Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
46379 Lighthouse Road,
Buxton, NC 27920
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick tower in the country
Soaring 198′ above the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its distinctive white and black barbershop pole pattern, may be the most recognizable symbol of the Outer Banks. It has weathered a hurricane that broke its wind gauge—Hurricane San Ciriaco, 1899 with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. The Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886 cracked windows in the lighthouse tower. In 1999, with the sea surging ever closer to the lighthouse’s base, it was moved 2900′ south and west to its new home.
And through it all, the beacon continues to shine as it has since December 16, 1870 when the oil for the first order Fresnel lens was first lit.
It is the third lighthouse the US Government has built on the land, and in this case, third time seems to have been the charm. Its beam can be seen 20 miles out to sea warning ships of Diamond Shoals, the ever-shifting reefs and shallows that extend 14 miles from Cape Hatteras. Before there were any of the navigation aids of today, its light was quite literally a lifesaver.
That could not have been said for the first two lighthouses on the site.
In 1794 Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. It’s unclear why it took five years for construction to begin or why it took three years after that to build the lighthouse, but it was not until 1803 that the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began operating.
It quickly became apparent that the 90′ tower was too short and the whale oil lamp too weak to warn mariners of the waters of Diamond Shoals. Compounding the problems with the design of the lighthouse, there were repeated issues with the lighthouse keepers and the lanterns. At that time, the Coast Survey Service was responsible for supervising the country’s lighthouse, and the service’s First Assistant, George Blunt, in an 1850 letter, was direct in his criticism.
“‘The light is notoriously a bad one, and so far as can be judged from external appearances, it is badly kept,” he wrote, exhibiting overall, “…a great want of cleanliness everywhere.”
Recognizing the tower itself was too short, in 1853, Congress appropriated $15,000 to raise the tower to 150′ and place a first order Fresnel lens in the tower.
It was, at best, a temporary remedy, the problems with the lighthouse ultimately revealed by the Civil War.
Soon after seceding from the Union, North Carolina militia removed the lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, hoping to confound Union naval ships sailing along the coast.
The action by Confederate forces was duly noted in the North. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported in November, 1861, “Soon after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Confederate Government, with that murderous indifference to human life which has distinguished them from the first, extinguished all the lights they could reach, and among others the lighthouse erected at Cape Hatteras.”
Following the 1861-62 Burnside expedition that seized control of the Outer Banks from the south, the light was relit. Still, subsequent investigations by the Lighthouse Board sealed the fate of the original lighthouse and the additional 60′ added to it.
Lighthouse Inspector for the District, W.J. Newman, noted in his initial report on the lighthouse, “It will become a question to be settled shortly whether a new Tower would not be the cheapest in the long run.”
When asked if funds should be appropriated for repairs or a new lighthouse, he told Congress after the war, “The condition of the tower is such that it is not worth the contemplated outlay, but rather that an appropriation be applied for, to build a new tower.”
In 1867 Congress appropriated $75,000 for a new lighthouse and followed that with an additional $80,000 in 1868. The final cost of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was $167,000.
The design was a double walled brick structure that had become the standard for US lighthouses since the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was finished in 1859. The double wall construction features an inner brick column and an outer brick wall with the outer wall tapering to meet the inner column.
Although the double wall construction had been used for other lighthouses, nothing on the scale of what was needed at Cape Hatteras had ever been attempted. District Inspector Newman’s plans called for a tower some 193′ high with the focal height—the location of the light—about 16′ lower. It would be the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation when completed in 1870, and still is the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation and quite possibly the world.
Yet if the plans were drawn up by Newman with input, according to a number of sources, from members of the Lighthouse Board, a large portion of the credit for the success of the lighthouse must also be given to the project supervisor, Dexter Stetson.
Stetson, a New England native, had done some work for the US Government. He had gained limited experience building a lighthouse in New England, and just before the Civil War, he was in New Orleans constructing warehouses and piers for the government.
There is nothing to suggest he had ever done anything on the scale of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Nonetheless, his selection as construction supervisor was an inspired choice.
He was, by all accounts, organized and well-liked by his workers. Before he began any construction of the lighthouse, he built employee housing, recognizing there was none available for the skilled workers he needed.
There were a number of challenges along the way. The lighthouse required some 1,250,000 bricks, according to the National Park Service, which now manages the site. The Lighthouse Board had entered into a shipping contract with Lennox and Burgess of Philadelphia to deliver bricks and supplies, but the shipping firm was often unavailable when needed, forcing the Lighthouse Board to charter private ships to keep construction moving forward.
Perhaps one of the most significant challenges occurred in 1869, according to historian F. Ross Holland who wrote “A History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse” for the NPS in 1968.
“Materials began to flow southward…until February 19, 1869, when the schooner Ida Nicholson loaded with 101,600 bricks, sundry food for the men, and feed for the animals, went down in a severe gale just eight miles from the lighthouse…Two weeks later, the District Engineer wrote Lennox and Burgess urging them to get another ship since the men at Cape Hatteras were out of provisions. Lennox and Burgess did not respond rapidly, and the District Engineer, feeling the situation at the Cape was getting desperate, chartered the Mary Mizell, loaded it on March 10 with provisions and cement, and dispatched the vessel to Cape Hatteras,” he wrote.
Perhaps Stetson’s most significant contribution was his ingenious foundation for the tower.
Plans called for the lighthouse to be constructed on pilings pounded into the sand, but when Stetson ran tests, he found at 12′ the sand was so compacted that driving pilings would be difficult if it would even work.
What he came up with instead was placing yellow pine timbers in a cross-hatched pattern in a pit 6′ deep, reinforcing them with granite blocks. He reasoned, correctly, that the pit was below the water table (he had to constantly pump it out so the workers could place the wood), and the water would preserve the wood and keep it from rotting.
The result of Stetson’s innovations and the ability to keep the construction crew supplied with food and materials was the lighthouse was finished on budget and on time, lighting for the first time on December 16, 1870.
Perhaps no tribute to the genius of Stetson could be greater than the discover of the pine timbers intact and undamaged when the lighthouse was moved in 1999.
Stetson went on to supervise the construction of the Bodie Island Lighthouse and Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse can be climbed, although this past year (2022), the lighthouse has been undergoing extensive restoration work. The work should be completed by 2023, and climbing will again be allowed in the spring and summer