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Cape Hatteras Light Station
National Historic Landmark Study
by Ralph Eshelman
Designated August 5, 1998
Note: All photos are courtesy of the National Park Service and were taken before relocation of station in 1999.
The Cape Hatteras Light Station, consisting
of a lighthouse tower, principal keeper's dwelling, duplex assistant keeper's
dwelling, and oil house, survives as a relatively complete station with
its major support buildings intact. The tallest lighthouse in the U.S.
and the second tallest brick light tower in the world, it is a 198-foot-tall
structure from ground level to the peak of the lantern roof. Located on
land just north of the tip of Cape Hatteras, on the Outer Banks of Dare
County, North Carolina, the property is owned and operated as a historic
site by the National Park Service. Access to the property is through Cape
Hatteras National Seashore.
In 1871 a brick dwelling for the principal keeper was completed and enclosed in a "neat picket-fence." At least one account states the dwelling was originally to be built of wood but since there was brick left over from building the tower, it was built of brick. It was built from the design of the Leading Point Light Station keeper's dwelling (entrance to Baltimore Harbor) and cost $3,600. The upper courses of the south and north gable ends are corbeled out in a pattern which gives a gingerbread-like appearance. The principal keeper's dwelling is located just east of the assistant keeper's dwelling and north of the tower. It originally was a half brick structure with 1½-story kitchen ell on the east side off the living room at the south end. The bedroom was located on the north side separated by a central stair hall running east and west. Two bedrooms were located on the second floor. There is a porch at the south entrance door and one was located off the east side of the stair hall entrance. A cistern connected to the roof gutter system is located at the north end of the structure. This structure was altered and enlarged as a guest house in 1927, with a one-story frame extension added to the east end of the kitchen. A two-story frame addition was built in the ell of the old portion of the structure which provided a larger living room and larger bedroom on the second floor. To the east of this addition a 1-story porch was built in line with the kitchen addition. The dwelling measures approximately 35 feet by 32 feet.
All the window fenestration consists of six-over-six pane double-hung wood-sash windows. Two windows are located on the upper and lower level of the north elevation. A fifth window is located in the center of the lower floor of the wood frame section of the north elevation. There is a double set of windows on the upper level of the south gable end of the brick elevation. On the lower floor is a central door with a window on each side. There is a window on the lower floor of both the south and north elevation of the frame east wing. Another window is located on the lower level of the northwest corner of the west elevation. The east elevation has a wood door in the brick portion and two windows on the frame portion of the east wing elevation. The door is a five panel door with four light panes along each side.
During the Civilian Conservation Coprs (CCC) renovation, an exterior stairway was added. This was later removed to better reflect the original configuration of the structure. The roof is wood shingle. There is a brick chimney located near the southwest corner and north end of the original brick structure. A third chimney rises from the center of the roof of the east wing. A skylight to light the interior stairwell landing is located about midway across the west side of the roof. The exterior is painted white. A brick walk ran from the dwelling to the light tower. In 1927 the brick walks were apparently replaced with concrete, and the dwelling was reported to have 7 rooms, and the exterior painted white with lead trim. All the floors, interior walls, and ceilings have been replaced. Most of the interior wood trim around the doors and windows and the stair banister may be original. In 1986 the Park Service restored both keepers quarters. The most recent renovation completed in 1997, the principal keeper's dwelling is being used for the book shop and for interpretative purposes. After the anticipated move of the station inland, the structure is slated for interpretation purposes only.
In 1854 a frame duplex keepers dwelling was constructed on brick piers and whitewashed. A one-story porch faces the south elevation. Two brick chimneys pierce the wood-shingled gable roof. In 1892 one of the kitchens forming the wings of the assistant keeper's house was moved to the rear (north elevation), and changes were made to adapt it for use by two families. This wing has green shutters; in 1893 all the windows had shutters. The main section of the dwelling was extended on its front and back lines about 16 feet; the enclosure constituted an additional 16 feet by 20 feet, 3 inches, in plan and two stories in height. This provided quarters for the third assistant keeper which had first been requested in 1887. In 1927 the structure was reported to have 12 rooms, and the exterior was painted white with lead trim. The structure measures approximately 86 by 42 feet. Brick cisterns are located at the east and west ends of the dwelling.
The fenestration for the assistant keeper's dwellings consists of four-over-four, double-hung wood-sash windows which are tongue-and-grooved and doweled at each end. There are eight windows along the upper level of both the south and north elevation. There are six windows and two doors along the lower level of the south elevation. The north elevation has four windows and a door along the lower level. Three original windows were covered when the north wing was added. The west and east elevation has no fenestration. The north wing has two windows on the south elevation. The east wing has one window on the south elevation. The original pine floors are extant on the upper level and presumed to be covered with new hardwood flooring on the lower level. Cedar vertical wall paneling was installed by the CCC in the 1930s. It was later painted, the siding removed, sanded down to its original unpainted appearance, and reinstalled so that about three out of every four walls are covered with 1930s paneling and the rest with more modern 1980s cedar paneling. The 1930s paneling was not necessarily returned to its original location. In 1954 the interior of the structure was converted for use as the Museum of the Sea Visitor Center and park offices, with modern restrooms placed in the former rear kitchen. The structure is now covered with German siding and includes lexan storm windows. Both stairwells and banisters appear to be original though the stair treads appear to be replacement. All the fireplaces and chimneys are redone. All the hardware appears to be replacement except possibly the hardware on the doors located on the north and south elevation of northeast and southeast corner of the structure. This structure continued to be used as office and museum space in 1997. After the anticipated move of the station, the structure is slated for interpretation purposes only.
In 1892, plans called for a brick oil house, 15 feet, 6 inches by 13 feet, 6 inches, with walls 8 feet, 6 inches high and 9 inches thick, and a gable roof 4 feet high. The upper four brick courses on the side walls are corbeled out to receive the roof overhang. The metal ceiling ventilator hood is still intact. A pipe runs from the hood to a hole in each gable end of the structure. The pipe running out of the west elevation may be an exhaust pipe from when the oil house was used as a generator building by the Coast Guard. There is one window on the north, south and east elevations; these were probably added at a later date. The door opening is located on the west elevation. It has a brick arched lintel. The present door is wood painted white. The original door was probably iron. Two metal door pintles are set in sandstone blocks built into the brick wall. Presently the windows are boarded over. By 1927 the oil house had been fitted with a 1200 gallon tank for bulk oil. The roof was covered with tin metal sheathing by at least 1906; now it is covered with asphalt singles. Designed to house oil drums, the structure later housed an auxiliary generator for the beacon when the Coast Guard took over operation. Today the oil house is vacant. The floor is made of brick laid in a herring bone pattern. The oil house is located 65 feet north of the light tower.
Non-contributing structures include sidewalks and a parking lot.
Previously Existing Structures:
The tower was built between 1799 and 1803 by Henry Dearborn. It was made of dressed "brown" stone and brick, octagonal in shape, tapering toward the top and surmounted with a bird cage type lantern. The tower was 26 feet, 6 inches in diameter at the base, 90 feet high with a 12 foot tall lantern. The foundation stones were 10 inches thick and from 1 to 4 feet long. It was described in 1852 as a "tower built of dark sandstone; natural color of materials." The light was 112 feet above sea level and "about one mile N. of high water mark." The tower was "refitted" in 1854 by a brick addition raising the tower to 150 feet above sea level; a flashing first-order Fresnel lens was installed; and the first 70 feet of the tower whitewashed and the remainder painted red. The tower was fitted with wooden steps to access the lantern. After the new tower was completed, the old tower was "blown up" in February 1871. The ruins of the tower were located 600 feet south of the present tower on a sand hill in 1968 and consisted of a semi-circular masonry wall about four feet high. The foundation washed away in a storm in 1980 and has been removed as a contributing feature of the National Register district.
