Window View: Hatteras Lighthouse
How many know that the Hatteras Lighthouse, as we know it now, is not the orignal lighthouse? Or that, with a 208 foot tower, this lighthouse is the tallest in the US?
For the our new series on NC lighthouses this week, we’ll be touching on some little known facts like these..and thanks to the array of pictures that Mark Lemmon, primary photographer, and Bill King of the Outer Banks NC Local Artist page on Facebook have so graciously allowed us to share, we can also show you several different views of Hatteras Lighthouse. I have learned a lot just researching this particular one, so this series should be of interest to many of us NC buffs!
Our original Hatteras Lighthouse was a bit small, a simple 90 foot sandstone tower with 18 whale oil lamps and reflectors, and was erected in 1803. One of the challenges for this lighthouse was to warn seagoing folks of the nearby Diamond Shoals (an area known to most NC-ers as the “Graveyard of the Atantic”), and 90 feet was simply not tall enough to be seen. Diamond Shoals is a meeting point for both the Gulf Stream and the Virginia Coastal Drift and with an expanse of ten miles of shifting water, and constant problems with storms breaking the glass and extinquishing the lamps, another solution was desperately needed.
In a stop-gap attempt, the Lighthouse Board had the orignal tower raised 150 feet and the whale oil lamps were replaced with a new first-order Fresnal lens in 1852. However, this was not the end of problems for the lighthouse, as in 1861, with battles raging, the Confederate army took possession of the fresnal lens, in hopes of hampering Union ships.
1862 saw the lighthouse relit with a second order fresnal lens, and that lens was replaced in 1863 with another first order lens. But the saga of the Hatteras Lighthouse doesn’t end there. With so much damage substained during the war, the Lighthouse Board determined that is was more cost efficient to simply build a new lighthouse than to attempt to repair the old one, so a new site was chosen 600 feet north of the orginal site, and a new lighthouse was completed in 1870. The old lighthouse was dynamited, and the fresnal lens, at this point, was then shipped to California to grace the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. This is when the story starts getting really interesting, folks.
The new lighthouse, a 208 foot structure, has over one million bricks in it, and was placed on a floating foundation consisting of two layers of pine beams, and this foundation lasted well over a century. On Dec 1, 1870, the lighthouse beacon shined again, wth both the fresnal lens and an oil lamp.
Then a surprise! In 2002, somehow it was realized that the fresnal lens in the new lighthouse was actually the orginal lens that the Confederates confiscated. The lens had spent its time hidden during the time of war, and after a trip to Paris for cleaning, it waited patiently in storage on Staten Island in New York. 1873 saw the lighthouse painted with its well known black and white spirals, and the flat coastline now had a visible structure, seen for miles to warn of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, between souvenir hunters and acts of nature, many pieces of the fresnal lens disappeared, and as the shoreline began to encroach, our Coast Gaurd replaced the fresnal with a beacon in 1950. However, in 1987, the shoreline had advanced to within 120 feet of the new lighthouse, and more measures were needed to safegaurd it. The lighthouse was moved half a mile inland in 1999, and a stone ring now marks the original location.
The new location rec’d the lighthouse on July 9, 1999, and once again beamed its light on Nov 13 of that year.
Due to space limitations, there is not really room to go into detail about two things that really should be mentioned: first: the fact that due to a hurricane in 1933, so much damage was done that the lighthouse was temporarily abandoned and a substitute beacon was manned by Lighthouse Keeper Unaka Jennette, who by family lines had a long and varied associaton wth the lighthouse..in fact, the orginal track of 4 acres for the first lighthouse was sold by the Jennette Family. You can easily google the Jennette family to see their long- standing association with the lighthouse.
The second things we’d like to mention is that the moving of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was called the “2000 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. There is a documentary available, “The Move of the Century”, however, I do want to mention here that when I tried to locate this, I was repeatedly directed to the 10th annimversary edition that retails for approximately $100.oo on Amazon. Knowing that this could not possibly be the only option, I finally called the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Visitor’s Center, where I was told that a copy could be purchased of the original for around $20.00. Due to storms and being repeatedly cut off during those phone calls, I could not verify this to my satisfaction, but am going to post the phone number for the Cape Hatteras Visitor’s Center for those who might want to inquire further. I personally have seen this video, and it is truly an incredibly feat, well worth viewing, and drives home the massive undertaking this move was, and the dedicated number of people involved in accomplishing it successfully.
The address and phone number are listed below:
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
46368 Old Lighthouse Rd
Buxton, NC 27920
A special note: in the stone ring left to memorialize the orignal location, 83 keepers of the light now have their names engraved in granite to mark their service, and is also well worth the visit to round out the whole picture of the Hatteras Lighthouse..
Any mistakes in this note are solely the responsibility of the author. Most information was culled from a variety of sources.
Footnote: link for more information on the Jennette family association: