History of the OBX Lighthouses


For those spending time here for Outer Banks vacations, the OBX lighthouses are probably part of the itinerary. Usually from the top of the lighthouse, you see incredible views as far as the eye can see which is probably the reason you climb to the top in the first place (well, that and the amazing workout from climbing to the top).

But the lighthouses illuminate the waters leading to the Outer Banks to make them more navigable. Not only do they help sea captains maneuver the channels along the Outer Banks, they are beacons that assist airplane pilots with aerial navigation and give warning to stay away from the shoals just off shore.

Although we are used to seeing them on a regular basis, we are still simply captivated every time see them. With each lighthouse, there is a story that makes them a little more interesting. We thought we would shed a little light (yes—we said that) on the history of the OBX lighthouses.

Bodie Island Lighthouse

Bodie Island Lighthouse

Though possibly not the most well-known, the Bodie Island Lighthouse has a very interesting past. The current building, which opened to the public for the first time in April 2013, is actually the third structure built in the same general vicinity to light the waters around Bodie Island. It is situated just south of Nags Head and a few miles before the Oregon Inlet.

The first structure, built in 1847, ended up with an unstable foundation (after all it was 1847) and was abandoned about a decade later. From there the second one was built just prior to the start of the Civil War but was blown up by Confederate soldiers to prevent the Union from using as an observation post. Then in 1872, the current structure was erected and has been improved over the years as technology progressed.

There is an interesting tidbit that the old locals have always talked about in terms of the island's name. Stories tell that "bodies" washed up on shore from shipwrecks through the channels. After all, the Graveyard of the Atlantic is just off shore. But the truth is that the family that owned the land was named Body. The folklore is a lot more interesting and gets people talking.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

As the northernmost lighthouse along the OBX, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is situated between the Cape Henry Lighthouse at the Chesapeake Bay and Bodie Island. These two lighthouses did not provide enough light and the channel between them was very dark causing a lot of problems. Ships simply disappeared in the night never to be seen again.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse goes up 162 feet towards the sky and can be seen from miles away. In fact, its light shines 18 nautical miles into the Atlantic. It is also the only lighthouse that is not painted and features the brick façade.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is open to the public to climb the 214 steps to the outdoor gallery. This is due, in large part, to the generosity and hard work of the Outer Banks Conservationists as well as private donor funding. When deciding to climb this one, be sure to be in fairly good physical health. This one is a tough climb—but well worth it!

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located, well, on Hatteras Island which is the southernmost barrier island of the Outer Banks. Probably the most recognized of all five lighthouses, it is most recently known for its big move that occurred in 1999. Over the years, the beaches around it had begun to erode and it was inevitably going to crash into the sea. After many discussions, it was determined that it had to be moved.

Often referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, this dangerous part of the Atlantic is home to many shipwrecks including the USS Monitor during the Civil War. The waters out off Cape Hatteras are probably some of the most dangerous along the east coast as the Gulf Stream and Labrador currents converge and often create a huge commotion. Because of this, sandbars constantly shift making lighthouses imperative to light the channels along the Outer Banks.

Interestingly enough, the current lighthouse, built in 1870, is technically the second structure built. In 1802, the first one was built on the head of the island to light the dangerous shoals that extend out 10 nautical miles off the shore. The current lighthouse, built taller and brighter, still lights the waterways.

Visitors can climb to the lookout between mid-April and Columbus Day for a small fee. The view is amazing but it takes a whopping 248 steps to get up there.

Ocracoke Lighthouse

ocracoke lighthouse

Known for being the oldest operating lighthouse, it was originally a 54-foot wooden tower located at the point of Ocracoke Inlet. As the inlet shifted with the tides, eventually, the original lighthouse did nothing and was rendered useless by 1818. Luckily, there was a bad storm that year and the lighthouse was struck by lightning and destroyed although there is a small shell of a lighthouse still standing.

Today, the current lighthouse, built in 1823, is 75 feet tall and is different than the others in that it is a harbor light which means it shines continuously with no blinking. Its shine extends out 14 nautical miles.

A little trivia about the Ocracoke Lighthouse is that back in the day when the lighthouse keeper lived on the grounds, the house was large enough to house two keepers so this lighthouse had two people maintaining it. In addition to this all important job, they farmed the land, fished and hunted all around the property. Lighthouse Services provided the families with a travelling library of sorts where they got a shipment of books (cases of them), kept and read them for six months then sent them on to the next stop and got a new shipment.

While the public cannot climb to the lookout of the Ocracoke Lighthouse, they can visit the grounds to see the keeper's house and more. It is a cool place to go and well worth a stop.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

roanoke island lighthouse

The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse has a lot of history and a cool story.

In 1877, it was a screw-pile lighthouse built out in the water at the southern entrance to Croatan Sound. A screw-pile lighthouse is one built on piles that are screwed into sandy and muddy sea or river bottoms. North Carolina had several screw-pile lighthouses along the channels centuries ago. In an attempt to move it years and years later, it was destroyed and ultimately, deactivated as a working lighthouse.

Today, a replica of the lighthouse itself is built out off a pier on the Manteo waterfront. It showcases displays and information about maritime history.

For any history buff, especially with North Carolina Coast and ships, this is a intriguing place to visit. Plus it is a perfect place to stop when seeing the sites on Roanoke Island. It is definitely worth the trip.

Lighthouses are Everywhere

When visiting the Outer Banks, it is easy to think that lighthouses are everywhere. Because of the nature of the waters, it is necessary to have them at key points along the OBX. The reality is that they are fascinating when reading and learning about them and hearing stories that make them different. We always urge our guests on OBX vacations to spend some time visiting at least the ones that allow people to climb. The views are stupendous and the workout is great especially when you follow the climb up with a fantastic dinner at one of the delicious OBX restaurants.