The first original keeper's dwelling built in 1803 was replaced in 1828. The 1828 dwelling was apparently replaced by the 1854 frame assistant keeper's dwelling which is still extant. Little is known as to physical appearance of the 1808 or 1828 structures.
In 1888 two new 10- by 20-foot in plan storehouses were built for the assistant keepers as well as a small storage building erected near the tower for storage of empty oil cans. One of the storehouses was moved from near the tower to the vicinity of the principal keeper's dwelling. All were frame construction on wood foundations; two of the warehouses had canvas roofs and the third a shingle roof. At least five warehouses are shown in a 1906 layout of the station.
In 1949 a 1-story concrete building was constructed to house the LORAN (long-range aids to navigation) station moved from Bodie Island. It and a tall metal tower were located south of the light station.
A summer kitchen, smokehouse, well, and at least two privies also once existed. These were frame construction on wood foundations with shingle roofs. A cast-iron fence once stood above the granite base around the tower. Today a four-rail wooden fence installed by the National Park Service surrounds the tower just outside the original fence line. A large naval facility was located to the north of the station but has been replaced by a U.S. Coast Guard base.
In 1868 suitable workmen's quarters, a "mess-room," a blacksmith shop, a warehouse for cement and other perishables, two derricks, a wharf (built on the north side of the island about 1¼ miles from the station), and a tram road from the wharf to the lighthouse for transporting materials were temporarily built.
The primary structures forming the Cape Hatteras Light Station are extant; however, they have been altered and/or renovated over time, but such changes are part of the natural progression of enlargement and alteration of any light station and do not detract from their overall historic integrity. Most of the structures which have been demolished date from the period of the first tower or from WWII and later. Their absence does not significantly detract from the historic integrity of the present light station.
1999 Cape Hatteras Light Station Relocation
Threats of destruction from shoreline erosion (see appendix for erosion summary) led to the successful relocation of the light station during the summer of 1999. The configuration of the structures to one another as well as their orientation to the shoreline was maintained by surveying the horizontal and vertical relationship of the four structures at their historic location and carefully positioning them at the new site to match. 
1. Part of this description is taken from Ronald G. Warfield, "Cape Hatteras Light Station," National Register of Historic Places InventoryNomination Form (September 6, 1977), copy at National Maritime Initiative Office, National Park Service, Washington, D.C. The original detailed construction drawings survive in the National Archives; copies are available in the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Comprehensive Structural Analysis Report by Hasbrouck Hunderman Architects, Inc., March 1986. The description is also based on Holland, F. Ross, Jr., "A History of the Cape Hatteras Light Station," National Park Service, Division of History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, September 30, 1968.
2. "Cape Hatteras," The Ships' Bulletin, volume 35, number 1 (January-February 1955), p. 10.
3. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1869.
4. "Cape Hatteras Lighthouse," Historic American Buildings Survey NC-357 (1989), National Park Service, Washington, D.C.; and Thomas Yocum, "Standing (not so) Tall, Sentinel, no date, no page.
5. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1869 and 1873.
6. "A Field Investigation at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina, by Charles W. Porter, Assistant Historian, March 15-18, 1937," copy at Cape Hatteras National Seashore Headquarters, and National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
7. "Description of Cape Hatteras Light Station, June 9, 1927," Department of Commerce, Lighthouse Service (1927), original at National Archives lighthouse site files, copy at National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
8. Buoy List, 1925, p. 127; and "A Field Investigation at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina, by Charles W. Porter, Assistant Historian, March 15-18, 1937," copy at Cape Hatteras National Seashore Headquarters, and National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
9. The brass framework and some of the prisms are part of the museum collection at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, catalog #135.
10. Diane Suchetka, "Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Spruced Up: Workers Stabilize Landmark That's Blinked for 121 Years," Observer (February 17, 1991); and "Cape Hatteras," Notice to Keeper's, The Keeper's Log (Spring 1991), p. 36-37.
