Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Core Banks, North Carolina - 1859 (1812**)

Photo of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

History of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-03-12.

Prior to the construction of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, mariners would utilize currents to propel their vessels along, and would run the risk of running aground on shoals that sit offshore from North Carolina.

In the early days of transportation, before railways and interstates, the most effective way of moving cargo was via boat. Prior to the advent of the steam engine, sailing vessels were the way to go. Mariners would look for any advantage they could get, and found that advantage running up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States.

There are two currents that run along the eastern coastline of the United States. The cold Labrador Current that runs from the Arctic Ocean south, and the warmer Gulf Stream Current runs from the tip of Florida northwards to Newfoundland where it crosses the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Mariners knew about these currents and utilized them as they were often more powerful than wind.

For ships heading south, in order to stay out of the Gulf Stream Current they had to travel closer to shore. This was difficult as the coastline jutted out at Cape Hatteras where vessels had to make a turn, and then receded south of Cape Hatteras. To make matters worse, there were numerous perilous shoals that extended off the coast some ten to twenty-miles, sitting in the shipping lanes.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse Cape Lookout Lighthouse (Coast Guard)

The Cape Lookout National Seashore is 56-miles of undeveloped barrier islands that run from Ocracoke Island to Beaufort Inlet. Prior to a lighthouse marking this dark section of coast, many vessels were wrecked. An act of Congress on March 20, 1804 provided funds "to erect a lighthouse at or near the pitch of Cape Lookout, in State of North Carolina."

A four-acre plot of land was deeded to the government in 1805 by Joseph Fulford and Elijah Piggot for $1.00. The contract for the construction of the lighthouse was awarded to Benjamin Beal, Jr., Duncan Thanter, and James Stephenson of Boston. However, it can be said that "the wheels of government move slowly" as it would be 1812 before the light was complete.

The lighthouse, standing ninety-six feet tall, was an anomaly of two nested towers. The inner tower was constructed of brick, while the exterior tower was octagonal and covered in wooden shakes. The entire structure was painted with large horizontal red and white stripes.

A keeper's quarters was constructed southeast of the tower, and was quite small at around 800 square feet. This served the keeper, and later, his two assistants for over sixty years. The entire cost for the construction of the station was $20,678.54.

Mariners complained from the beginning of the inadequacy of the light. Although the tower was ninety-six feet tall, many times the fixed white light was obscured by the haze or mist that would hang over the ocean. When the lighthouse was first put into service, it utilized spider lamps, which is a pan of oil that typically had eight to ten wicks coming out of it. The light simply wasn't bright enough to be visible from a distance. An upgrade in 1815 to thirteen Winslow Lewis patented lamps and reflectors did nothing to help.

Although it was less than ideal, the tower would stay in use. By the 1850s, the superior Fresnel lens was adopted by the United States Lighthouse Board. The largest Fresnel lens available, a first-order, was installed in the lantern of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in 1856. This improved the intensity of the light, but the height of the tower was still a hindering factor.

Throughout the 1850s, the station was affected by erosion. Keeper William Fulford had to continually remove sand that was deposited on the front side of the keeper's dwelling. He reported, "The sand banks are now higher than the tops of the windows, and only a few feet from them, at high water mark. On the sea side, it has washed away about 100 feet last year by abrasion and sea flows."

By 1857, between the poor condition of the tower and erosion, the decision was made to build a new lighthouse. Later that year, Congress appropriated $45,000 for the construction of a new first-order lighthouse at Cape Lookout.

It was determined that the low-cost lighthouses of the Pleasonton administration were not the most fiscally wise investments, and it was determined that the new Cape Lookout Lighthouse was to be of quality construction and designed to last. It would achieve those goals as it would become the lighthouse that all other Outer Banks lighthouses would be modeled after.

The new 163-foot conical red brick tower was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers under the supervision of William Henry Chase Whiting. Many speculate that he designed the lighthouse as well. The tower had a base diameter of 28 feet 7 inches with a wall thickness of 8 feet 1 inch. With the first-order Fresnel lens moved over from the 1812 tower, it was estimated that the light was visible from eighteen to twenty miles away.

Construction of the tower was completed in 1859, and it was lighted on November 1 of that year. Although the 1812 tower was threatened by erosion, records list it standing well into the late 1800s, but was gone by 1893 as evidenced by a photograph taken that year.

With the onset of the Civil War, President Lincoln declared a blockade of Southern ports in response to the succession on April 19, 1861. The Governor of North Carolina ordered the lighthouses along the coast darkened. Less than a month later, North Carolina seceded from the Union.

In preparation for the war, the Confederate Lighthouse Bureau ordered all of the lenses removed from the lighthouses. Although some books and websites report that the retreating Confederate troops vandalized the lenses, this is incorrect. The truth is that most of the lenses were carefully removed from the towers, crated up, and stored. After General Sherman's troops captured the state capital of Raleigh, most of the lenses of coastal lighthouses were found in a warehouse in the city.

Many of the lenses were missing prisms, including the first-order Fresnel lens of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. To ensure that the lenses were fit for duty, the Lighthouse Board had the lenses shipped back to their original manufacturer in France to be inspected and repaired. The first-order lens from Cape Lookout was shipped out on November 28, 1865, and returned to the United States in August of 1866. