The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse protects one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic Coast. Offshore of Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream collides with the Virginia Drift, a branch of the Labrador Current from Canada. This current forces southbound ships into a dangerous twelve-mile long sandbar called Diamond Shoals. Hundreds and possibly thousands of shipwrecks in this area have given it the reputation as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Visiting the Light Station
The Cape Hatteras Light Station is located near Cape Hatteras, its namesake, which is roughly in the middle of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The street address is
Due to an interior paint removal project, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse will not be available to climb until at least this summer. An announcement on the status of climbing will be made in May 2021.
A new virtual tour of the Cape Hatteras Ligthouse is available for visitors to virtually experience climbing the lighthouse and enjoy the breathtaking view from the top.
Construction of a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was first authorized in 1794 when Congress recognized the danger posed to Atlantic shipping. However, construction did not begin until 1799. The first lighthouse was lit in October of 1803. Made of sandstone, it was 90 feet tall with a lamp powered by whale oil.
The 1803 lighthouse was unable to effectively warn ships of the dangerous Diamond Shoals because it was too short, the unpainted sandstone blended in with the background, and the signal was not strong enough to reach mariners. Additionally, the tower was poorly constructed and maintained. Frequent complaints were made regarding the lighthouse.
In 1853, following studies made by the Lighthouse Board, it was decided to add 60 feet to the height of the lighthouse, thereby, making the tower 150 feet tall. The newly extended tower was then painted red on top of white making the lighthouse more recognizable during the day. At the same time, the tower was retrofitted with a first order Fresnel lens, which used refraction as well as reflection to channel the light, resulting in a stronger beam.
By the 1860s, with the need for extensive repairs, Congress decided to appropriate funds for a new lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board prepared plans and specifications and construction on the new lighthouse began in October of 1868.
Since the lighthouse was built before the present-day pile driver was perfected, an interesting problem immediately arose. The ground water levels on the Outer Banks are quite high and, therefore, when they began digging out the pit for the lighthouse foundation, it filled with water about 4 feet down. Working with the natural conditions, the foreman, Dexter Stetson, used a “floating foundation” for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This meant that layered 6 foot x 12 foot yellow pine timbers were laid crossways in the foundation pit below the water table. Granite plinths (rock layers) were placed on to the top of the timbers.
The new lighthouse was lit on December 16, 1870. The 1803 lighthouse was demolished in February of 1871. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received the famous black and white stripe daymark pattern in 1873. The Lighthouse Board assigned each lighthouse a distinctive paint pattern (daymark) and light sequence (nightmark) to allow mariners to recognize it from all others during the day and night as they sailed along the coast.
The lighthouse is a conical brick structure rising from an octagon-shaped brick and granite base and topped with an iron and glass lantern. It is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and measures 198.49 feet from the bottom of the foundation to the top of the pinnacle of the tower. This height was needed to extend the range of the light-beam from the tower’s low-lying beach site. The tower’s sturdy construction includes exterior and interior brick walls with interstitial walls resembling the spokes of a wheel. There are 269 steps from the ground to the lens room of the lighthouse.
The Fresnel lens installed in the 1870 lighthouse was powered by kerosene and could be seen approximately 16 miles from the shore. The keeper had to manually rewind the clockwork apparatus each day. The Fresnel lens usually took 12 hours for a complete cycle. When the lamp was electrified in 1934, the manual mechanism was no longer needed. Damaged by vandals, the giant glass Fresnel lens had to be replaced by a modern aero beacon in 1950. Today, electricity provides the rotating power and a photocell turns the light on and off.
Due to threatening beach erosion, the Bureau of Lighthouses decommissioned the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1935. The beacon was then moved to a skeletal steel tower until 1950. On November 9, 1937, the Cape Hatteras Light Station was transferred to the National Park Service. While the park was not operational at this time, the lighthouse and the keepers' quarters became part of the nation’s first National Seashore.
On January 23, 1950, the Coast Guard returned the beacon (250,000 candlepower) to the lighthouse since the beach had rebuilt over the years in front of the lighthouse. In 1972, the beacon was increased to 800,000 candlepower. From the 1960s to the 1980s, efforts were made to stabilize the beach in front of the lighthouse, which had started to erode again. In March of 1980, a winter storm swept away the remains of the 1803 lighthouse and caused significant dune erosion.
In 1999, after years of study and debate, the Cape Hatteras Light Station was moved to its present location. The lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet in 23 days and now lies 1,500 feet from the seashore, its original distance from the sea. The Double Keepers’ Quarters, the Principal Keeper’s Quarters, the dwelling cisterns, and the oil house were all relocated with the lighthouse.
The National Park Service currently maintains the lighthouse and the keepers’ quarters. The U.S. Coast Guard operates and maintains the automated light.
In 1999, the Cape Hatteras Light Station, which consists of seven historic structures, was successfully relocated 2,900 feet from the spot on which it had stood since 1870. Because of the threat of shoreline erosion, a natural process, the entire light station was safely moved to a new site where the historic buildings and cisterns were placed in spatial and elevational relationship to each other, exactly as they had been at the original site. While the National Park Service has met its obligation to both historic preservation and coastal protection, the much-heralded move of the historic station, especially the lighthouse, was hotly debated and closely watched.
Why it had to move
When completed in 1870, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was located a safe 1,500 feet from the ocean. Even then, however, storm-driven tides completely washed over Hatteras Island, eroding sand from the ocean side of the island and depositing it on the sound side. By 1970, this process, which has caused the gradual westward migration of the Outer Banks for at least the past 10,000 years, left the lighthouse just 120 feet from the ocean’s edge and almost certain destruction.
The key to preserving the 1870 tower is its "floating foundation". Yellow pine timbers sit in fresh water on compacted sand, with a brick and granite foundation on top of them. This foundation was built because pilings could not be driven through hard sand located barely 8 feet below ground level when construction began. As long as the sand surrounding the foundation remained in place, and the timbers remained bathed by the fresh water in which they were placed in 1868, the foundation was secure. If a storm eroded the sand or the fresh water was disturbed by salt water intrusion, the timbers would rot and the foundation would eventually fail.
Since the 1930s, efforts have been made to protect the Lighthouse from the encroaching sea. The Coast Guard installed the first sheetpile "groins" (walls built perpendicular to the shore) to try to protect the tower. In 1936, however, they abandoned the lighthouse to the sea and moved its light to a skeleton steel tower in Buxton Woods. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the ocean continued to creep closer, various attempts to "stabilize" the coast included beach nourishment and three new groins installed north of the lighthouse. A severe storm in 1980 accentuated the island's westward movement washing away the foundation of the first (1803) lighthouse, which had been 600 feet south of the existing lighthouse. In 1803, that lighthouse had been one mile from the shoreline.
In 1980, the National Park Service began planning, under the National Environmental Policy Act, for long-term protection. A three-year process that included public meetings yielded several alternatives. Relocation was considered but quickly discounted as impractical. The option finally selected was a concrete and steel seawall revetment that would have protected the lighthouse in place but would eventually have created an island as the coastline receded to the southwest. As moving technology advanced during the decade and additional information became available about relocation versus the approved seawall, the National Park Service examined the alternative that allowed it to accommodate natural processes while still preserving the historic structures of the light station.
In 1987, the NPS requested the assistance of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists and engineers who advise the federal government on technical matters. The Academy's 1988 report, Saving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea: Options and Policy Implications, considered ten options but recommended relocation as the most cost-effective method of protection. The National Park Service also considered this the best overall solution in that it would preserve the structures and accommodate the natural shoreline processes.
However, many people feared destruction of the brick lighthouse, the tallest in the United States. From 1988 to 1995, the relocation option was debated and discussed, with no funding requests made at the Congressional level or concerted fund-raising campaigns undertaken in the private sector. As Federal budgets became leaner, the NPS worked with the Army Corps of Engineers on a short-term (10-20 year) protection option to build a fourth groin south of the lighthouse. Officials hoped that it would protect the most vulnerable section of the lighthouse area, and would give the NPS time to raise Federal funds for relocation. However, North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission staff stated that it would not recommend a permit for building the fourth groin since placing any hardened structures on the North Carolina coast is prohibited by state statutes.
