Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
| Visiting the Light Station
The Ocracoke Lighthouse is located in Ocracoke Village at the southern
end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The street address is
Ocracoke, North Carolina 27960
Decimal Degrees: 35.108960, -75.985951
Degrees Minutes Seconds: 35° 6' 32.256", 75° 59'
Ocracoke Inlet was first placed on the map when English explorers
wrecked a sailing ship there in 1585. Two centuries later, this was one
of the busiest inlets on the East Coast. Ocracoke Inlet was the only
reasonably navigable waterway for ships accessing inland ports such as
Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Edenton. Ocracoke Village, then known as
Pilot Town, developed as a result of the inlet’s use. Pilots, hired to
steer ships safely through the shifting channels to mainland ports,
settled the village in the 1730s.
The US Lighthouse Service recognized that a lighthouse was needed to
assist mariners through Ocracoke Inlet. In 1794, construction began on
Shell Castle Island, a 25 acre, shell-covered island located between
Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island to the south. This site was adjacent to
the deepest inlet channel between shallow Pamlico Sound and the ocean.
A wooden, pyramid-shaped tower was completed four years later. In
addition to the light, a small lightkeeper’s house was built along with
several cargo wharves, gristmills, houses, and other facilities.
Unfortunately, the lighthouse, a great blessing to mariners, was
obsolete in less than 20 years due to the migration of the main
channel. By 1818, the channel had shifted nearly a mile away. That same
year, both the lighthouse and keeper’s house were destroyed by
In 1822, for a charge of $50, the federal government purchased two
acres at the south end of Ocracoke Island as the site for a new
lighthouse. Constructed by Massachusetts builder Noah Porter and
finished in 1823, the tower still stands today. Total cost, including
the one story, one bedroom keeper’s house, was $11,359, far below the
The lighthouse stands about 75 feet tall. Its diameter narrows from 25
feet at the base to 12 feet at its peak. The walls are solid brick - 5
feet thick at the bottom tapering to 2 feet at the top. An octagonal
lantern crowns the tower and houses the light beacon.
The exterior’s solid white coloration serves as its identifying mark to
mariners by day. The original whitewash “recipe” called for blending
lime, salt, spanish whiting, rice, glue, and boiling water. The mixture
was applied while still hot.
A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1854, replacing the old
reflector system. Its hand-cut prisms and magnifying glass greatly
intensified the light. Early in the Civil War, the lens was dismantled
by Confederate troops but was re-installed in 1864 by Union forces.
Originally an oil-burning light, the Ocracoke Light was electrified in
the early decades of the 1900s. The present light is equal to 8,000
candlepower and casts a stationary beam that can be seen 14 miles at
sea. A battery powered back-up light operates during power failures.
duties at the lighthouse increased, an assistant keeper position was
established. To house the additional keeper and his family, a second
story was built onto the original quarters in 1897 and another section
was added in 1929. The double keepers' quarters still stands on the
site today, along with a generator house, once the oil supply shed.
Keepers performed a wide range of duties. Maintaining the buildings and
grounds, hauling oil, trimming wicks, and polishing the lens were part
of a well-trained lightkeeper's regulated life.
Ocracoke lighthouse keepers fished, hunted waterfowl, raised livestock,
and planted gardens. Due to the proximity of the village, the keepers
and their families enjoyed a social life on Ocracoke and their children
were schooled in the village. The US Lighthouse Service provided a
traveling library to their isolated employees. Cases of library books
were circulated every six months to light stations along the coasts.
During hurricanes, the light station served as a place of refuge for
some local residents. Situated on higher ground, the complex often
remained above flood waters. Villagers, sometimes arriving by boats
which navigated inundated roadways, waited out the storm in the
automated, the lighthouse no longer needs a resident lightkeeper to
tend to its daily needs. The United States Coast Guard now oversees the
operation of the light.
Through federal grants, the National Park Service conducted a
structural analysis of the lighthouse. Preservation work was then
performed on the tower’s windows, door, and brick walls.
The Ocracoke Light is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the
nation. With its aid, yesterday’s sailing vessels safely navigated the
channels. Today, fishing and pleasure boats pass within its view. Time,
however, has not changed the often tricky character of the shoal-ridden
inlet. The historic lighthouse still stands by to make the waters safe.
Though the lighthouse is not open for climbing, the site can be visited
note: This article is reprinted from the National Park Service