• Cape Lookout Lighthouse from Barden Inlet

    Cape Lookout

    National Seashore North Carolina

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1859 Lighthouse

Shortly after it was completed, it became apparent that the1812 Cape Lookout Lighthouse was ineffective. Almost half a century later-following administrative and policy changes in the Light House Board--the second Cape Lookout Lighthouse was completed. This new, taller tower was better suited to warn mariners of the dangers of Lookout Shoals.

 
Architectural Plan for 1859 Lighthouse

The attached house shown on this architectural plan for 1859 lighthouse was not built.

The New Light

The second Cape Lookout Lighthouse, completed and lit on November 1, 1859, replaced the shorter 1812 lighthouse. The double wall structure--the first of its kind in North Carolina--allowed the tower to be much taller than previous designs. The first order Fresnel (pronounced Frey-nel) lens was installed in the new tower. The 1859 lighthouse was 163 feet tall and its light reached approximately 15 miles out to sea.

Shortly after the improved tower was activated, however, war broke out between the states. The light was extinguished to prevent Union ships from using it to navigate the treacherous North Carolina coast. The light was reestablished with a third order Fresnel lens in 1863 and shone for most of the remainder of the war. For more information, visit the Cape Lookout Light and the Civil War webpage.

The original Fresnel lens was sent to France for repairs following the war and was reinstalled in 1867. The iron staircase, damaged in a Confederate raid, was also repaired that year.

 
Sketch of a watch room with Fresnel Lens

Sketch of a 1st order Fresnel Lens in a watch room.

Lamps, Oil, and Electricity

Whale oil was used initially to power the lamp. Due to rising costs, the Light House Board switched to using mineral oil (kerosene) in 1873. The wick lamp was replaced by an incandescent oil vapor (IOV) lamp in 1912, increasing the visibility to 19 miles. Generators supplied electricity for the new equipment. The light became automated in 1950: the light turned itself on and off automatically but required Keepers to fill the generators. Two aero-beacons replaced the Fresnel lens in 1975.

The lighthouse continued to use generators until an underwater cable from Harkers Island was laid in 1983. At that time, the Cape Lookout Light Station was decommissioned and responsibility for the lighthouse was transferred to the Coast Guard Station at Fort Macon.

On July 14, 2003, the Coast Guard transferred the tower and remaining property to the National Park Service in order to allow the lighthouse to be opened for public climbs. The light itself is still maintained by the Coast Guard.

 
Lighthouse circa 1910 - copyright John Willis

Photo circa 1910

Courtesy of John Willis

Daymarks and Flash Patterns

When it was first built in 1859, the second lighthouse was a simple red brick tower as was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (1870), the Bodie Island Lighthouse (1872), and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875). The Light House Board decided that each coastal lights would be assigned its own distinctive daymark, or color pattern. This would allow mariners to determine their location during the day in the same way that light flash patterns did at night. In 1873, the Cape Lookout lighthouse was painted with its distinctive black-and-white diagonal checkers (or "diamonds").

The original light was steady with no flash pattern. In 1914, however, this changed when an occulting device was installed, driven by a clockwork mechanism, which established a flash pattern for the light. The chain for the clockwork was so long that a hole had to be cut in the lantern room floor and two of the iron steps had to be altered. With the installation of the electric IOV lamp in 1933, the flash pattern became more complex. It was on for 2 seconds, off for 2 seconds,on for 2 seconds, and off for 9 seconds. Today, the light "flashes" once every 15 seconds as the beacons rotate.

For more information on the Light House Board, Lighthouse Service, and Coast Guard administration of lighthouses in the United States, please visit the Lighthouses: An Administrative History webpage.

Did You Know?

Portsmouth Life-Saving Station crew pose in their surfboat.

"You have to go out, you don't have to come back" was the unofficial motto of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The Life-Saving Service rescued shipwreck victims from stations located in Portsmouth, and on Core Banks and Cape Lookout. Cape Lookout National Seashore More...