Six lighthouses dot the North Carolina coast from Currituck to Bald Head Island, each with it's unique character. From the natural red brick Currituck lighthouse to the grandfatherly ''Old Baldy'', these lighthouses are today often more ornamental than mandatory. Yet in their day, they were vital aids to navigation along the treacherous coastline.
For nearly two centuries after North Carolina's settlement, the coast went unprotected. Hundreds of ships met their fate in the stormy shallow waters, and one of the first legislative acts passed by the America's fledgling government was lighting the coast.
In 1793, Congress passed an act to construct the first North Carolina lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. The first structure completed was the Bald Head lighthouse at the mouth of the busy Cape Fear River, completed in 1795. The first Cape Hatteras lighthouse was completed in 1802. The Ocracoke Lighthouse came next in 1823. Still operating today, it holds the distinction along with Old Baldy as one of the oldest continually operating lighthouses in the United States.
After the Civil War, the government realized that more and better lighthouses were needed along the Carolina coast. The Hatteras Light, which was of vital importance to mariners, was too short, too faint, and too unstable. In addition, Congress established the Lighthouse Board to supervise construction of five new lighthouses along the coast at 40-mile intervals.
The Cape Lookout lighthouse near Morehead City was the first of these post-war structures to be completed. At 150 feet, it served as the model for future lighthouses at Hatteras, Currituck, and Bodie Island.
In 1870, the original Cape Hatteras lighthouse as replaced by the current structure. At 208 feet, the majestic candy-striped lighthouse is the tallest in the nation, as well as the most recognizable. The 1802 structure has long since been claimed by the sea, a fate that might have befallen the current structure had the Department of the Interior not moved it in the summer of 1999.
The 150-foot Bodie Island Lighthouse was constructed in 1872. Originally located on the north shore of Oregon Inlet, the lighthouse is now two miles north of the inlet, which has shifted south over the years.
At Corolla, the Currituck Beach lighthouse was the last of the five to be built. Constructed in 1893, the 150-foot structure was intentionally left in its natural unpainted state. The Lighthouse Board ordered each of the new lighthouses painted in a distinctive manner to make them recognizable during daylight hours.
Perhaps most interesting is how these monolithic structures were built in the soft barrier island sand. The foundations were constructed of two courses of six-by-twelve timbers laid in an octagonal fashion in a deep pit. Once the timbers were in place, the hole was allowed to fill with seawater, a technique which has preserved the beams for over a century. Then, an octagonal granite cap was laid on top of the foundation, and the circular tower constructed brick by brick.
The lights were originally lit with oil lanterns, which required the keeper to make several treks a day to the summit with oil refills. The light was magnified with a high-power Fresnel Lens mounted atop a rotating base and flashed at recognizable intervals, which could be seen up to 50 miles away, even in stormy weather. The light keeper and his family were housed on the site, and their days at these remote, barren outposts were filled with routine chores such as cleaning the glass and lens, repairing storm damage, and making weather reports.
Today, the lightkeepers are gone, and the lighthouses are automated to illuminate at dusk and turn off at dawn. Millions of tourists visit the Outer Banks lighthouses each year, and although -at the time of this article- only the Hatteras and Currituck lighthouses are open on limited schedules for climbing , the sturdy of foot and heart will be rewarded by a stunning view from the top.