Part 2 in a series: The iconic lighthouses standing watch along North Carolina’s Outer Banks protect a coastline known grimly as The Graveyard of the Atlantic. They are as beautiful as the coastal waters are deadly. We climbed three!
Navigating these treacherous Atlantic Ocean waters has been a challenge for centuries. More than 5,000 shipwrecks have been logged since record-keeping began in 1526. Most ran aground on shifting sand bars or rocky shoals, or broke apart in fierce storms. Yet mother nature isn’t solely to blame.
Local legend says “wreckers” used to lure merchant ships to their doom for the salvage by hanging a lantern from the neck of a horse and leading it up and down the tall dunes at what is now Nags Head, simulating safe harbor for ship’s at sea. During World War II, German U-boats sank more than 400 supply ships along a stretch of coastal waters called Torpedo Alley. German sailors dubbed the operation “The Great American Turkey Shoot.” Care to dig deeper into the lore of lost ships? Visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at the tip of Hatteras Island.
One legacy of all that offshore mayhem is a string of majestic light stations that serve as navigation beacons. On our recent visit to the Outer Banks, we visited three brick sisters – the lighthouses named for Currituck Beach, Bodie (pronounced “body”) Island and Cape Hatteras – each beautiful in her own way.
We began our first full day at the Outer Banks at Stack ‘em High Pancakes & So Forth, then wound north to Corolla on Highway 12 from our Airbnb in Kitty Hawk to see the feral Colonial Spanish mustangs at Currituck Beach.
That plan changed, however, when we arrived at the tour office and discovered a toddler and her parents would be joining us for the three-hour tour in the seven-seat SUV. Heeding lessons about three-hour tours and small children learned from the classic television sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” and toddler grandsons, respectively, we chose to reschedule and headed for nearby Currituck Beach Lighthouse instead.
Completed in 1875, the 162-foot Currituck Beach Lighthouse was the last brick station constructed on the Outer Banks. The masons laid 1 million bricks – red – to build walls that are 5 feet 8 inches thick at the base and narrow to 3 feet at the parapet.
Unlike its black-and-white striped sisters to the south, the Currituck lighthouse was never painted. The structure is stunning, and just imagine the savings in upkeep! Savings are important since this lighthouse is owned and operated by the nonprofit Outer Banks Conservationists. The Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island Lighthouses are within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and maintained by the National Park Service.
The base of the lighthouse and the out buildings sit in a grove of live oaks with nary a view of Currituck Sound nor the Atlantic Ocean. Both quickly came into view as we ascended the 223 steps to the parapet. MontaraManDan particularly enjoyed the view of the Maritime Forest to the north in the Currituck Banks Reserve. The Geek, however, was bedazzled by her private tour of the light station’s Fresnel lens. It is a monster, the largest of seven sizes available. Light from the 20-second flash cycle (3 seconds on, 17 seconds off) is visible for 18 nautical miles. Ships still use the-now automated beacon as a navigation aid.
A visit to Cape Hatteras National Seashore requires, well, at least a day to do it justice. Our first stop was Bodie Island Lighthouse, situated on a marshy green adjacent to a salt water pond.
The angle of the clouds demanded that we step onto the green to capture the moment digitally. Unfortunately, the grass harbored legions of mosquitoes and MontaraManDan quickly discovered he was breakfast. The Geek, always thinking ahead, had worn long pants and insect repellant. “Mosquitoes?” she queried, looking up from her lens as MontaraManDan fled to the relative safety of the asphalt parking lot, his legs splotched with his own blood as he swatted fiercely at the onslaught.
It could have been worse. As we walked the boardwalk out to an observation deck overlooking the pond, we saw signs on the green advising: “Warning. Venomous snakes observed near tall grasses and marsh. Please use sidewalks.” Apparently, the Outer Banks is home to Timber Rattlers, copperheads and water moccasins. Our advice? Keep off the grass.
Completed in 1872, the Bodie lighthouse is the best kept of the three. A major refurbishment of the 156-foot tower, painted with black and white horizontal bands, was completed in 2013, and it shows. It also boasts a first-order Fresnel lens, much to The Geek’s delight, and allows visitors to climb to the parapet to take in the view.
The 200-step spiral staircase to the top has a hand rail on only one side and visitors must move between landings one at a time. The weight limit for any individual climber is 260 pounds. There was a time when the combined weight of MontaraManDan and the Geek sat a bit below that limit, but that time has past.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse rises from a swampy maritime forest in Buxton, an hour south of its Bodie Island sister. Our drive down Highway 12 through the national seashore featured a wind-swept rain storm at the Bonner Bridge and its not-quite-finished replacement span, and took us past miles of oceanside dunes and occasional marshes stretching into Pamlico Sound. Breaks in the oceanside dunes open the beaches to foot and even vehicle traffic at regular intervals.
We arrived in Buxton ready for lunch but drove on to the Ferry Terminal at Hatteras Village in search of better options. Our bad. Lunch hours had ended or were nonexistent at most of the local restaurants. We eventually found a decent cheese burger and fries at Hatterasman diner before taking our tour of The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum to marinade in its grim but fascinating tales of perils at sea.
The black-and-white candy-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the nation’s tallest, may be the most recognized landmark in the Outer Banks. Need evidence? It appears on not just one but two U.S. postage stamps. We climbed all 257 steps to the parapet to enjoy the view but, alas, discovered the station has no Fresnel lens. An automatic 800,000 candle power beacon flashes every 7.5 seconds throughout each night.
The history of the light station is as fun as the view.
The present lighthouse – the one on the stamps – resides 2,900 feet inland from its original location. The 4,830-ton brick tower was moved intact in 1999 after more than a century of encroachment had left the ocean just 100 feet from the structure’s threshold. The move took 23 days. How did they do it? Find the details here .
The predecessor to the current lighthouse boasted a first-order Fresnel lens, but it was dismantled by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and presumed lost for more than a century until a researcher discovered it had been quietly installed into the current structure when it opened in 1870, only to be nearly lost to vandals and thieves after the lighthouse was decommissioned and transferred to the National Park Service in 1936. You can read the whole sordid tale here .
The remains of the lens reside in The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, where The Geek enjoyed her Hatteras Island Fresnel fix. Whew.
This is the second in a three-part series of our “shoulder season” visit to North Carolina’s Outer Banks in late summer 2018.