Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Celebrating 150 Years

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the centerpiece of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, is celebrating the 150 year. That’s how long it has been since the the beacon in this current tower was first lit in December 1870. 

This was not the first lighthouse at this location. The first was built at the behest of then Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, after his ship almost sank in the treacherous waters off the outer banks. Originally constructed in 1802, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse played a critical role in helping sailors navigate the shifting shoals.

One of the things we hadn’t thought about until visiting Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was the fact that the sandy shoals aren’t always in the same place. Like wind erosion on the beach, the underwater current moves the sand and changes the contours, making navigation more difficult.

Cape Hatteras was one in a string of lighthouses all along the coast, and just one of the ones you can visit. Cape Hatteras National Seashore includes Cape Hatteras and Bodie Lighthouse. Nearby are the Okracoke and Cape Lookout lighthouses. 

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse you see today is not the first. As technology improved, a new tower with a longer range beacon was built. Lit in 1870 – 150 years ago – it provided much better visibility.

This new light remained active until 1935 when a beacon was placed farther inland on a steel skeleton tower. The National Park Service took custody of the old lighthouse station, preserving the historic structures, but it continued to be threatened by erosion.

In 1999, to escape the encroaching sea, the National Park Service moved the entire lighthouse station inland. Easy, right? Just pick up a lighthouse from its foundation and set it down somewhere safe. Not so easy… it was over 200 feet high and weighed almost 5,000 tons. There was also worry that the brick structure would not survive the move. But it did, and you can now visit the lighthouse and all of the original outbuildings.

When we visited, we could still see evidence of the relocation process. It was a huge engineering undertaking – lifting the lighthouse up off its foundation, stabilizing it, putting it on a steel track and rolling it, slowly, to a new location 2900 feet to the southwest where it was put down on to a new foundation. Then all the other outbuildings including the keeper’s house and oil shed were moved to the new location and placed exactly as they had been. Amazing!

The lighthouse is beautifully preserved. When we visited it had just been repainted. We hadn’t really thought much about lighthouse coloring, but something we learned there was how distinctive each lighthouse is. That is on purpose so that sailors could visually identify where they were. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has it distinctive “barber pole” markings, Bodie Lighthouse is striped and Cape Lookout has a diamond pattern.

You can climb to the top of the lighthouse – just 269 steps to the top – for great views of the ocean. You can also visit the various buildings to learn more about the lighthouse and the keeper’s life. 

While you are visiting Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, be sure to spend some time exploring the national seashore and the nearby Pea Islands National Wildlife Refuge. There are tons of birds – American oyster catcher, plovers, cormorants and our favorite, laughing gulls.

In season (May to October), you will see volunteers out counting and protecting the sea turtles as they return to hatch on these remote beaches. This area is the nesting grounds of 5 species of sea turtles.

Beach walking is always a highlight. We camped in the National Seashore at Oregon Inlet Campground, right on the beach. It was lovely!

Located on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks (OBX), you can drive to the National Seashore from Nags Head, North Carolina. Coming from the south, you will have to take a ferry. When you are in the area, don’t limit yourself to only Cape Hatteras National Seashore, be sure to also visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Need Help Planning Your Visits?

If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.