11. Holland (1968a) does not confirm this account.
12. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1871; Warfield, p. 7.2; Holland, p. 95; and "Description of Cape Hatteras Light Station, June 9, 1927," Department of Commerce, Lighthouse Service (1927), original at National Archives lighthouse site files, copy at National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
13. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1892.
14. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1892; and Warfield, p. 7.1.
15. List of Light-houses, Beacons, &c., 1853 and 1857; Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, 1864 and 1871; Warfield, p. 7.2; F. Ross Holland, Jr., A History of the Cape Hatteras Light Station (National Park Service, Division of History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, 1968), pp. 10-11; and oral communication from Steve Harrison, NPS museum curator to Ralph Eshelman, May 1, 1997.
16. Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, 1888 and 1892; and Warfield, p. 7.2; see Holland illustration 13 and 14.
17. Warfield, p. 7.2; a layout of the light station buildings including numerous smaller out buildings is found in a 1906 plat and in 1893 photos reproduced in Holland (1968a).
18. For the location of many of these temporary structures see Holland (1968), illustration 10.
19. Correspondence from Francis A. Peltier, Superintendent, Outer Banks Group, August 10, 2000.
Statement of Significance
The Atlantic coast of the United States served
as a major transportation corridor for commercial traffic from the late
18th through the 20th centuries. The construction of the Cape Hatteras
Light Station is directly associated with federal government efforts to
provide an integrated system of navigational aids and to provide for safe
maritime transportation. The present light tower completed in 1870 is
the second tallest brick lighthouse tower in the world and tallest in
the United States. Located near the middle of the Outer Banks, Cape
Hatteras Lighthouse is among the most popular lighthouses in America.
Its majestic setting at the bend of the Outer Banks provides a striking
presence, attracting close to a million visitors per year.
With the exception of Nantucket shoals, it is supposed there is no part of the American coast where vessels are more exposed to shipwreck, than they are in passing along the shores of North Carolina, in the neighborhood of these shoals. The Gulf Stream certainly approaches very near the American coast in this quarter; indeed, experienced navigators assert, that it touches Cape Hatteras shoals in its progress to the northeast, out of the Mexican gulf, and, as it turns with great rapidity hereabouts, they can place very little dependence on the ship's reckoning. Their estimated distance from land, therefore, is often found to be very erroneous, and as no soundings are to be procured within a short distance from the outer part of the shoals, it too frequently happens that shipwrecks take place; and hardly a season passes that does not afford the melancholy spectacle of stranded ships, and a great destruction of property is sure to follow: and it is fortunate, indeed, if the friendless mariner escapes with his life. Report from Congress 1806.
There were 27 lighthouses in the United States
in 1800. These early light stations marked entrances to harbors and estuaries;
but only three were located south of Cape Henry, Virginia. Seen as a crucial
coastal aid to navigation and given a high priority, the light station
at Cape Hatteras was conceived in 1794 and completed in 1803.
Hatteras light, the most important on our coast, and, without doubt, the worst light in the world. Cape Hatteras is the point made by all vessels going to the south, and also coming from that direction; the current of the Gulf steam runs so close to the outer point of the shoals that vessels double as close round the breakers as possible, to avoid its influence. The only guide they have is the light, to tell them when up with shoals; but I have always had so little confidence in it that I have been guided by the lead, without the use of which, in fact, no vessel should pass Hatteras. The first nine trips I made I never saw Hatteras light at all, though frequently passing in sight of the breakers; and when I did see it, I could not tell it from a steamer's light excepting that the steamer's lights are much brighter. It has improved much latterly, but is still a wretched light. It is all important that Hatteras should be provided with a revolving light of great intensity, and the light to be raised fifteen feet higher than at present.
In 1824 a 300-ton lightship with two lights
was stationed 13 miles east-southeast off Cape Hatteras. The lightship
was driven off its station in 1825, 1826, and 1827; it was scrapped in
1827. A bell boat was stationed at Diamond Shoals in 1852 but vanished
after four months. Congress authorized $15,000 on March 3, 1853, for
elevating the tower, installing a first-order lens, and erecting a new
dwelling. It is believed the present assistant keeper's dwelling is a
modified version of this structure. The work was completed in 1854.