In 1996, North Carolina State University independently reviewed the National Academy of Sciences’ report and then issued its own report, Saving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea, in January 1997. It not only endorsed the National Academy of Sciences’ findings, but also recommended that “the National Park Service proceed as soon as possible with its present plans to obtain the financial resources necessary to preserve the lighthouse by moving it.” NPS managers then initiated a concerted effort to begin the planning and funding process to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Funding was finally appropriated by Congress beginning in fiscal year 1998.
How it was moved
The decision to relocate the Cape Hatteras Light Station was a sound public policy decision based on the best science and engineering information available. International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, New York was awarded the contract to move the lighthouse, assisted, among other contractors, by Expert House Movers of Maryland. In simple terms, the concept of moving the 4,830 ton structure consisted of lifting it off its foundation, transferring the load to a transport system, moving the tower along a prepared move route, and installing it on the new foundation.
To accomplish this feat, the original foundation down to the pine timbers was replaced by temporary shoring beams and supports. Then a steel beam mat was inserted over the timber mat with temporary posts on top. As cross beams and main beams were set, the temporary shoring parts and beams were removed. Hydraulic jacks built into the main beams were used to effect the 6 foot raise so that roll beams and rollers could be introduced. After all jacks were shored, using oak cribbing, the system was pressurized and the jacks began lifting. At each lift level, jacks were retracted and shored up in sequence and the system lifted again to 6 feet. At this point it was ready to roll.
After it was lifted, the tower moved along to its new location 2,900 feet to the southwest on steel mats starting on June 17, 1999. Steel track beams became rails and roller dollies permitted the support frame to move along the track. Three zones of hydraulic jacks kept the lighthouse aligned. Push jacks, clamped to the track pulled the frame forward 5 feet at a time. The lighthouse was equipped with sixty automated sensors to measure the transfer of the load, tilt, vibration, and shaft diameter. A weather station was installed at the top to monitor wind speed and temperature.
The Principal Keeper's Quarters, Double Keepers’ Quarters, oil house, cisterns, and sidewalks, which were moved during February, March, and April, awaited the lighthouse. On July 9, 1999 the lighthouse was carefully placed onto its new foundation, which foundation consists of a 60' x 60' steel-reinforced concrete slab 4 feet deep, 5 feet of brick, and 1 1/2 to 2 feet of rock. The light station was whole once again with all the buildings being in the same relative position as they were originally.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, sentinel of the perilous Diamond Shoals, where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current, witness to the tragic sinking and triumphant rescues claimed by the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," resumed its duties on November 13, 1999 and continues to do so to this day. Now safely 1,600 feet from the ocean, it should not be threatened by the indomitable ocean waves for another 100 years.
Move at a glance
The original light was Argand style lamps mounted in front of parabolic reflectors. In 1839, Cape Hatteras was fitted with eighteen 14” reflectors. By 1849, the light had been upgraded to fifteen 21” reflectors. This system used whale oil for fuel and, if in perfect operating condition, produced a medium intensity light that could be seen up to 20 miles.
The first order Fresnel lens, installed in 1854, initially burned whale oil as well. However, due to over-hunting, the sperm whale was becoming scarce and, by the 1870s, the US Lighthouse Service was in need of alternate fuels. There is no known record of exactly when the last whale oil was used in a US lighthouse but it is still mentioned in the 1871 Instructions to lighthouse keepers along with colza (wild cabbage or rapeseed) oil. Colza oil was one of the replacements that the US Lighthouse Service considered, but it was difficult to get because it was a low profit crop for US farmers. By 1880, whale oil had disappeared from the scene and, according to the 1881 Instructions to lighthouse keepers, the available fuels were lard oil and mineral oil (kerosene). There was a very short experiment at Cape Hatteras using porpoise oil. It was found to be totally unacceptable and was not adopted. From 1913 to 1934, the light was provided by an incandescent oil vapor (IOV) lamp using pressurized kerosene in a mantle. Official records show that kerosene still fueled the Cape Hatteras light as late 1927.
