Inside the Tower

Q: How many steps are in the lighthouse?
Several numbers are accurate depending upon the situation. (NOTE: a step is a 'rise' not a tread. For our purposes, a 'step' is assumed to be a vertical motion of the foot from one stair tred to the next, contributing to climbing or descending the lighthouse.) From the sidewalk, there are 269 steps to the lantern room. This number is derived from counting the 9 granite steps at the base, the 248 cast iron steps to the floor of the watch room (7 flights of 31, 1 flight of 16, and 1 flight of 15) and the 12 companionway steps to the upper gallery in the lantern.

Visitors climb 257 steps up, plus one down, to reach the lower gallery from the sidewalk, making about 7 3/4 revolutions. Each complete flight of 31 cast iron stairs, with rails and anchors, weighs about 5000 lbs. empty. The steps are 33 inches wide, and the rise is 7 3/4 in. The height of the climb is just over 166 ft. from the sidewalk level (the watch roomfloor is higher than the gallery deck).

Q. What were the alcoves on the first floor used for?
Originally, the lamp oil for the light was stored in large, round metal containers called oil butts. They were large brass or tin tanks that ranged in size from 50 to 100 gallons each. They stood upright and were set side by side on masonry or wooden elevated shelves in the alcoves. Each one had a petcock at the bottom from which the keeper would draw his daily supply of lamp oil into his oil can. He then carried the oil cans up the tower to fuel the lamps. The large, cubic 350 gallon tank at the base of the tower replaced numerous oil butts with one centralized storage tank. Other gear may have also been kept in the alcoves.

Q. What is the metal tank just above the first floor?
The large, square, 350 gallon tank was used for the storage of kerosene to light the lamp in the Fresnel lens.

Q. What are the numbers on the landing walls?
These numbers are called landing numbers. They are not original - the interior has been repainted several times. The 1992 restoration crew made them to mark the landings for easy identification.

Q. Wouldn't it have been easier to use a rope and pulley to haul up the oil ?
No and this practice was never allowed in US lighthouses. The fuel for the lamp was extremely valuable and, when it was being moved, the keeper was required to keep it in his possession. At any rate, it would not have been less work. A once-over pulley gives no mechanical advantage - it still takes 6000 ft-lbs. of work to raise a 5-gallon can of oil 150 feet, just as it would climbing with the oil. But in climbing, the legs do the work, not the arms. A twice-over pulley takes half as much effort, but takes twice as long. The can would have tended to sway, and possibly rupture or spill when it hit a beam or bolt head, or fell (oil usage was very closely monitored; the keeper was held accountable for waste). And he'd still have to climb all the way up anyway - so no point in going up empty handed.

Q. What are the vertical rails in the central well?
Lacking the graceful design found in every other part of the lighthouse, these rails are a later addition, not shown on the working plans. Usually, in towers of this type the weights of the clockwork mechanism in the lens assembly would drop directly down the center of the tower, suspended from a wire cable. They were guided by “fairleads” that would control the descent. Differences in structural details of the Cape Hatteras tower required a system of T-rails to keep the weights from swinging excessively as they dropped down the tower.

Q. What is the circular well at the bottom?
Minus the plastic netting and steel mesh floor, which are NPS visitor safety equipment, this was originally a sand pit that was provided in case the weight cable of the clockwork mechanism parted causing the weight to free-fall down the tower. The sand pit was much more forgiving and flexible than the slate and marble floor that surrounds the pit. The weight set could also be lowered into the pit to facilitate maintenance and repairs such as cable repair or replacement. The well is about 4 ft deep.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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