In the late 1800s, there was a system of twelve screwpile lighthouses that helped mariners navigate the complex system of sounds and waterways that lie between the Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. Of these, not one remains on its original station, and only one is still intact. Fortunately, a replica of one of these important beacons, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, has been reconstructed and placed atop pilings just offshore from the town of Manteo on Roanoke Island, where it is easily accessible via a short pier. The actual Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was not reached so easily as it stood offshore between the southern end of Roanoke Island and the mainland, where it served to mark the southern entrance to Croatan Sound from Pamilco Sound.
The replica lighthouse is actually the fourth to carry the name of Roanoke Marshes, as three different structures were used at the station in Croatan Sound. The first lighthouse was built by Lucius Lyon of Michigan and went into service in 1831. After just eight years, the tower had to be abandoned as it was in need of extensive repairs.
Work on a replacement lighthouse did not commence until 1857. This second incarnation consisted of a hexagonal dwelling surmounted by a lantern room and supported by seven piles that were anchored in the seabed. On April 15, 1858, they lit the lamp inside the station’s fourth-order Fresnel lens for the first time. By 1876, the wooden support piles had suffered significant worm damage, and the lighthouse itself had been flooded on a couple of occasions. The structure was deemed unsafe, and work on a third lighthouse, which would serve as the model for the replica lighthouse, was started 100 yards to the south-southeast.
The third lighthouse was a white, square structure, supported by seven screw piles that stood in nine feet of water. The new lighthouse was activated in 1877 and displayed a fixed red light and later a fixed white light with a red sector from within its lantern room. A fog bell, which was struck one blow every twelve seconds by machinery, was later added to the station. A more powerful compressed air siren eventually replaced the fog bell, but the bell was kept in place in case the siren was disabled.
When the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1955, it was suggested that the town of Manteo purchase the lighthouse and relocate it to the Manteo waterfront. Decades later the town of Manteo decided to build a replica of the lighthouse. Finally, on September 25, 2004, the replica was dedicated, along with the George Washington Creef Boathouse, and opened to the public.