a platinum-clad tip. The storm doors at
the top and bottom of the tower are plate iron and bronze respectively;
the bottom doors were originally specified to be iron. The inner doors,
removed long ago, were originally wood with glass lights. Cast iron
lintels and corbels once graced landing windows, but deteriorated and
were removed. The windows themselves are modern replacements for the
original iron framed casements.
Q. How deep is the foundation? The
original foundation was about 7-½' deep and was made of 6"x12"x12'
crossed, yellow pine timbers submerged in water, topped with granite
boulders cemented together. The foundation below the present lighthouse
is a 60'x60'x4’ steel reinforced concrete pad, plus five feet of
147,000 high-density bricks and 1-½ to 2 feet of rock.
Q. How thick and solid are the walls? The
granite and brick base is virtually solid, but the tapered tower above
is double-walled, with 12 hidden, full-length vertical ribs joining the
two walls. The vertical ribs provide stiffness to the inner and outer
walls. They act like the flying buttresses in gothic cathedrals. The
double-walled design helps keep the tower rigid and the center of
gravity low—which is located about a third of the way up. At its base,
the tapered outer wall is 46-3/4" thick and the inner wall—a true
cylinder—is 20" thick. 134' 4" above the ground (even with the top of
the sixth landing window), the two walls merge. The brick inside the
lantern housing (watch room and service room) was laid after the
lantern was assembled and is less than two feet thick. At its bottom,
the outer wall is 32' 5-1/2" in diameter and, at the bottom of the
gallery brackets, it is 17' 2". The inside diameter of the stairwell is
11' 6" from top to bottom—there is no taper inside. The lower gallery
deck, by the way, is 29' 10" in diameter.
Q. Who did the actual construction work? The
Lighthouse Board provided a Superintendent of Construction, Dexter
Stetson, who hired and trained nearly 100 laborers locally, who
received $1.50 a day. A number of the crew went on to assist on the
Bodie Island Lighthouse project. Stetson also worked on the Cape
Q. Who pays for repair work done to the lighthouse? The National Park Service.
Q. Who has maintained the lighthouse through the years?
1802–1820: Department of the Treasury, Commissioner of the Revenue
1820–1852: Department of the Treasury, Fifth Auditor
1852–1903: US Lighthouse Board, Department of the Treasury
1903–1910: US Lighthouse Board, Department of Commerce and Labor
1910–1935: Bureau of Lighthouses, Department of Commerce and Labor
1950–Present: US Coast Guard
1936, the 1870 lighthouse was turned over to the National Park Service.
Currently, under a Special Use Agreement, the US Coast Guard maintains
the beacon and the NPS is responsible for the building itself. Twice a
year, all four light bulbs are replaced, and the mechanism is inspected
Q. What has been removed, repaired, or replaced in the structure? Much
of the exposed ironwork of the lower gallery, some of the stairs and
all their anchor bolts, and the windows are replacements. Lantern room
glass has been replaced many times. The roof was rebuilt in 1992. The
cast iron casement window trim, and the weight set and its hardware are
gone. A cabinet, a small desk, and a coal stove were once present in
the watch room. A set of roller curtains (visible in old photos) that
once kept the sun's rays out of the lens during the day are also gone.
Inner wood doors with glass lights were removed from the top and bottom
entries, along with glass transoms at the bottom; they were removed
during the restoration and are said to be in storage by the USCG. Parts
of the gear box and lens disappeared during WWII, along with the
keepers’ tools. The vandalized Fresnel lens was removed in 1949 and
stored. In October 2006, the lens’ pedestal and clockwork assembly were
removed. After 57 years, the lens and pedestal assembly were reunited
and can now be viewed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, in
Hatteras Village, just 10 miles to the southwest of the lighthouse.
Q. What is the circular well at the bottom? Minus
the plastic netting and steel mesh floor, which are NPS visitor safety
equipment, this was originally a sand pit that was provided in case the
weight cable of the clockwork mechanism parted causing the weight to
free-fall down the tower. The sand pit was much more forgiving and
flexible than the slate and marble floor that surrounds the pit. The
weight set could also be lowered into the pit to facilitate maintenance
and repairs such as cable repair or replacement. The well is about 4
Q. What are the vertical rails in the central well? Lacking
the graceful design found in every other part of the lighthouse, these
rails are a later addition, not shown on the working plans. Usually, in
towers of this type the weights of the clockwork mechanism in the lens
assembly would drop directly down the center of the tower, suspended
from a wire cable. They were guided by “fairleads” that would control
the descent. Differences in structural details of the Cape Hatteras
tower required a system of T-rails to keep the weights from swinging
excessively as they dropped down the tower.
