Lighthouses Have War Stories to Tell

Lighthouses Have War Stories to Tell

Bodie Island Lighthouse offers history fans a rare chance to see a lighthouse with an active first-order Fresnel

The North Carolina coast had long been a place of peril. Confederate officials wanted to keep it that way as Union vessels threatened the coast at the start of the Civil War in 1861.

In a strategic move, the new government ordered the Fresnel lenses removed from Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island, Cape Lookout, Bald Head Island and Price’s Creek lighthouses to hinder the enemy's navigation around the shallow shoals and other hazards.

The Fresnel was a state-of-the-art lens with a complex system of prisms that magnified light. A first-order Fresnel could cast beams 20 miles or more; a third-order lens might be good for 18. The U.S. government had resisted paying the premium price for Fresnels until the decade before the war.

Today, 150 years have passed since the end of the Civil War. And while the 320-mile coastline has changed, the lighthouse still stand, ready to tell their stories to travelers from waterside locations perfect for leisurely exploration. They’re listed from north to south.

Bodie Island Lighthouse

Location: About 10 miles south of Nags Head
Markings: Horizontal bands

In 1859, the federal government replaced the original 1847 Bodie Island Lighthouse with a sturdy 80-foot tower equipped with a third-order Fresnel lens. As Hatteras Island fell in the Union's first substantial victory, so fell Bodie Island Lighthouse. To prevent enemy possession, retreating Confederate troops stacked explosives inside the tower and blew it up.

After the war, the island remained dark for several years until petitions from concerned ship captains resulted in construction of the third Bodie Island Lighthouse. In 1871, work began on the new light station in a location north of the inlet where the two original structures sat. A powerful first-order Fresnel lens was installed and cast its first beam in 1872.

Despite its postbellum origins, Bodie Island Lighthouse offers history fans a rare chance to see a lighthouse with an active first-order Fresnel. It's open to tours and climbing daily the third Friday in April through Columbus Day.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Location: Near Buxton
Markings: Diagonal stripes

Situated on an especially treacherous stretch of coast, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was among the first in the nation to be outfitted with a Fresnel lens. The powerful first-order lens was installed in 1854 as part of an upgrade that saw the tower rise from 90 to 150 feet.

Confederate troops tried and failed to blow up the lighthouse in 1861. While demolition proved unsuccessful, the soldiers did manage to remove the lens and hide it so well Union troops didn't find it until four months after the war ended.

Cleaned and repaired, the original lens was ready to be installed after the war, but the tower was in such disrepair a new lighthouse was constructed and lit in 1870. The famous black and white stripe pattern followed in 1873. During the tower’s period of decommission due to erosion in the 1930s, the Fresnel lens fell victim to vandals and thieves. The salvaged framework and prisms now make an impressive display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island.

In 1999, the Cape Hatteras tower moved 2,900 feet to protect it from the encroaching ocean. You can climb the 248 iron spiral stairs to the top of the nation’s tallest lighthouse each summer.

Ocracoke Island Lighthouse

Location: Just outside of Ocracoke Village
Markings: Solid white

North Carolina's oldest operational lighthouse — and the nation's second-oldest — was finished in 1823. A fourth-order Fresnel replaced the 75-foot tower's original reflector system in 1854. Confederate troops dismantled the lens in 1861, but the Union army turned the light back on in 1864.

While the lighthouse is not open for climbing, the site is open daily for visitors to explore.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Location: A 30-minute ferry ride from Harkers Island
Markings: Diamonds

The beam from the first-order Fresnel could be seen from up to 18 miles away when Cape Lookout's new lighthouse opened in 1859. Shortly after the tower was activated, the Civil War swept across the states and Confederate troops dismantled the lens for storage. The Union army took possession of the light station in 1863 and installed a third-order Fresnel to light the coast. One year later, a small band of Confederate troops armed with kegs of powder raided the Union tower with the intent to blow up the lighthouse. Though the attempt failed, they did manage to destroy the oil supply and damage the iron stairs.

When Gen. William T. Sherman's men reached Raleigh in 1865, they found the Cape Lookout lens and others at the Capitol. It was repaired and returned to service until 1975, when it was replaced by two electric aero-beacons.

Summer visitors can climb Cape Lookout Lighthouse and visit the museum featuring the history of the tower.

Bald Head Island Lighthouse

Location: Bald Head Island
Markings: Mottled stucco and plaster

Old Baldy, the state's oldest standing lighthouse, began lighting the mouth of the Cape Fear River in 1817. Like the other lighthouses on the North Carolina coast, Old Baldy’s beacon was darkened in 1861 and not relit until 1879. The government kept the station open as an operational lighthouse until 1935, and it was briefly used as a radio tower in World War II before going dark. The beacon was relit in 1988 but no longer serves as an official navigational beam.

Old Baldy still stands as a well-loved landmark open to visitors.

Price's Creek Light

Location: Can only be seen from the Fort Fisher-Southport ferry near Southport
Markings: Red brick

The 20-foot structure was one of eight built along the Cape Fear River in the late 1840s. Deactivated during the war, it served as a signal tower for communication between Fort Fisher and Fort Caswell. Confederate forces destroyed the other seven lighthouses and damaged this one.

The lighthouse is on private property but can be glimpsed from the Fort Fisher-Southport ferry near the Southport landing.

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