North Carolina's Lighthouses: Sentinels of the Night
North Carolina is filled with treacherous coastlines, sounds and rivers that have required lights to warn mariners of shoals and other dangerous objects. From early settler days until today, this need still exists on parts of the coast. Safe passage through marine highways necessitates guiding lights, channel markers, horns, bells and other types of safety equipment. When North Carolina coastal lights were first invented, they used oils such as whale or coal oil. There is little doubt that even before these measures, people lit fires on the shore to bring sailors safely into port.
Extending a little over 300 miles, the coastline of the North Carolina beaches is vast. If you were to measure the coastline from the Virginia / North Carolina border, up to New York, that would be almost the exact same distance. It's no wonder then why North Carolina has had so many lighthouses in the past and continues to use lighthouses today.
North Carolina has marshlands abundant in coastal areas where there are large inland bodies of brackish or salt water called "Sounds." The sounds are separated from the Atlantic Ocean by barrier islands. These barrier islands are simply large mounds of sand rising out of the Atlantic running from the Virginia Border down to the South Carolina border and are known as the Outer Banks. Most people only know the Outer Banks as the Islands above Cape Lookout, but these banks begin in Corolla and follow all the way down to Calabash.
North Carolina beaches are for the most part low and flat, lacking high hills or landmarks. It is no wonder that those who came from England to our coast to settle had a difficult time negotiating these shallow waters to put to port. It is not surprising that the first settlers actually sailed up the shallow sound to find Roanoke Island rather than coming onshore to the beaches. We have only one deep water channel which leads to the North Carolina interior, the Cape Fear River. At the mouth of this channel where it meets the Atlantic Ocean still stands the Bald Head Island Lighthouse. In order to even get to the river, mariners would first have to negotiate the exceptionally dangerous Frying Pan Shoals whose shallow bottom reached out with arms of sand changing and shifting with the tides and storms. As a side note, this was one of the places that Blackbeard and other pirates would lie in wait as it was one of the few ways to bring goods inland by water.
Navigating through these inlets, rivers, sounds and ocean waters was a difficult and dangerous task but it was also imperative to commercial growth therefore channel markers and lighthouses needed to be erected. The two major ports at the time, Ocracoke and Cape Fear were the first areas to have lighthouses. The Bald Head Island Lighthouse near the mouth of the Cape Fear River was the first North Carolina Lighthouse.
Whereas the Cape Fear River was hazardous because of gargantuan underwater shallows from the sea reaching into the mouth of the river, the Ocracoke Inlet was fairly easy to approach and enter from the Atlantic Ocean. However once inside the inlet, there was a maze of shallow sand bars shifting and changing in both size and location. The Shell Castle Lighthouse was the second lighthouse to be erected in North Carolina and it stood on a rock island formed of interlaced layers of oyster shells near the Ocracoke Inlet.
Near the same time that the Shell Castle Lighthouse was being built, the state began to make plans for another lighthouse that would aid mariners in the navigation of the east coast shipping lane. One of the largest in the world, this ocean highway passes just off the east coast and the most dangerous segment of the voyage is where it flows along the North Carolina coast near Cape Hatteras.
Cape Hatteras was vital to the early commerce of the United States. The coast below Cape Hatteras does not as you might think, run south, it instead follows much more to the west. Even though Jacksonville, Florida is only 300 miles south of Cape Hatteras, it is also more than 300 miles west. If you were to sail due south from Cape Hatteras you would bump into Cat Island in the Bahamas almost due east of Key West. Therefore, mariners following the east coast ocean highway would have to make a sharp change in course at Cape Hatteras to continue holding close to the coast.
Adding complexity to this abrupt course change is the fact that Cape Hatteras is the point where the major two currents that run off of the East Coast converge. The warm Gulf Stream runs North and the cold Labrador Current runs south and here they meet in a froth of violent collision. Where these converge, underwater shoals form that move and change and extend 14 miles east into the Atlantic Ocean. These treacherous sand bars are known as the Diamond Shoals are known the world over for the perilous voyages they have claimed.
Southbound ships found it especially difficult because at the border of the Diamond Shoals they would meet the warm Gulf Stream pushing north towards them at about four miles an hour. Adding even more difficulty to the mariner was the prevailing winds from the area which blow south west forcing the ship to back up north. Many ships were unable to conquer the joint efforts of the Gulf Stream and the Southwesterly winds and would simply have to tack back and forth waiting for the wind to shift directions all the while attempting to prevent wrecking on the Diamond Shoals.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was the third lighthouse on the North Carolina coast. A new lighthouse was erected after the civil war, and that lighthouse stands today a widely recognized symbol of North Carolina. Next to be built was the Cape Lookout Lighthouse which served the port of Beaufort. While the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was being finished, sailors were criticizing the Bald Head Island Lighthouse. The lighthouse was rendered practically useless as the Frying Pan Shoals in the Cape Fear Channel had shifted drastically and the light could no longer be seen. The water flowing down from the mountains had opened a new inlet north of Bald Head Island, providing a shorter path from the Cape Fear River to the ocean. Thus the Federal Point Lighthouse at New Inlet was built.
The new inlet wasn't the only problem facing the Bald Head Island Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself was on quickly eroding shores and was replaced by the Cape Fear Lighthouse at Bald Head Island, locally referred to as "Old Baldy". This lighthouse is currently the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina. The Shell Castle Lighthouse was in dire straights as well, with the nearby channel being rendered all but useless due to shoaling, and was eventually struck by lightening and destroyed. A new lighthouse was built on nearby Ocracoke Island; the Ocracoke Lighthouse.
Fifty-three miles north of Cape Hatteras is the easternmost point of the coast. Reportedly, more sailors got lost here than in any other area, so the Bodie Island Lighthouse was built to help mariners find their way. The next lighthouse to the north was eighty miles away and so half way in between, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla was built. Finally, the Oak Island Lighthouse was built to replace the Cape Fear Lighthouse. The only lighthouse built by the U.S. Coastguard, this lighthouse has the most powerful beam of all American lighthouses, and is supported by a rock foundation 125 feet underground.
The Atlantic Ocean is a living breathing thing, ever changing and moving. Several of the North Carolina lighthouses are currently threatened by erosion. With modern vessels equipped with electronics and aids for navigation, the North Carolina coast is no longer the navigational nightmare that it once was. With uncertain futures, as most are no longer needed, the North Carolina Lighthouses remain a wonder of functional beauty and fascinating history.
I just got back from a deep sea fishing trip off of Cape Hatteras and it was the most amazing voyage because the Atlantic Ocean waters were calm and the water was as smooth as glass.
After my research for this article, I was apprehensive to say the least, to sail out into that huge ocean to the Gulf Stream where I knew these currents met. However, the captains who man the charter boats here are experts and know exactly where to go. Not to mention, that I had good eats for weeks after the trip.
My advice for those who want to go charter fishing out of Cape Hatteras is to find an experienced boat captain. Many that go out of Hatteras have been doing so all of their lives, as did their fathers before them.