1. Patrick Barnes, "The Development of Lighthouse Structures," unpublished manuscript, USCG, Cleveland, Ohio, no date, p. 9., copy at National Maritime Initiative Office, National Park Service, Washington, D.C. Barnes states the tallest masonry tower in the world is reputed to be the brick lanterna built at Genoa, Italy, in 1543. Though modernized internally, its overall height is 74.7 meters or 245 feet.
2. For more information, please refer to the "Summary Context Statement for NHL Lighthouse Nominations."
3. "Cape Hatteras," The Ships' Bulletin, volume 35, number 1 (January-February 1955), p. 5.
4. 32nd Congress, 1st Session, House Executive Document No. 55 (serial #642), p. 138.
5. Personal communication, Wayne Wheeler, President, U.S. Lighthouse Society, February 28, 1998.
6. All of these statistics are derived from the National Park Service's National Maritime Initiative Inventory of Historic Light Stations in November 1997.
7. The tallest masonry tower in the world is reputed to be the brick lanterna built at Genoa, Italy, in 1543. Though modernized internally, its overall height is 74.7 meters or 245 feet.
8. Much of this section is derived from F. Ross Holland, Jr., A History of the Cape Hatteras Light Station (National Park Service, Division of History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, 1968); a detailed chronology of the history of Cape Hatteras Light Station, may be found in an earlier reference draft located in the National Historic Landmark file for Cape Hatteras Light Station at the National Register, History, and Education offices in Washington, D.C.
9. Holland, pp. iv-vii.
10. American State Papers, Class IV, v. I, Commerce and Navigation, 1st-13th Congress, 1789-1815 (Washington: 1832), pp. 265-267, 299; and Holland p. 4.
11. For a list of keepers assigned to the Cape Hatteras station, see NHL file for Cape Hatteras Light Station at NRHE offices in Washington, D.C.
12. Warfield, p. 8.1; and Holland, pp. 14 and 17.
13. Holland, p. 22
14. Holland, "Keeper's Dwelling: Cape Hatteras Light Station, Historic Structure Report, Part 1, Division of History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, National Park Service, 1968a, pp. 4-5; Warfield, p. 8.2; and Holland, 1968, p. 37.
15. Letter from Lieutenant David D. Porter, U.S.N., commanding the U.S. mail-steamer Georgia, July 1851 (National Archives, Documents relative to lighthouses), p. 735.
16. Holland, p. 34.
17. List of Light-houses, Beacons, &c., 1852; and Holland, 1968, p. 111.
18. Holland, 1968, p. 57; and Holland, 1968a, p. 5.
19. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1862; and Warfield, p. 8.2.
20. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1868; and Warfield, p. 8.2.
21. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1869.
22. Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, 1870 and 1871; and Warfield, p. 7.1.
23. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1871.
24. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1873.
25. Holland, 1968, pp. 98-99 and 112-113.
26. Holland, 1968, p. 113.
27. Lighthouse Board Annual Report, 1894; and Holland, 1968, p. 114.
28. Holland, 1968, p. 114.
29. Holland, 1968, pp. 120.
30. Warfield, p. 7.1; and Holland, 1968, p. 125.
31. Warfield, p. 7.1.
32. "Synopsis: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, August 1996."
33. "Service Resumes Use of Old Hatteras Light," U.S. Coast Guard Bulletin, volume 5, number 9 (March 1950), p. 260; and "Briefing - Cape Hatteras Light Station Historic District, Ira Whitlock Visit, February 18, 1983, Inspection and Evaluations," copy at Cape Hatters National Seashore Headquarters and copy at National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
34. "Briefing - Cape Hatteras Light Station Historic District, Ira Whitlock Visit, February 18, 1983, Inspection and Evaluations."
35. Diane Suchetka, "Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Spruced Up: Workers Stabilize Landmark That's Blinked for 121 Years," Observer (February 17, 1991).