Chris J LeBlanc Photography - Lighthouses
Providing details and historical information of  lighthouse pictures taken during my travels
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Hatteras Island, North Carolina
© 2011 - Chris J LeBlanc  Photographer
Location:   Located on the southeast corner of Hatteras Island, not far from the town of Buxton.
Latitude:  N 35.25058
Longitude:  W 75.52903

Year Constructed:  1870 (Dexter Stetson)  Active (NPS)
Tower Height:  208 feet    Focal Plane:  192 feet

Round brick tower with lantern and gallery, mounted on an octagonal brick base; The tower is painted with a distinctive black and white spiral pattern; the octagonal base is unpainted red brick; the lantern is painted black.
Historical Information:

  • Station Established: 1803
  • Year Current Tower(s) First Lit: 1870
  • Operational? YES
  • Automated? YES 1936
  • Foundation Materials: GRANITE/TIMBER/RUBBLE
  • Construction Materials: BRICK
  • Original Lens: FIRST ORDER, FRESNEL 1870

  • On July 10, 1797, Congress appropriated $44,000 "for erecting a lighthouse on the head land of Cape Hatteras and a lighted beacon on Shell Castle Island, in the harbor of Ocracoke in the State of North Carolina."  The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse cost $14,302 to build and the Shell Castle Island Lighthouse was built from part of the surplus.  Both were completed in 1803.

  • The Cape Hatteras light marked very dangerous shoals which extend from the cape for a distance of 10 nautical miles. The original tower was built of dark sandstone and retained its natural color. The original light consisted of 18 lamps; with 14-inch reflectors, and was 112 feet above sea level. It was visible in clear weather for a distance of 18 miles.

  • In July 1851, Lt. David D. Porter, USN, reported as follows:

"Hatteras light, the most important on our coast is, without doubt, the worst light in the world. Cape Hatteras is the point made by all vessels going to the south, and also coming from that direction; the current of the Gulf Stream runs so close to the outer point of the shoals that vessels double as close round the breakers as possible, to avoid its influence. The only guide they have is the light, to tell them when up with the shoals; but I have always had so little confidence in it, that I have been guided by the lead, without the use of which, in fact, no vessel should pass Hatteras. The first nine trips I made I never saw Hatteras light at all, though frequently passing in sight of the breakers, and when I did see it, I could not tell it from a steamer’s light, excepting that the steamer’s lights are much brighter. It has improved much latterly, but is still a wretched light. It is all important that Hatteras should be provided with a revolving light of great intensity, and that the light be raised 15 feet higher than at present. Twenty-four steamship’s lights, of great brilliancy, pass this point in one month, nearly at the rate of one every night (they all pass at night) and it can be seen how easily a vessel may be deceived by taking a steamer’s light for a light on shore."

  • The improvement in the light referred to had begun in 1845 when the reflectors were changed from 14 to 15 inch. In 1848 the 18 lamps were changed to 15 lamps with 21-inch reflectors and the light had become visible in clear weather at a distance of 20 miles. In 1854 a first-order Fresnel lens with flashing white light was substituted for the old reflecting apparatus, and the tower was raised to 150 feet.
  • In 1860 the Lighthouse Board reported that Cape Hatteras Lighthouse required protection, due to the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1862 the Board reported "Cape Hatteras, lens and lantern destroyed, light reexhibited."
  • Between 1867 and 1870 Congress appropriated $167,000 in three annual sums, for rebuilding Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The new tower, from which the first-order light was first exhibited December 16, 1871, was the highest brick lighthouse tower in the world. It was 193 feet above ground and the focal height of the light 191 feet above water. The old tower "being no longer of any use and in danger of falling during some heavy storm" was blown up and totally destroyed in February 1872.
  • In the spring of 1879 the tower was struck by lightning. Cracks subsequently appeared in the masonry walls, which was remedied by placing a metal rod to connect the iron work of the tower with an iron disk sunk in the ground. In 1912 the candlepower of the light was increased from 27,000 to 80,000.
  • Ever since the completion of the new tower in 1870, there had begun a very gradual encroachment of the sea upon the beach. This did not become serious, however, until 1919, when the high water line had advanced to about 300 feet from the base of the tower. Since that time the surf had gnawed steadily toward the base of the tower until in 1935, the site was finally reached by the surf. Several attempts were made to arrest this erosion, but dikes and breakwaters had been of no avail. In 1935, therefore, the tower light was replaced by a light on a skeleton steel tower placed farther back from the sea on a sand dune, 166 feet above the sea, and visible for 19 miles. The old tower was then abandoned to the custody of the National Park Service.
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration erected a series of wooden revetments which checked the wash that was carrying away the beach. In 1942 the Coast Guard reassumed its control over the tower and manned it as a lookout station until 1945. The old tower was now 500 to 900 feet inland from the sea and again tenable as a site for the light which was placed in commission January 23, 1950.
  • The new light consists of a 36-inch aviation-type rotating beacon of 250,000 candlepower, visible 20 miles, and flashing white every 15 seconds. The skeleton steel tower has been retained to guard against the time that the brick tower may again be endangered by erosion and thus require that the light again be moved.
  • The National Park Service acquired ownership of the lighthouse when it was abandoned in1935. In 1950, when the structure was again found safe for use, new lighting equipment was installed. Now the Coast Guard owns and operates the navigational equipment, while the National Park Service maintains the tower as a historic structure. The Hatteras Island Visitor Center, formerly the Double Keepers Quarters located next to the lighthouse, elaborates on the Cape Hatteras story and man's lifestyle on the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, tallest in the United States, stands 208 feet from the bottom of the foundation to the peak of the roof. To reach the light which shines 191 feet above mean high water mark, a Coast Guardsman must climb 268 steps. There were approximately 1,250,000 bricks used in its construction

