Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

America’s Lighthouse Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Facts

Years Built: 1868-1870
Second Lighthouse in the location (first lasted from 1802-1870; current lighthouse was temporarily replaced by Buxton Woods skeleton tower; 1936-1950)
Still Active: Yes
Activated: Dec. 16, 1870
Latitude: 35.1502     Longitude: -75.3144  
(Coordinates Before 1999 Move:  35.1514, -75.3056) 

Day Markings: Black and White Barber Pole Stripes
Type of Lamp: Two DCB-24 rotating airport beacons (back to back), each containing one 1000-watt light
Signal: Rotating flash that runs sunset to sunrise
Light Signal Sequence: One rotating flash every 7 ½ seconds
Height of Lighthouse: 198 feet, 2.5 inches
Height of Lighthouse Above Sea Level: 210 feet
Focal Point Height Above Sea Level: 204.4 feet
Light Visibility: 20 nautical miles (24 statute miles) out to sea
Public Accessibility: Visitors’ center open from third Friday in April to Columbus Day (in October); lighthouse is open to the public. 

Best Unofficial Website:  

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Ornament


The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the most famous lighthouse in North America (not counting the Statue of Liberty, which was used as an aid to navigation from 1886 to 1902).  It is also the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and second tallest brick lighthouse in the world, the tallest being La Lanterna in Genoa, Italy.  The current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built between 1868 and 1870 and lit in December of 1870.   

Cape Hatteras is the figurehead of a four-part series of light towers that were built to guide ships through North Carolina’s Outer Banks.   The lighthouse has a very long and fascinating history that covers four wars, thousands of shipwrecks, and even the moving of the lighthouse itself when the sea tried to claim it.  One of the more fascinating aspects of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is its large size, which anyone who has visited it can attest to.  But why did it need to be such a gigantic building?  Read on the find out…

Diamond Shoals: The Mother of All Ship Traps

Cape HatterasThere are many areas around the world that pose as hazards to mariners.  England has the Goodwin Sands, which lie in the narrow Strait of Dover between England and France and has claimed around 2,000 ships over the centuries.  Canada’s Nova Scotia has a similar formation called Sable Island that has claimed its share of ships.  Australia has a coastline called Shipwreck Coast, and South America has the infamous Cape Horn.  

The United States has the coast of North Carolina, which is essentially several ship traps in one.  To the south are Cape Fear and its Frying Pan Shoals.  And then there are the Outer Banks, a long series of barrier islands on the North Carolina coast.  The Outer Banks are host to False Cape and its sandbars, Cape Lookout and its Cape Lookout Shoals, and the mother of all ship traps on the Atlantic coastline, Cape Hatteras and its Diamond Shoals.   North Carolina’s Outer Banks have claimed over 2,200 ships and innumerable lives in the 500 years that mariners have been traversing the waters.  The majority of those ships have been lost in Cape Hatteras’ Diamond Shoals, which are rightly known as The Graveyard of the Atlantic.   

The reason that Cape Hatteras poses as such a threat is that it is the meeting place of the Labrador Current, a cold, southbound Arctic current, and the Gulf Stream, a warm, northbound tropical current.  The two currents collide at Cape Hatteras, causing deadly storms, gale-force winds, and heavy fog.  Raging storms blow in suddenly and push ships into the twenty-mile long Diamond Shoals, which holds them in place while the raging sea pounds them apart.   

The beaches of the Outer Banks are littered with the skeletons of dozens of ships.  The constantly moving sands expose the ribs of old ship hulls, only to cover them again a few days later.  Many of the ships buried under the beach sands are nameless, forgotten vessels, whose carcasses are the only remainder of the terrifying death they met in centuries past at the hands of Cape Hatteras.

The First Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: “Mr. Hamilton’s Light”

Cape Hatteras sank its first ship in 1585.  Because there was no lighthouse of any kind in the area, Cape Hatteras hid in the dark for two centuries like a spider waiting in its web for unsuspecting insects. It was not until 1803 that Cape Hatteras received its first active lighthouse.  This first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was referred to as “Mr. Hamilton’s Light” in its day because of the influence of founding father Alexander Hamilton in bringing the much-needed light to the area.   

An apocryphal story states that in the fall of 1772, Cape Hatteras “messed with the wrong guy,” that person being a 17-year-old Alexander Hamilton.  Young Hamilton was originally from the Caribbean island of St. Croix.  When a group of merchants sponsored him to attend college in the American Colonies, Hamilton boarded a ship called the Thunderbolt and set sail for Boston.  The story goes that when the ship reached Cape Hatteras, a violent storm with gale-force winds overtook the ship.  The heavy winds upset coals from the cooking fire in the ship’s galley and set it ablaze.  The captain fought the storm while Hamilton and the others on the ship spent twelve hours fighting the fire, but the ship did weather the storm and finally made it to Boston Harbor. 

We don’t know whether or not this story is true.  However, we do know that 17 years later, when Alexander Hamilton had become the first Secretary of the Treasury of the newly formed United States of America, he urged Congress to pass a piece of legislation called The Lighthouse Bill.  Approved on August 7, 1789, the Lighthouse Bill was the ninth piece of legislation ever passed by the brand new Federal Government of the United States.  The bill successfully brought all of the existing American lighthouses of the time under the jurisdiction of the United States Treasury, established the U.S. Lighthouse Service (which would eventually be absorbed into the U. S. Coast Guard), and established plans to build a detailed lighthouse system throughout the U.S. Coastline.

Building the First Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Building Cape HatterasOne of the reasons for federalizing America’s lighthouse system was that the states tended to light their harbors and population centers, but did not bother to erect lights in sparsely populated areas because there was no financial reward for doing so.  This situation had already manifested itself in the State of North Carolina.  The state only had two harbors/population centers, and was planning to light them both, when the Federal Government assumed control of the American lighthouse system.  Cape Hatteras, on the other hand, was the equivalent of “flyover territory” in its day, so there were no plans to build a lighthouse there.  Few people lived in the area, but the ships that constantly sailed past it had to worry about its dangers.  Federalizing the lighthouse system allowed the needs for lighting these important “flyover areas” to be met with the same level of concern as those that would have been lit more readily. 

After the federalization of the lighthouse system, North Carolina asked the U.S. Lighthouse Service to light Ocracoke Inlet, the harbor it was planning to light.  At the same time, mariners petitioned the Lighthouse Service for a beacon to light Cape Hatteras.  The Lighthouse Service agreed to do both.  The State of North Carolina would get the short-lived Shell Castle Island Lighthouse, which would later be replaced by the still-extant Ocracoke Lighthouse, and mariners would get the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

In 1794, Congress authorized building lights on Cape Hatteras and on Ocracoke Inlet.  It took several years for the federal government to secure the land and the contractor to build the two lighthouses, but the builder who finally received the contracts for both lighthouses was none other than U.S. Congressman Henry Dearborn.  At that time a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, Dearborn had been a veteran of the Revolutionary War and would go on to become Secretary of War under Thomas Jefferson and then Senior Officer of the United States Army during the War of 1812.  Dearborn would later serve as Superintendent of Lighthouses for Massachusetts and would also build the original Seguin Island Lighthouse in Maine. 

The Shell Castle Island Lighthouse at Ocracoke Inlet was given first priority, with construction starting in 1798 and ending in 1800.  About halfway through the construction of Shell Castle Island Lighthouse, Dearborn and his crew began building the keepers’ quarters for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  They began work on this project in September 1799, and had it finished by winter of that year.  Dearborn’s company returned to Cape Hatteras the following spring, where they began work on the lighthouse’s foundation; the foundation was completed in May of 1800.  They had completed the first level of the lighthouse and were working on the second when a deadly fever struck down thirteen of the workers and killed another in July.  Dearborn, who was on site at the time, left the area to avoid becoming ill himself.  The crew attempted to continue working, but was finally sent home in September to regain their health.  Dearborn and the crew returned in the spring of 1801, and Dearborn remained onsite with them until August of that year.  The crew continued to fight sickness, but struggled on until they finally finished the lighthouse. The first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was completed in August of 1802 and lit on October 29, 1803; the reason for the fifteen-month delay between completion and activation of the lighthouse is unknown. 

Problems With the First Lighthouse

The first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stood 105 feet tall (112 feet above sea level), and was built of brown sandstone and marble.  This caused it to blend in with the color of the beach, making it difficult for mariners to locate as a day marker.  Both locals and visitors to the area also complained that the tower was an ugly eyesore.  This problem was responded to by whitewashing the tower. 

A more important issue was that the lamp house was a mere 10 feet in diameter.  The quality of the lamps in use at the time was such that they burned hot for the amount of light they emitted, which made the lamp house a miniature inferno that the keeper would have to suffer in.  Apparently the keeper broke the windows several times from entering the lamp house and recoiling from the intense heat.  This problem was fixed when the U.S. Lighthouse Service started using Winslow Lewis’ Lewis Lamps, which had parabolic reflectors which focused the light from a smaller flare and therefore made a brighter light with less heat. 

Cape HatterasAnother problem was that wild birds, especially ducks and geese, would become attracted to and disoriented by the light.  They would be drawn to the light like gigantic moths, smashing against the light and falling to the ground.  The problem was not only piles of dead birds, but also the fact that they smashed windowpanes in the lighthouse, which would have to be replaced.  This was fixed with the addition of a wire enclosure that was put around the light that stopped the birds from breaking the glass. 

But it was two much larger problems that rendered the first light largely inadequate for the demands of Cape Hatteras.  One was the insufficient brightness of the light.   The focal point of the light stood approximately 100 feet above sea level, which would give the light an approximate range of twelve miles on a clear day.  However, the Diamond Shoals extended more than twelve miles out to sea, which meant that the Cape Hatteras Light was not enough to adequately cover the shoals.  Atop that, the Lewis Lamps in use were not bright enough to be discerned as a lighthouse; one ship captain said that it looked like the light of another ship.   

Yet another problem was the insufficient height of the light. It was found that the fog produced by the sea would hover at approximately 100 feet in the air, which happened to be the same height as the focal point of the light.  This tended to obscure the light every time there was fog.  Stephen Pleasonton, overseer of the Lighthouse Service from 1820 to 1852, was concerned that the light was too high to be seen through the fog and that it should therefore be shortened.   However, a further investigation showed that a lighthouse built higher than the fog’s “cloud level” would be able to peer over the fog and continue to assist mariners, while a shorter light would only shorten the visibility of the light. 

The Lighthouse Service tried to solve these two problems in several ways.  First, in 1824, they tried to add a lightship a few miles past the Shoals, but storms kept dislodging the lightship.  The ship was retired in 1827, a mere three years later.  Then in 1853, Congress approved the addition of a fifty-foot extension to the lighthouse, making it 140 feet tall and giving it a 150-foot focal plane. The extension was completed in 1854.  The lighthouse was also given its own distinctive day markings, with the top half of the lighthouse painted red and the bottom half painted white.  They also approved the addition of a first-order Fresnel lens to replace the Lewis lamps. 

The Lighthouse Service also built a small supplementary light called the Hatteras Beacon Light in 1856 about a mile south of the lighthouse, which supported both the first and second lighthouses until it was deactivated in 1898. 

The extension on the first Cape Hatteras lighthouse did help matters greatly, but by then it was too little too late. The lighthouse was falling into constant disrepair, and the structure was developing noticeable cracks and vibrating in the wind due to erosion around the foundation.  A new lighthouse would soon be in order.

The First Lighthouse Weathers The Civil War

The first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was to see two wars in its lifetime.  The first was the War of 1812, during which the British damaged the lighthouse and caused it to be shut down for repairs.  The next was the Civil War, in which Cape Hatteras and its lighthouse would figure prominently.   

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Confederates realized that keeping control of Cape Hatteras was to their advantage because of the amount of ship traffic that ventured past it.  Since hampering Union ship traffic could assist in winning the war, the Confederates put together a fleet of ships that stationed themselves in the Pamlico Sound behind Cape Hatteras and attacked and harassed Union ships passing by.  They used Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as a lookout tower and built Fort Hatteras nearby. 

Unfortunately for the Confederates, their claim on Hatteras would not last for long.  The Union also saw the importance of Cape Hatteras, and in August 1861, seven Navy ships bombarded Fort Hatteras and its sister forts for two days, which resulted in the Confederates surrendering the forts to the Union.  When the Confederates retreated, they successfully removed the first order Fresnel lens from the lighthouse and hid it before being driven from the area.  The reason for hiding the lens was to keep the lighthouse from aiding the Union troops. 

The “Chicamacomico Races”, one of the strangest events of the entire Civil War, occurred two months later on Hatteras Island on October 4-5, 1861. The Union troops had established themselves on the Outer Banks, but were concerned that the Confederate troops stationed on Roanoke Island (near the current Bodie Island Lighthouse) would try to drive them out, so they stationed Union troops on the northern end of Hatteras Island at a spot called Chicamacomico. This outpost was about 18 miles away from the fort on the opposite end of the island, and was to receive supplies by tugboat from Fort Hatteras.  The Confederates didn’t even know there was a station of Union troops at Chicamacomico, and only found out about it when they happened to capture a supply tugboat on its way to the new outpost.  This made the Confederates nervous that Union troops were trying to attack their troops in Roanoke, so they took the initiative to attack the Chicamacomico station.  Their strategy was to come on strong with boats and foot soldiers, and run the Union troops out of Chicamacomico and down to the other end of the island. They would then bombard Fort Hatteras by ship, and then dynamite the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  

The first part of the initiative worked well.  When the Confederates attacked, the Union troops, realizing they were outnumbered, fled from Chicamacomico, with both soldiers and Union-sympathetic locals running for their lives to the safety of Fort Hatteras.  The Confederate foot soldiers chased the Union troops and locals down all 18 miles of the island.  The sun was scorching hot even though it was still October, so the Union troops and locals were shedding coats, shirts, and other clothing items as they ran.  The marathon ended at midnight, with the Union troops collapsing around the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and camping beneath it, while the Confederate troops camped a few miles north, ready for the next part of the battle plan.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, part two of their strategy, which was to take over the fort and blow up the lighthouse, didn’t work out as planned.  The ship that was supposed to deliver the lethal blow to Fort Hatteras got stuck in the shoals on its way over and never made it there.  To add to the misfortune, Union reinforcements, including foot soldiers and a Union ship, arrived at Fort Hatteras the next morning.  Now it was the Confederates who were running for their lives and leaving a trail of shed clothes and other items behind them.  The Union forces chased the Confederates all the way back to Chicamacomico and then off the island.  The Confederates returned to Roanoke, and the Union decided to abandon their station in Chicamacomico, so the strange marathon ended up becoming a stalemate for both sides.   

The Outer Banks and its lighthouses were Union territory for the rest of the war.   The Union installed a second order Fresnel lens as a temporarily replacement of the missing first order Fresnel lens in the summer of 1862.  The original first order Fresnel lens that the Confederates hid was subsequently found and then sent away for repairs before replacing the temporary second order Fresnel lens in 1863.   

Even though the Union was able to relight the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before the end of the Civil War, the Union still proceeded to lose around 40 ships to the Outer Banks, while the Confederates lost few if any.  Some said that if there were a few more shoals on the Outer Banks, it is possible that the South might have won the war.   

Cape HatterasThe most famous ship that the Union lost to Cape Hatteras during the Civil War was the USS Monitor, the Union’s pioneering semi-submersible ironclad ship that would end up becoming the precursor to the modern-day battleship.  The famous “cheesebox on a raft” is most famous for the Battle at Hampton Roads, where it fought the legendary stalemate battle with the CSS Virginia (also known as the Merrimac).    The Monitor was being transferred south from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to join a blockade in the Carolinas.  The USS Rhode Island towed the Monitor southbound, starting the trip in December 25, 1862, under favorable weather.  The voyage fared well until December 30, when a storm overtook the two ships just as they were rounding Cape Hatteras.  Water began filling the Monitor faster than it could be pumped out, until finally the water extinguished the fires in the steam room that were operating the pumps.  The crew cut the anchor and the tow line and put up a distress signal for the Rhode Island and some passing ships.  The men of the Rhode Island were able to rescue most of the Monitor’s crew, but sixteen of the 62-member crew (four officers and twelve crewmen) went down with the Monitor, as did a few of the Rhode Island crew who were trying to rescue the Monitor crewmen.   The Monitor then sank at 1:30 a.m., December 31, 1862, off the coast of Cape Hatteras, where it remained undisturbed for 111 years. 

