Standing an impressive 156 feet tall, this brick Nags Head lighthouse painted with distinct black-and-white stripes is located 4 miles north of Oregon Inlet. Opened seasonally for climbing in 2013, Bodie Island Lighthouse has 214 swirly steps to the top, where visitors can soak up gorgeous views over the ocean. Fun fact: the lighthouse still casts a light 19 miles out to sea, and is one of a dozen or so remaining brick lighthouses of its size in the country. A boardwalk trail leads through the marshes around the lighthouse, and there is a small welcome center with restrooms.
History of the Bodie Island Lighthouse
Soon after the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began shining its light out to sea on December 16 1870, the Lighthouse Board, with responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses, was already moving to construct the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
In June of 1871, Capt. Peter Hains, Lighthouse Engineer for the Fifth Lighthouse District overseeing the Outer Banks, wrote to Dexter Stetson, who had just completed supervising construction of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. At the time, Bodie Island was referred to as either Body’s or Body Island.
“You will proceed without delay to Body’s Island, N. C., and commence the construction of the First Order Light house at that place in accordance with the drawings and instructions furnished you,” he wrote, adding, “The L. H. at Body’s Island, the construction of which is placed in your charge, will be one of the most important on the Atlantic Coast and too much energy cannot be displayed in hastening its completion.”
Stetson may be the unsung hero of the Outer Banks lighthouses. He was the construction supervisor for Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Currituck Beach. It was his ingenious floating foundation using giant pine beams in a grill pattern that enabled Cape Hatteras to be built and survive extraordinarily well until it was moved in 1999.
The floating foundation he had devised at Hatteras was included in the design for the new Body Island Lighthouse.
“As the work you superintended at Cape Hatteras has rendered you familiar with the details and requirements of such a tower, as that to be built at Body’s Island, detailed instructions are not deemed necessary, the drawings being sufficiently explicit with general instructions. The foundation will be on grillage similar to that at Cape Hatteras tower, the top of the grillage being six feet two inches below the surface of the ground,” Hains advised.
The lighthouse that Stetson was going to build would be the third Bodie Island Lighthouse. The new tower would be the best that had been at the site, and 150 years later, it has withstood the test of time remarkably well.
The First Two Body Island Lighthouses
Body Island was a well-known risk to shipping along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and as early as 1837, a survey of the coast was authorized by Congress.
Lieutenant Napoleon Coste of the Revenue Service who did the survey, told Congress “more vessels are lost there than on any other part of our coast.”
Congress immediately appropriated the money, then nothing happened for 10 years as disputes over purchasing the necessary land dragged on. Finally, though in 1847 construction began.
The engineer for the project was Francis Gibbons, who would go on to design a number of successful West Coast lighthouses. His design for the 54’ tower included a supported foundation. The overseer for the project was the local customs inspector Thomas Blount who had neither engineering nor lighthouse construction experience.
For some reason—perhaps as a cost-saving attempt—he overrode Gibbons’ recommendation, and the tower was built on an unsupported foundation of brick.
Within two years, the lighthouse began to lean, and by 1859 it was unusable and abandoned.
The Lighthouse Board, recognizing the danger to shipping if there was no light at Bodie Island, moved quickly, securing funds from Congress in 1858. Construction took less than a year to complete, and in 1859 the new 80’ tower with a third-order Fresnel lens was warning shipping of the dangers of the coast.
Far better built than the original lighthouse, the new Body’s Island Lighthouse seemed to be able to withstand anything but war.
In 1861, as General Butler’s Union Army expeditionary secured Ocracoke and Hatteras Inlets to the south, Confederate forces, concerned that their enemy would use the lighthouse as a lookout site, removed the Fresnel lens, packed the structure with explosives, and blew it up.
Destroying the lighthouse was part of an overall shoreline strategy of the Confederacy; they removed the Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton as well in an effort to make navigating the Outer Banks coast as hazardous as possible for their enemy.
The Third Lighthouse
On June 13, 1871, the US Government purchased 15 acres from John Etheridge for $150 just to the north of Oregon Inlet. The previous lighthouses had been to the south of the inlet, but it had become apparent the inlet was migrating south, and a lighthouse at the previous location would likely not survive.
An interesting footnote—John Etheridge was the first Bodie Island Lighthouse Keeper.
By the end of June 1871, Stetson was on hand with workers he had used for the Hatteras project.
Even the most cursory look at the Bodie Island Lighthouse reveals it looks a lot like Cape Hatteras Light. That’s not surprising at all. It was built to the same plan, used the same materials—much of it left over from the Hatteras project—and with Dexter Stetson as construction supervisor, there was little need to change the design.
There were some delays, mostly weather-related, but construction was completed in just 15 months, and the First Order Fresnel Lens began sending its beam out to sea on October 1, 1872.
Although similar to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Bodie Island at 164’ is 29’ shorter than Cape Hatteras. The focal plane—where the light is located—is at 156’.
Some Almost Forgotten History
Soon after it became a working lighthouse, on October 19, 1872, a flock of geese flew into the windows at the top of the tower. The glass was quickly repaired and a wire screen installed.
Because the Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses are so similar in appearance. it was causing confusion for mariners passing the Outer Banks. In 1873 the lighthouses were painted, Bodie Island getting its distinctive horizontal black and white stripes and Hatteras its barber pole striping.
The original design for the tower used the metal stairs as part of the grounding method for the lightning rod on the roof. Perhaps not the best way to ground the tower. According to an 1877 report from the District Engineer, the lighthouse keeper was on the top landing during a storm when lightning struck the tower telling the Engineer that he was struck by a powerful bolt of electricity “so much so as to produce a numbness for some little time through the lower half of his body.”
It took seven years for the Lighthouse Board to approve an exterior lighting rod, but in 1884 the grounding rod was moved to the exterior of the building.
Bodie Island is still a functioning lighthouse, its fully automated light flashing 2.5 seconds on and 2.5 seconds off.