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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

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by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published June 28th 2022
Cape Hatteras Light Station, Hatteras Lighthouse, Hatteras Island, North Carolina, OBX, Outer Banks, Fresnel Lens
Cape Hatteras Light Station

Lovers of lighthouses crave the dramatic contrast between land and sea, the torment of the storm, the calmness of the harbor, and the safety that only a lit home with family seems to truly provide. On our recent trip to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, we had a chance to stop and visit three of their famous lighthouses and get our "fix" around a Nor'easter. Find the Bodie Island Light Station information here and Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse here. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse, also known as America's lighthouse, was our third stop.

The current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton, designed and constructed between 1868 and 1870, is the tallest light tower in the United States. About 500,000 people visit each year and about 1500 people climbed the lighthouse daily between April and October prior to the commencement of renovations, the Park Service Ranger said.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Light Station, OBX, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on a Stormy Day

A major restoration project continues, but the National Park Service may suspend long enough to allow for a limited climbing season in 2022. The 198-foot structure's interior was stripped of paint in 2021, keeping the lighthouse closed for climbing during Cape Hatteras National Seashore's busiest tourist season since 2002. It was closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Park officials focus on restoring some of the historic, character-defining features of the lighthouse, including the Fresnel lens that supplied the beacon's beam from 1870 through 1936. The lens currently holds center stage for visitors to the nearby Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. They'll also restore portions of the landscape with native grasses that surrounded the lighthouse before it was moved, in 1999, from the beach.

In addition to the distinctive lens, day markings exist on each lighthouse for mariner navigation. The familiar black and white spiral stripe serves as a warning to mariners of the Diamond Shoals, submerged and shifting sand bars that extend nearly 20 miles off Cape Hatteras into the Atlantic Ocean.

Cape Hatteras Light Station, Hatteras Lighthouse, Hatteras Island, North Carolina, OBX, Outer Banks, Fresnel Lens
Cape Hatteras Historic District Sign

The first Cape Hatteras lighthouse a 90-foot sandstone structure built in 1803 projected inadequate light from its onset despite a collection of Argand lamps and reflectors. Modified to a new height of 150 feet in 1854 with a first-order Fresnel lens installed, the second lighthouse was destroyed during the Civil War in 1862 by retreating Confederate soldiers who took the Fresnel lens from the lighthouse to keep the navigation solution it supplied out of Union hands.

Shell damage during the war and structural deterioration prompted the construction of a replacement lighthouse in 1870, the one we enjoyed today. The ruins of the original lighthouse could be seen until a powerful storm in 1980 washed away the visible traces.

Beach erosion threatened the base of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse by 1935. This led to a temporary steel skeleton lighthouse being erected in the Buxton Woods that utilized an airport beacon for illumination. By 1950, the 1870 lighthouse returned to operation, as erosion patterns changed. In 1999, the lighthouse had to be rescued from the Atlantic and was moved half mile inland, now placed as far from the ocean as when it was originally constructed. The current lighthouse had to be cut from the base, hydraulically lifted and travel along temporary railroad ties to its current position. That project took 23 days.

The base of that lighthouse has now also been moved and contains the names of the lighthouse keepers over the past two centuries. I was impressed to see a familiar name, Simpson, and texted an old friend from college. "Yes," she said, "my ancestors were there." It's a small world in lighthouse keeper land, especially for the non-Midgetts. The Midgett family, as discussed in this article about the Life-Saving services of Chicamacomico, served over 200 years and had more members than any other of the armed forces.
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Where: 46379 Lighthouse Rd, Buxton, NC 27920, United States
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