Lighthouses of North Carolina

Some of the largest attractions in North Carolina are the tall, statuesque beacons of light that dot the coastline. The lighthouses along the beaches, sounds and inlets may no longer function as the lifeline for mariners as they have in the past, but they are an enticing attraction for visitors from all over the world. Many visitors who come to North Carolina try to visit every lighthouse along our coast, many of which often have the opportunity to see two or even three lighthouses during a long, scenic day trip.

Now a beautiful testament to our tumultuous past on the sea, lighthouses are not restricted to North Carolina or even America's history alone. In fact, the first recorded lighthouses dates back as early as 285 B.C. in the ancient city of Alexandria. Here, ports would warn mariners of land and shoals ahead with large bonfires built on hillsides.

In the United States, the first official lighthouse made its debut in Boston Harbor in 1716, on the rocky south side of Little Brewster Island.

The original colony at Massachusetts Bay erected the first lighthouse. From its tall location, the lighthouse warned ships of the dangerous rocks until it was destroyed by the British in 1776. After the war in 1783, the Massachusetts General Court authorized the construction of a new lighthouse. The builders of the new tower evidently followed the plan of the old lighthouse, probably incorporating the remaining wall of the destroyed tower in the new structure. Finished the very same year, the lighthouse was operated by the Commonwealth until 1790, when Massachusetts ceded the light to the United States.

It is evident why lighthouses are an essential part of our coastal culture, particularly in the treacherous waters off the North Carolina coast. North Carolina is filled with dangerous ocean waters, sounds and rivers that have always needed tall visible lights to warn mariners of shoals, hidden approaching coastlines and other dangerous objects in their paths.

Today, guiding lights are still needed in certain sections of North Carolina. Safe passage through marine highways requires lights, channel markers, horns, bells and other types of safety equipment. While modern methods of guiding mariners have all but eliminated the necessity of the lighthouse, the beacons still serve their purpose up and down the coast, and North Carolina remembers and honors its lighthouse legacy.

The first lighthouse to grace North Carolina's coastline was the Bald Head Island Lighthouse, affectionately called "Old Baldy." In 1792, Congress granted $4,000 to build a lighthouse on a 10-acre site on the west side of Bald Head Island. The lighthouse was first activated on December 23, 1794, and directed traffic to the Cape Fear River and the growing port of Wilmington, located several miles upstream. Unfortunately, due to severe erosion along the river, the demolition of the lighthouse was ordered in 1813.

By 1817, the replacement lighthouse, "Old Baldy," was built further inland and lit for just under $16,000. Still the oldest in North Carolina, the octagonal brick and plaster tower stands 90 feet high and was originally equipped with an array of lamps and reflectors. The lantern room is offset from the center of the tower, and as technology improved, it later housed a Fresnel lens.

After the completion of the new Cape Fear Lighthouse, Old Baldy was reduced to a fourth-order fixed light and then decommissioned in 1935. The lighthouse was eventually restored, and visitors can now climb the 112 stairs to reach the top of the tower and enjoy a picturesque view of Bald Head Island.

Because the state is composed of a multitude of saltwater marshes, rivers and Atlantic coastline, different types of lighthouses have been necessary to serve each area and provide just the right light for passing ships.

The most common type of lighthouse in North Carolina is the Coastal Light. These tall lights serve as warnings to avoid shoals that are hidden and lurking offshore. In North Carolina, these lighthouses are the popular Currituck Beach, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Oak Island Lighthouses. Each of these sentinels guards a particular stretch of the coast. For example, the Bodie Island Lighthouse is a "special warning" for southbound ships to head east to miss the Diamond Shoals, which are located just 40 miles south off Cape Hatteras.

Harbor Lights are another specialized type of lighthouse, and these structures guide ships into a body of water near a coast, where they can anchor safely. The two North Carolina Harbor Lights are Old Baldy and the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The Oak Island Lighthouse eventually took the job of guiding mariners from Old Baldy, as its much taller height of 150 feet could reach mariners further out to sea.

A unique type of lighthouse is the River Light. While there are no original River Lights functioning in the state, there are two reproductions that are open to visitors: Roanoke River Lighthouse and Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. The original lighthouses helped with maritime traffic that was beyond the barrier islands on their way to and from mainland ports.

Range Lights are still in use today, and help guide boats into saltwater channels. Theses lighthouses mark a safe path from sounds and ocean waters to smaller bodies of water including inlets, rivers and harbors. Consisting of two towers, a shorter tower stands in front of a second taller tower. As vessels enter the smaller bodies of water, channel navigators align the taller light directly above the shorter light. When the lights are perfectly aligned, captains are able to navigate safely. The only standing Range Light in North Carolina is Price's Creek Range Light.

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