Q. What were the alcoves on the first floor used for? Originally,
the lamp oil for the light was stored in large, round metal containers
called oil butts. They were large brass or tin tanks that ranged in
size from 50 to 100 gallons each. They stood upright and were set side
by side on masonry or wooden elevated shelves in the alcoves. Each one
had a petcock at the bottom from which the keeper would draw his daily
supply of lamp oil into his oil can. He then carried the oil cans up
the tower to fuel the lamps. The large, cubic 350 gallon tank at the
base of the tower replaced numerous oil butts with one centralized
storage tank. Other gear may have also been kept in the alcoves.
Q. What is the metal tank just above the first floor? The large, square, 350-gallon tank was used for the storage of kerosene to light the lamp in the Fresnel lens.
Q. What are the numbers on the landing walls? These
numbers are called landing numbers. They are not original; the interior
has been repainted several times. The 1992 restoration crew made them
to mark the landings for easy identification.
Q. Wouldn't it have been easier to use a rope and pulley to haul up the oil? No
and this practice was never allowed in US lighthouses. The fuel for the
lamp was extremely valuable and, when it was being moved, the keeper
was required to keep it in his possession. At any rate, it would not
have been less work. A once-over pulley gives no mechanical advantage;
it still takes 6000 ft-lbs. of work to raise a 5-gallon can of oil 150
feet, just as it would climbing with the oil. But in climbing, the legs
do the work, not the arms. A twice-over pulley takes half as much
effort, but takes twice as long. The can would have tended to sway, and
possibly rupture or spill when it hit a beam or bolt head, or fell (oil
usage was very closely monitored; the keeper was held accountable for
waste). And he'd still have to climb all the way up anyway - so no
point in going up empty handed.
Q. How many storms has it survived? All
of them! Seriously, no one knows; not all were recorded. About 150
hurricanes and countless nor'easters have affected the Outer Banks
since 1548, since Europeans were here (who knows how many more before
Europeans arrival). This would suggest about 40 hurricanes since the
lighthouse was built. On April 17, 1879, lightning struck the tower;
several months later, new shallow vertical cracks in the inner wall
were ascribed to this by the keepers, but are now reliably attributed
to thermal expansion of the structure. In the 1980s, studies of the
cracks revealed movement with temperature variations. Later, the
lighthouse also survived the Charleston earthquakes of August 31, 1886
(3 shocks up to 7.7 on the Richter Scale) and September 3, 1886, which
was felt in Chicago.
Q. Why is the tower leaning? It
is not leaning significantly, though there seems to be such a rumor
floating around. There is a deceptive optical illusion at certain
angles of view, caused by the stripes, and sometimes enhanced by a
backdrop of moving clouds. Hasbrouck & Hunderman found the
appearance of a possible slight lean to the north or west, but could
not rule out simple irregularities in construction.
Q. Why is there a lighthouse here? Extending
about 14-20 miles offshore from Cape Hatteras are the shallow, shifting
Diamond Shoals—a hazard to nearby navigation. By day or night, the Cape
Hatteras Lighthouse provided a navigational bearing, enabling ships to
avoid the treacherous shoals. In the 19th century, “coasting” (sailing
along the coast) was a simple, reliable form of navigation; and in case
of trouble, the shore was within easy reach. Along the North Carolina
coast, shipping also made good use of favorable currents—the Labrador
Current, flowing south near shore, and the Gulf Stream, flowing north a
bit farther out—which provided additional speed. The Outer Banks of
North Carolina are widely known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. One
account says 230 ships of over 50 tons sank here from 1866 to 1945.
Another says well over 2,200 ships have sunk off the Outer Banks since
Europeans first arrived.
Q. How did the Diamond Shoals get their name? It
is not known where the actual name came from. The shoals are not a
continuous mass, but are a series of three distinct shoals with
channels between them. In 1948, the US Board of Geographic Names
designated the entire series as Diamond Shoals and assigned names to
the individual shoals and sloughs (the channels between the shoals).
The innermost shoal is Hatteras Shoals, the middle section is Inner
Diamond Shoals and the outer section is Outer Diamond Shoals. As for
the sloughs - Hatteras Slough runs between Hatteras Shoals and Inner
Diamond Shoals. The one that runs between the Inner Diamond Shoal and
Outer Diamond Shoal is called the Diamond Slough.