The Monitor made headlines in 1973 when it was found upside down on the ocean floor.  The site of its sinking, which is almost within sight of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, has since become the first ever U.S. Marine Sanctuary. A number of artifacts form the Monitor, including its original turret, are now housed in the USS Monitor Center, which is part of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. 

Building the Second Lighthouse

Cape HatterasBy the time the Civil War had ended, the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was falling into constant disrepair, and the structure was developing noticeable cracks and vibrating in the wind due to erosion around the foundation.  The Lighthouse Service had already conducted a thorough investigation of the lighthouse system in 1851, and realized that there was a need for an overall upgrade of the U.S. lighthouse system.  With this in mind, they began replacing run-down lighthouses such as the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with high-quality, well-engineered structures that would last for generations. 

The first of the current Outer Banks light towers to be built was the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.  William H. C. Whiting of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supervised its design, and the tower was lit on November 1, 1859.  During the Civil War, the Confederates actually tried to blow up the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, but the only thing the explosion did to it was to cause some damage to the lamphouse, the Fresnel lens, and the stairwell.  Since the Cape Lookout Lighthouse withstood such a powerful test, the Lighthouse Service decided to use it as the prototype for the new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which would be built next. 

On March 2, 1867, Congress authorized the building of the second (and current) Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  Unlike the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, the new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the two Outer Banks light towers that followed it were built under the direction of foreman Dexter Stetson.  Stetson had worked as construction supervisor on the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and was promoted to foreman for the construction of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse; he would work as foreman for the other two Outer Banks light towers, Bodie Island and Currituck Beach, as well.  A number of design flaws that the Cape Lookout Lighthouse still suffers from were corrected in the later lighthouses under Stetson’s care.  Stetson also improved upon the Cape Lookout Lighthouse prototype with the addition of some design flourishes that augment the later Outer Banks lighthouses.  (See this page for a comparison.) 

The crew began construction of the second Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in December 1868. They began by building a 1 ½-mile tramway from the beach to the construction site for transport materials, as well as a small “village” for the workers with living quarters, storage facilities, and even a blacksmith shop.  Because the sea had encroached upon the location of the first Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the site of the new Cape Hatteras lighthouse was set a safe distance inland to the northeast of the original lighthouse.  The new location would be 600 feet from the first lighthouse and 1600 feet from the shore.   

The Lighthouse Service ordered 1.25 million bricks for the building of the lighthouse, almost all of which were used.  One shipment of bricks had to be reordered because Cape Hatteras sunk the ship carrying the bricks before it reached the construction site; the same thing happened with a shipment of granite that was sent for the construction of the foundation and base. 

The shifting sandbar that is Hatteras Island may not seem like a solid place to build a 198-foot lighthouse, but when the crew began excavating for the foundation, they found that the layer of sand starting eight feet beneath the surface was compact enough that they could not drive a ¼” iron rod more than nine feet into it. This eliminated the need for a piling foundation, and allowed for a shallower foundation, which was built of crossed yellow pine timbers and reinforced with granite blocks.  After the foundation was completed, the crew began work on the lighthouse’s stately brick-and-granite base, which was completed in November 1869.  The tower itself took nearly a year to build, but was mostly complete by September 1870.  The lamphouse was added in November, and then fitted with a first-order Fresnel lens.  After two years of hard work, the second Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was completed in December, and lit on December 16, 1870. 

Experience Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: 

Close-up photos from throughout the lighthouse: 

Lighthouses and the early growth of the federal government: 

Interesting article on Alexander Hamilton: 

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