The Fresnel lens
Like most late 19th-century lighthouses, this one used a Fresnel lens. Fresnel lenses were manufactured in a series of sizes, or orders, with first order being the largest—over 17 times more powerful than the smallest (6th order). In this case, over 1,000 prisms were used and, all told, about 2,500 lb. of glass and bronze made up the 12 foot tall first order assembly. Triangular prisms projected light into a continuous 360 degree beam, and, in this case, 24 bulls-eye lenses provided the flashes. The light has always been white; at other lighthouses, red and green have also been used (mainly harbor and range lights because color reduces the range of the beam).
The original lens assembly, which rotated on a chariot at ½ rpm, was turned by three 150 pound iron weights suspended on a cable and dropping down the center. The cable was wound around a drum in the clockwork mechanism beneath the lens, which worked much like a grandfather clock. Each morning, the weights were slowly cranked by hand to the top and then released at dusk when the lamp was lit, causing the lens to rotate. The gears in the mechanism provided the leverage to turn the 1-½ ton lamp/lens assembly. The speed of rotation could be adjusted by a fan governor in the clockwork. A gentle hand push was used to start the lens rotating but, once it was in motion, it maintained its rotation until the weight reached the bottom of the tower and had to be rewound. Regulations required that the weight be rewound to the top of the tower every morning. In many shorter lighthouses, cranking was needed every few hours.
Electrifying the light
In 1934, shortly before the light was moved to the tower in Buxton. A 36-inch (nominal) airport beacon was originally used. The current 24-inch (nominal) beacon, type DCB (Directionally Coded Beacon) 224, was installed in 1982.
Prior to the installation of the airport beacon, the Fresnel lens only used electricity for the light source but still used the clockwork and weight system to turn the optic.
Current optics and bulbs
Two separate units, similar to search lights, are mounted side by side facing in opposite directions, and are turned by an electric motor. The beacon is controlled by a photocell, which automatically turns the light on at sunset and off at dawn. Each 1,000- watt bulb (120 volts - same as your house), less than 10 inches tall, puts out an 800,000-candlepower beam focused by two parabolic reflectors. A spare bulb and primary reflector automatically rotate into place when the primary bulb burns out. GE makes the bulbs. They are halogen/argon filled, with a tungsten filament, and cost about $240 each. The mechanism is similar to an airport beacon.
The beacon rotates, like an airport beacon. The 'flash' is visible when the beacon points at you. The original Fresnel lens system cast 24 beams, the current beacon projects two.
The official range is 24 nautical miles (a nautical mile is 6,080 feet). At night, most vessels in clear weather can see the lighthouse from up to 20 nautical miles at sea. Seen exactly at sea level, the direct visible range is about 15.6 nautical miles. The USLHS standard was to allow an extra ten feet of height to account for the height of the bridge deck, giving 16.2 miles. At night, the glow or loom can be seen when the light is actually below the horizon; in some atmospheric conditions refraction causes the light to follow the earth's curvature, too. These phenomena are also factored in. The range of the lighthouse depends more on height and air clarity than on the power of its beacon.
The Lighthouse Keepers
The staff of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse consisted of a Principal Keeper and two Assistant Keepers. The keepers did not live in the lighthouse but, when they were on duty, they would be found in the watch room at the top of the tower. Originally, the Lighthouse Board provided housing, staple foods, medicine, and a salary up to $800/yr. After the 1880s, keepers wore dark blue wool dress uniforms or fatigues.
They worked at the lighthouse performing maintenance, repair, and administrative duties. Each keeper was required to stand a four hour watch during the night. The time of these watches alternated daily from keeper to keeper. On one day, the Principal Keeper may take the 8 pm to midnight watch, the 1st Assistant Keeper would take the midnight to 4 am watch, and the 2nd Assistant Keeper would take the 4 to 8 am watch. The following night the Principal Keeper would take the midnight to 4 am watch, etc, etc. The keeper on watch at the end of the night would be responsible for all morning maintenance of the lamp and lens to prepare them for the upcoming night.
The keepers' duties included:
The two Assistant Keepers and their families lived in the Double Keepers’ Quarters, built in 1854. The Principal Keeper and his family lived in the small house that was built in 1870.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. How does the height of this lighthouse compare to others?
Q. Has it been in continuous service since 1803?
Q. How far was the ocean when the lighthouse was built?
Q. How many bricks were used?
Q. What other materials were used?
Q. How deep is the foundation?
Q. How thick and solid are the walls?
Q. Who did the actual construction work?
Q. Who pays for repair work done to the lighthouse?
Q. Who has maintained the lighthouse through the years?
In 1936, the 1870 lighthouse was turned over to the National Park Service. Currently, under a Special Use Agreement, the US Coast Guard maintains the beacon and the NPS is responsible for the building itself. Twice a year, all four light bulbs are replaced, and the mechanism is inspected and lubricated.
Q. What has been removed, repaired, or replaced in the structure?
Q. What is the circular well at the bottom?
Q. What are the vertical rails in the central well?
Q. What were the alcoves on the first floor used for?
Q. What is the metal tank just above the first floor?
Q. What are the numbers on the landing walls?
Q. Wouldn't it have been easier to use a rope and pulley to haul up the oil ?
Q. How many storms has it survived?
Q. Why is the tower leaning?
Q. Why is there a lighthouse here?
Q. How did the Diamond Shoals get their name?
Q. How many lightships have there been at Diamond Shoals?
Q. What is the "Texas" tower?
Q. Why are there so many lighthouses in North Carolina ?
Q. Is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse still a functional navigational aid?
Q. With today's navigational technology, is it still a useful aid-to-navigation?
Q. Why is it painted with black & white stripes?
Along the Outer and Core Banks of North Carolina, the Currituck Beach Light is unpainted, red brick; Bodie Island is banded black and white; Cape Hatteras is black and white spiral stripes; Ocracoke is white; and Cape Lookout is black and white checkerboard. No evidence has been found to indicate that the checkerboard or diamond pattern was originally intended for the Cape Hatteras Light at Diamond Shoals, despite a popular folk story that some bureaucrat messed up the work order.
Q. What is meant by the term “daymark” and how does it apply to lighthouses?
Generally, the shapes of the tower and dwelling, the advertised color and the geological background such as cliffs, rocks, hillsides, etc. provide adequate data to the mariner to assist with location determination. Towers can also be painted, often in solid colors that contrast with their natural backgrounds making them more visible. So, a lighthouse that is built of stone on a rocky island would most likely be painted white; a lighthouse near a town with numerous white buildings would probably be painted red.
However, problems can occur in areas such as the central/southern Atlantic coast of the United States. In general, the coast is topographically quite flat with few, if any, outstanding natural features to assist the mariner. Compounding this issue, the tall coastal towers, built primarily between the 1850s and 1870s, were virtually identical in appearance from a distance at sea. Therefore, to make them identifiable, they each received distinguishable daymarks—usually paint—though some towers were left unpainted. Only certain colors—black, white and red—were used because these are the ones that would stand out the best against the background. Therefore, along the Outer Banks, the tall coastal lighthouse daymarks are: Currituck Beach Light - unpainted red brick; Bodie Island - banded black and white; Cape Hatteras - black and white spiral stripes; and Cape Lookout - black and white checkerboard.
Q. Has the Cape Hatteras lighthouse always been black and white spiral striped?
The 1803 sandstone tower appeared to be white. This may have been due to the natural color of the stone or a whitewash coating. This changed when the tower was extended with a brick addition in 1854. The lower 70 feet of the tower remained white and the top 80 feet was red. It was probably red on top to contrast with sky and white on bottom to contrast with the vegetation. It was painted with a cement-based brick wash.
The 1871 Report of the Lighthouse Board indicates that, when it was first painted, the top part of the current tower was painted red and the bottom part white. Other reports say that the whole tower wasoriginally red. In any case, the stripes were painted in 1873. There are two black and white stripes on the tower, each stripe circles the lower tower 1-1/2 times, and all are wider on the bottom than on the top. It is not known exactly how the stripes were laid out, but it could have been done using a combination of pre-calculated dimensions, plumb bobs, and taut lines. Originally, the keepers painted the tower using bosun’s chairs, taking up to 4 months every 6–10 years. Modern painting contractors use a window washer type platform.
From 1936-1950, the official tower was a steel structure, though many mariners still used the 1870 lighthouse as a daymark.
Q. How can lighthouses be told apart at night?
Last updated: May 4, 2021