Q. How many lightships have there been at Diamond Shoals? There were three lightships:
1st (1824–1827): destroyed by gale winds 2nd (1897–1918): the #69 Diamond was sunk by a German U-boat 3rd (1919–1967): replaced by the "Texas" tower
Q. What is the "Texas" tower? In
1968, a “Texas" tower light station—a structure similar to an offshore
oil rig—was completed out on the Diamond Shoals and called the Diamond
Shoals Light Station. The light was located approximately 12.8 nautical
miles or 14.7 statute miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. It was
originally crewed by 6 people (4 on and 2 off) but was automated on
September 7, 1977. The 1000-watt lamp was 125 feet above the water and
was visible for 22 nautical miles. The Diamond Shoals Light Station was
de-commissioned in 2002 and the light is no longer operational.
Q. Why are there so many lighthouses in North Carolina? Ideally,
with lighthouses every 40 miles or so, one was nearly always visible to
coasting ships. When one passed out of range, another would soon appear.
Q. Is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse still a functional navigational aid? Yes, though it is now automated.
Q. With today's navigational technology, is it still a useful aid-to-navigation? Yes,
though not to the same extent it once was. It provides confirmation of
modern navigational methods and a landmark for local boat traffic. Seen
from a few miles out to sea, this coastline has few distinguishing
Q. Why is it painted with black & white stripes? The stripes serve as a daytime identification aid—known as a daymark—allowing mariners to distinguish between the lighthouses.
the Outer and Core Banks of North Carolina, the Currituck Beach Light
is unpainted, red brick; Bodie Island is banded black and white; Cape
Hatteras is black and white spiral stripes; Ocracoke is white; and Cape
Lookout is black and white checkerboard. No evidence has been found to
indicate that the checkerboard or diamond pattern was originally
intended for the Cape Hatteras Light at Diamond Shoals, despite a
popular folk story that some bureaucrat messed up the work order.
Q. What is meant by the term “daymark” and how does it apply to lighthouses? All
lighthouses are daymarks. The term simply means a fixed, constant,
identifiable feature that can be used by a navigator during daylight
hours to assist in determining a ship’s location along a coastline.
the shapes of the tower and dwelling, the advertised color and the
geological background such as cliffs, rocks, hillsides, etc. provide
adequate data to the mariner to assist with location determination.
Towers can also be painted, often in solid colors that contrast with
their natural backgrounds making them more visible. So, a lighthouse
that is built of stone on a rocky island would most likely be painted
white; a lighthouse near a town with numerous white buildings would
probably be painted red.
problems can occur in areas such as the central/southern Atlantic coast
of the United States. In general, the coast is topographically quite
flat with few, if any, outstanding natural features to assist the
mariner. Compounding this issue, the tall coastal towers, built
primarily between the 1850s and 1870s, were virtually identical in
appearance from a distance at sea. Therefore, to make them
identifiable, they each received distinguishable daymarks—usually
paint—though some towers were left unpainted. Only certain
colors—black, white and red—were used because these are the ones that
would stand out the best against the background. Therefore, along the
Outer Banks, the tall coastal lighthouse daymarks are: Currituck Beach
Light - unpainted red brick; Bodie Island - banded black and white;
Cape Hatteras - black and white spiral stripes; and Cape Lookout -
black and white checkerboard.
Q. Has the Cape Hatteras lighthouse always been black and white spiral striped? No. This paint job did not exist until 1873.
1803 sandstone tower appeared to be white. This may have been due to
the natural color of the stone or a whitewash coating. This changed
when the tower was extended with a brick addition in 1854. The lower 70
feet of the tower remained white and the top 80 feet was red. It was
probably red on top to contrast with sky and white on bottom to
contrast with the vegetation. It was painted with a cement-based brick
1871 Report of the Lighthouse Board indicates that, when it was first
painted, the top part of the current tower was painted red and the
bottom part white. Other reports say that the whole tower wasoriginally
red. In any case, the stripes were painted in 1873. There are two black
and white stripes on the tower, each stripe circles the lower tower
1-1/2 times, and all are wider on the bottom than on the top. It is not
known exactly how the stripes were laid out, but it could have been
done using a combination of pre-calculated dimensions, plumb bobs, and
taut lines. Originally, the keepers painted the tower using bosun’s
chairs, taking up to 4 months every 6–10 years. Modern painting
contractors use a window washer type platform.
From 1936-1950, the official tower was a steel structure, though many mariners still used the 1870 lighthouse as a daymark.
Q. How can lighthouses be told apart at night? Lights
can be distinguished by their “characteristic” or nightmark. Their
lights may appear to either glow constantly (fixed) or flash at
different rates. Here, the rate is every 7-1/2 seconds, though it has
varied over the years. Throughout the centuries, mariners have had
lists of lights - tables that list the nation's navigational aids
including the lighthouses with their exact positions, their daymarks,
and their light characteristics.
(Editor's note: This article is reprinted from the National Park Service website.)