Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-02-23.
History of the Bodie Island Lighthouse
The sandy barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina are always in a state of flux. The ocean currents keep the sand in motion and with that, inlets open and close over time. Body Island or as it is more commonly spelled Bodie, had originally formed around 1738 when New Inlet opened which separated Bodie and Hatteras Islands.
Oregon Inlet opened in 1846 which split Bodie Island in half. The newly formed island to the south was given the name Pea Island. By 1933, New Inlet had closed up merging Pea Island with Hatteras Island, and the name Pea Island was dropped. The inlet near Nag's Head eventually closed up as well making Bodie Island a peninsula.
Local folklore attributes the name to bodies washing up on shore after the many shipwrecks in the area, however, this is untrue. The name stems from the Body family, which were early settlers to the island.
Due to the high number of reported shipwrecks off the coast of North Carolina, Congress had sent Lieutenant Napoleon Coste to survey the coastline south of Chesapeake Bay. After losing sight of what is today, the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, he found no other worthwhile navigational markers on the featureless coastline until he spotted the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse more than 150 miles to the south.
Lieutenant Coste recommended a lighthouse be constructed on Bodie Island, however Congress appropriated $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on Pea Island, south of Bodie Island. When Bodie Island was finally selected as the location, problems acquiring the land, the exact location, and the design of the tower would add a ten year delay to the project.
The man in charge of lighthouses and navigational aids during that time period was Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. He was known for being miserly and always kept an eye on the price tag. Many times he would sacrifice quality over cost, and the Bodie Island Lighthouse was no exception. The budget for the entire station was a meager $8,750, although an additional $2,300 was needed to finish the project. This brought final price tag to just over $11,000, which was still low for a lighthouse at that time.
Finally, in 1846, the location was selected and the land was purchased. Baltimore contractor Francis Gibbons was hired to build the lighthouse. Instead of being able to design the tower, he was handed plans for a squat fifty-four foot high tower and awkward in design. Also constructed at that time was a five-room keeper's dwelling, a brick cistern, and two outbuildings.
Gibbons was forced to work under the command of an ex-customs inspector who knew very little of construction practices and less about lighthouses. Instead of being allowed to drive piles to secure a solid foundation, he was instructed to lay a course of bricks over unstable soil. As was expected, the tower soon began to lean.
As was common in the day, the rotation of the Lewis lamps and reflectors was via a weight-powered mechanism very similar to a grandfather clock. By 1850, the tower was more than a foot out of plumb, which affected the rotation, and ultimately led to a slight variance of the light's characteristic. The government would spend an additional $1,400 trying to right the tower.
By 1859 the tower had deteriorated beyond repair. Rather than spending additional capital to repair the aging tower, decision was made to construct a new tower on Pea Island.
Starting in 1852, the newly created Lighthouse Board was placed in charge of construction and maintenance of all lighthouses and navigational aids in the United States. With that, $25,000 was appropriated for the construction of the new Bodie Island Lighthouse.
The eighty foot tall brick tower, designed by the Army Corps of Engineers, was built upon sturdy piles and capped off with a cast-iron lantern. Its beam, visible for up to fifteen miles at sea, was focused by a third-order Fresnel lens which was first lighted on July 1, 1859. It would stand for less than two years when retreating Confederate troops packed the tower with explosives and detonated it in 1861.
It would be another ten years before construction of the third Bodie Island Lighthouse would start. The Lighthouse Board had appropriated $140,000 for the construction of a first-order lighthouse, duplex dwelling, and several outbuildings. The selected location was a fifteen-acre plot of land just north of the Oregon Inlet which was purchased from John Etheridge for $150.
Dexter Stetson, the contractor that had just finished building the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to the south moved his crews, equipment, materials, and storage sheds to the site to start construction. In less than a year, the 164-foot tower was completed, having been set upon a "floating foundation" similar to that employed at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
The first-order Fresnel, fabricated by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris, was outfitted in the lantern, and allowed the tower to cast its beam nineteen miles out to sea. The tower was first lit on October 1, 1872. Less than three weeks after the tower was lit, a flock of geese crashed into the lantern damaging the massive lens. Repairs were made, and screening was placed over the panes of glass in the lantern to provide protection in the event of another collision.
Around the year 1900, The Lighthouse Board had recommended an additional dwelling be constructed. The recommendation in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1900 stated that the keeper and his two assistants were sharing the duplex leaving no room for the three keeper's families, thus leaving the keepers less than content. Excerpt below:
667. Bodie Island, seacoast of North Carolina - The following recommendation, made in the Board's last annual report, is renewed: There is but one dwelling at this station for the keeper and his two assistants, and is impossible for them to have their families with them because of the lack of sufficient and proper accommodations. This fact does not tend to make the keepers contented or to induce that degree of interest in the station on their part necessary to maintain it in the best condition. It is estimated that an additional dwelling, with cisterns and the necessary outhouses, can be built for a sum not exceeding $7,500, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be asked therefor.
The recommendation was repeated in the years 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1905, however by the year 1908, it appears that the project was abandoned due to high cost of construction. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1908 had the following entries:
Bodie Island, North Carolina - No work has been accomplished. On account of the high cost of construction, due to the isolated location of the station, it has been found difficult to prepare plans for a suitable building which will come within the authorized limit of cost.
It has been found impracticable to build a keeper's dwelling at Bodie Island light-station, North Carolina, within the amount authorized by law, and the project has therefore been abandoned.
The original illuminant used as the light source was kerosene. The keeper was required to lug the container up the 214 steps every day. Electricity came to the site in the form of a generator in September of 1932. One of the station's oil houses was converted to house the generator.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
By 1940, the lighthouse was automated and the keepers left the premises. By 1953, nearly all the property of the light station was transferred to the National Park Service except for the tower. Although the Coast Guard transferred ownership of the tower to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in July of 2000, they maintained the classic Fresnel lens.
But in 2003, the first-order Fresnel was in poor condition due to the litharge, or putty-like substance that holds the prisms in place, was dried and cracking. Rather than incur the cost to restore the lens, the Coast Guard planned on replacing it with a more maintenance friendly modern optic. Opposition to the plan allowed for other alternatives to be explored, which ended with the lighthouse being converted to a private aid to navigation. The National Park Service took ownership of the lens in a ceremony on April 25, 2005 and will operate the tower with the classic lens as a private aid to navigation.
The salty ocean air has taken its toll on the tower over the years. On August 9, 2004 two large cast-iron pieces fell from the gallery prompting the National Park Service to close the area around the base of the tower for safety reasons. Emergency repairs were made in 2007 with a full restoration planned to begin in 2008; however, the Senate removed the funding for the project in December of 2007.
Congress restored the $3 million restoration funding in an Omnibus Budget Bill in 2009. The restoration project included repair or replacement of corroded metal features around the gallery and lantern decks, repair and strengthening of the steps, masonry repair, rehabilitation of the floor, windows, and framing, upgrading of the electrical systems, and ensuring lightning protection. Also during the restoration, the first-order Fresnel lens was disassembled, removed, restored, and returned to the tower.
The work concluded in early 2011, however it was determined that additional restoration work on the gallery was required and additional funds would be necessary. With the help of North Carolina's senators, $1.6 million in additional funding was secured allowing the work to resume. The planned completion of the project is spring of 2013 at which time the tower will be open for guided tours.
The keeper's duplex has been restored several times over the years and currently serves as a visitor's center which houses exhibits, rest rooms, and a gift shop. Several maritime exhibits are on display with one such exhibit being a section of the first-order Fresnel lens once used at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
- Lighthouses of the Carolinas - A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.
- "Future dim for tower's lens? - Bodie Island Lighthouse's fate up in air," Associated Press, Morning Star, March 25, 2003.
- National Park Service website.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
Directions: The Bodie Island Lighthouse sits just off Route 12 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. If you arrive via Route 264, the road to turn off is about 6.5 miles south of Route 264.
Access: Grounds open. Tower will be open for climbing starting in April of 2013.Rates are projected to be $8.00 for climbing.
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