The original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, completed in 1803 was a 90-foot high sandstone tower, housed a collection of eighteen whale oil lamps set in 14-inch reflectors, but still it wasn’t visible beyond the shoals. In 1852, the tower raised to more than 150 feet and installed a first-order Fresnel lens.

The Civil War saw Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the center of conflict.  After several battles in 1861, defeated Confederate troops retreated with the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens. In 1862, the tower was relit with a second-order Fresnel lens, and then upgraded the following year with a first-order lens. The tower was severely damaged in the war, and after peace was restored it was determined that it would be less costly to build a new lighthouse, 600 feet to the north, rather than repair and refit the existing one. The original Cape Hatteras Light was destroyed in a blast of dynamite.  The present lighthouse was constructed in 1869-70.

The present lighthouse was constructed in 1869-70 at a cost exceeding $150,000. The Lighthouse Board appointed Dexter Stetson as Superintendent of Construction, who then hired and trained nearly 100 local laborers for a daily wage of $1.50. Well over one million bricks were used to construct the 208-foot tower, which is the tallest in the United States. The lighthouse was set on a “floating foundation” (two layers of pine beams placed crossways below the water table), which remained perfectly preserved for well over a century. On December 1, 1870, the tower’s first-order Fresnel lens and oil lamp were lit.

In 2002, it was discovered that this “new” lens was actually the same lens used in the original tower before the Confederates absconded with it. The lens remained hidden throughout the Civil War, and when it was finally located, it was shipped to Paris for cleaning. Upon its return, it was placed in storage at the Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island until the new tower was ready to receive it. In 1873, the Lighthouse Board had the tower painted with striking black and white stripes. At last that treacherous stretch of coastline had a distinctive landmark.

Historic Postcard of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
My Lighthouse Photo Album
Lighthouses Viewed ...
By Chris J LeBlanc
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My Lighthouse Photo Album
Lighthouses Viewed ...
By Chris J LeBlanc
Photo book
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My Lighthouse Photo Album
Lighthouses Viewed...
By Chris J LeBlanc
Book Preview
Photo book
By 1935, the coast had eroded so much that the sea lapped the base of the tower, once a safe 1500 feet from the water. The noble lighthouse was abandoned.  A make-shift skeleton was erected a mile northwest of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton Woods.

The National Park Service bought the defunct Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and through the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps and a helping hand from Mother Nature, the shoreline around the lighthouse built up. During these years, souvenir hunters and vandals repeatedly entered the lighthouse and removed several pieces of the Fresnel lens. With the tower now apparently safe, the Coast Guard removed the pillaged lens and reactivated the lighthouse in 1950 using a modern beacon. But by 1987, the lighthouse was only 120 feet from the shore, and the National Park Service determined it would not survive the onslaught of the sea another decade.

In what would be named the “2000 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Cape Hatteras Light, along with two keeper’s quarters, was moved a half-mile inland. Under the direction of a team of twenty-two experts, on June 17, 1999, the lighthouse was raised six feet off its base and carefully moved, in five-foot increments, along a roadway constructed for that purpose. It arrived safely at its new location on July 9, 1999, and was relit a couple months later on November 13.

This is the tallest U.S. lighthouse and one of the tallest brick lighthouses in the world. It is one of the most famous of all lighthouses and is probably the best-known building in North Carolina. The lighthouse has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark.  The lighthouse was taken out of service from 1936 to 1950 due to coast erosion.
Historic Postcard of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse