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The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Station was established in 1803 with an octagonal 90 foot sandstone tower. In subsequent reports, the U.S. Navy determined that both the lighting apparatus and the tower's height were inadequate to properly warn mariners off the Diamond Shoals. The 1851 report by Lt. David Porter, USN stated that the "Hatteras Light, the most important on our coast is, without doubt, the worst light in the world." He further reported that passing steamers exhibited a brighter light and could easily be confused with the light on shore. The lamps and reflectors were replaced with a first order Fresnel lens in 1854 when the tower was raised to 150 feet.
A victim of the Civil War, the first order Fresnel Lens was removed and the tower dynamited by Confederate troops to prevent its use by the Union Naval blockade in 1862. Union forces placed the lighthouse back into service using a second order lens that same year and returned another first order lens in 1863. Congress authorized reconstruction of the damaged tower walls which were cracked following a lightning strike in 1867 but engineers recommended replacing the tower with a new granite and brick tower. This existing 193 foot tall tower was built a short distance from the original tower and entered service in 1870 equipped with a recently renovated Henry-Lepaute first order Fresnel lens that was in storage at the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot. The fate of the original first order lens removed by the Confederacy remained a mystery to lighthouse history until 2002.
The new tower has been threatened by beach erosion in a never ending battle with nature and the aid to navigation was transferred to a skeleton tower on a sand dune further inland in 1935. Following successful erosion control projects by the Civilian Conservation Commission and Work Projects Administration, the tower was considered to be again safe for use and placed back in service with a rotating aero-beacon in 1950. The first order Fresnel lens had been severely damaged by vandals after the tower had been abandoned in 1935 and was now inoperative, missing many of its prisms and other parts.
The U.S. National Park Service has held ownership of the lighthouse since 1935 and orchestrated what is called "The Move of the Century" in 1999. Due to continued erosion, the tower was in severe jeopardy of falling into the ocean and was moved 2,900 feet to the southeast. The successful relocation of the tower, keeper's house and outbuildings was undertaken by the International Chimney Corporation and the lighthouse was relit after 7 1/2 months. The keeper's house now serves as the Hatteras Island Visitor Center. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse remains the tallest lighthouse in the United States. The black and white striped tower continues to be an active aid to navigation and an attraction in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.optic.
October 2002 Issue, The Lost Light - The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel Lens By Kevin P. Duffus. "The first-order lens from the Hatteras lighthouse had become a pawn in the catastrophic calamity that was the Civil War. Confederates possessed the apparatus to flaunt their claim on what they believed was their lawful property. The Federal government desperately wanted to get the lens back and the Hatteras light re-established, first for humanitarian reasons, and secondly and more importantly, as a symbolic pronouncement proving that the Union, like the lighthouse, would prevail." Please go to the Lighthouse Digest Magazine Archives for the full article. Lighthouse Digest magazine not only keeps the history of our lighthouses alive both in print and on line, but it is the best single source to keep current on all aspects of lighthouse preservation, news and events
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located in Buxton on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and is easily accesible by road.
Directions: Take North Carolina Route 12 north or south into the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. On a clear day, you really won't need further directions. Keep driving towards the 193 foot black and white tower and follow the National Park Service signs. If you're unfortunate enough to visit on a foggy day, Buxton is located about 42 miles south of the Bodie Island Lighthouse and 33 miles north of Ocracoke and the Swan Quarter Ferry
Cape Hatteras National Seashore for information on Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Park hours and facilities.
For more photographs and history of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, you can visit the: