As long as there have been vessels exploring the high seas, there has been a need for navigational guides around rugged or dangerous shoreline. Shallows, shoals and islands are often unseen hazards to seafaring crafts and man has long sought to protect ships in nearby waters.
From light ships to coastal guardians, North Carolina’s relationship with lighthouses has been long and steady. While many have been destroyed or decommissioned there are seven lighthouses still standing along our shores and six that continue to provide a guiding light to mariners.
Many began as whale burning lamps with a lighthouse keeper who would brave the elements day and night to keep the light in good working order. Electrified and automated today, there is little need for caretakers.
When visiting, note that these often remote locations can be hot and buggy. Dress appropriately and make sure to bring plenty of water. Taking a climb in one of the lighthouses can be more strenuous than it appears and definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Anyone who suffers from respiratory or other medical conditions should use their own discretion. It is often humid and hot, especially in the summer months, and stairways are narrow with traffic moving in both directions.
Here’s a snapshot of North Carolina’s coastal lighthouses from south to north.
Oak Island Lighthouse
Completed in 1958, the 153-foot-tall lighthouse presents much taller than it is. Situated on a slight rise in the landscape, the lighthouse is listed as being 169 feet tall, the distance it sits above sea level.
Unlike the majority of its counterparts, the Oak Island Lighthouse has a series of ships ladders instead of a spiral staircase. In all, there are 131 steps to gallery. The lighthouse also stands apart in its construction. Instead of the traditional tapered brick design, the tower is the same diameter at the bottom as it is at the top. Built with poured concrete, it was created using a form that would raise as concrete poured at the rate of a foot per hour.
Somewhat stark compared to the older lighthouses along the coast, builders did manage to add some color to the concrete as it poured to give it three distinct segments. The gray bottom of the lighthouse is Portland cement alone, the middle section is white thanks to added white quartz aggregate and black coloring was added to create the darker top section. The lantern was lifted onto the completed lighthouse with a Marine Corps helicopter.
The Town of Caswell Beach took ownership of the lighthouse in 2004 and the Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse maintains the site and oversee tours. Reservations must be made in advance to climb to the top of the lighthouse, however, no reservations are necessary to view the bottom and second level of the lighthouse.
Bald Head Island
Old Baldy, as it is affectionately called, stands a stout 90 feet tall and lacks some of the stately beauty of its sisters along the Carolina coast with its concrete colored plaster exterior.
Bald Head Island was home to the first lighthouse constructed in the state. In 1792, the state provided $4,000 for its construction where the Cape Fear River empties into the ocean. It was activated on Dec. 23, 1794. The original lighthouse was demolished in 1813 due to shoreline erosion and its replacement, which we know today at Old Baldy, was completed in 1817 costing less than $16,000. Built in brick covered in plaster, its construction is similar to the Ocracoke Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was put out of service in 1866 when a new lighthouse closer to the mouth of the river was built, however, Old Baldy was relit when its replacement was decommissioned in 1880. Efforts were made to secure funding to increase the height of the lighthouse, but it was not approved. Again, a new lighthouse was built – the Cape Fear Lighthouse – at the end of Bald Head Island. Old Baldy continued to operate as a fixed beacon until 1958 when the Oak Island Lighthouse was constructed.
While no longer in service, the historic structure serves as a tourist attraction. The lighthouse is only available by a ferry ride. The cost is $22 per person, round trip; $11 for children. Cars are not allowed, however, the lighthouse is close to the ferry landing. A small museum is on site and the lighthouse is open for climbing for $3 per person.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Our hometown lighthouse was completed in 1859 as a replacement for a shorter tower. At 163 feet with tapered walls and a diamond grid black and white exterior, Cape Lookout is stately and impressive. While the diamonds, which were painted for the first time in 1873, make it immediately recognizable, they also serve as navigational aids. The black diamonds point to the north and south while the white ones point east and west.
The lighthouse almost fell victim to the Civil War. A Confederate troop attempted to blow up the lighthouse, but the explosion only damaged the stairs. It is hard to imagine our beloved Cape without the lighthouse casting shadows along the shoreline.
In 2003, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse to the National Park Service in a public celebration. Members of the public were allowed to climb, however, improvements completed in 2010 made the structure more visitor friendly.
There are 201 steps to the top. The site is open for climbing each day except Monday and Tuesday during the season. The first climb begins at 10:15am and the ticket window is open from 10am to 3:50pm. Every 15 minutes, 10 people are allowed to take a self-guided climb. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for children.
Only accessible by boat, there is ferry that operates from the Cape Lookout National Park Service headquarters on Harkers island. Guests are also welcome to arrive by personal boat.
Ocracoke Light Station
At the southernmost end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Ocracoke Light Station. Unlike its neighboring lighthouses with smooth exteriors and alternating stripes, the Ocracoke Lighthouse has a brilliant white stucco
exterior, making it easily recognizable among its peers.
Completed in 1823, the tower is actually the second lighthouse at Ocracoke Inlet, once one of the busiest trade routes in the state. The first, a wooden pyramid shaped tower on Shell Castle Island – southerly between Portsmouth and Ocracoke – was constructed in 1794. Within a few decades, the channel had shifted so much that the site was all but obsolete. Two acres were purchased by the government in 1822 and the 75-foot tower and keeper’s house were constructed for under $11,500. It was completed in 1823. Originally oil burning, but electrified in the early 1900s.
While the lighthouse is not open for climbing, it sits back on beautifully manicured lawn, making a striking contrast to the stark white lighthouse. With its picket fence and boardwalk, the lighthouse is not only inviting, it’s a favorite of photographers.
The tallest brick lighthouse in the county – it logs it at 198.49 feet from the bottom of the foundation – the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has helped guide vessels through the Atlantic and past the dangerous Diamond Shoals since 1870
The first Cape Hatteras lighthouse was constructed in 1803 and was 90 feet tall. Too short to adequately warn mariners, it was decided that an additional 60 feet would be added to the height in 1853, but its life was short. In need of repairs, Congress decided to appropriate funds for a new lighthouse, which was lit on Dec. 1, 1870.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1935 and it was transferred to the National Park Service in 1937, making it part of the country’s first National Seashore. The beacon was returned to the light in 1950 and its power was increased in 1972. For more than 20 years, the state battled erosion in front of the lighthouse. In 1999 the lighthouse was moved nearly 3,000 feet to its current location over the course of 23 days at the cost of $11.8 million.
There are a staggering 257 steps to the top, comparable to a 12-story building. It is open for climbing the third Friday in April through Columbus Day from 9am to 4:30pm daily. Tickets to climb are $8 for adults, $4 for seniors and children and available on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of the climb. No advance tickets are allowed. Sales begin at 9am daily. Be on the lookout for Full Moon Tours.
Like Hatteras, Bodie (pronounced ‘body’) is open daily for climbing from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day. The lighthouse opens at 9:10am and climbs are every 20 minutes. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and children. Tickets sales begin at 9am and must be purchased in-person on the day of the climb.
When the government sent scouts out to search for potential lighthouse locations to compliment the Cape Hatteras tower, the region south of Oregon Inlet was identified as the spot where the most vessels were lost. Funds were appropriated in 1838, however, it took nearly a decade to purchase the needed land. Construction began in 1847. The man sent to oversee the project, Thomas Blount, had no lighthouse experience, and according to the National Park Service website the 54-foot-tower began to lean within two years. It was abandoned in 1859.
A second lighthouse was constructed the same year, however, it was blown up by retreating Confederate troops fearful that it could be used by the enemy. It was 1871 before construction began on a new lighthouse, this time north of Oregon Inlet. The 156-footer has 200 steps – about the same as a 10-story building.
An extensive $5 million restoration was completed in 2013, including the lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens from France, allowing the site to be opened to visitors.
Currituck Beach Light Station
The red brick façade make the Currituck Lighthouse instantly recognizable among its sisters. At 162-feet tall, the towering column was left unpainted, allowing visitors to see the craftsmanship and sheer volume of bricks that were used in its construction – which number over a million.
Completed in 1875, the lighthouse was lit on Dec. 1, filling a 40-mile void of dark area along the coastline. At 162-feet-tall, the tower has 220 steps to its gallery. The lighthouse has the largest Fresnel lens available and can be seen for up to 18 nautical miles
By the 1970s the Victorian Keepers’ House was in heavy need of restoration. Open to the elements with no windows, the structure. A private nonprofit formed and leased the property from the state in 1980 to begin restoring the grounds and buildings
The lighthouse opens to climbers each season. The cost is $10, children under 7 are free. Open 9am-5pm daily; until 8pm each Wednesday and Thursday, Memorial through Labor days. Watch for Halloween themed events in October and a birthday celebration each December. While not climbing, guests can enjoy museum-quality exhibits allow visitors to learn more about lighthouses, shipwrecks and those who worked to keep the lights lit.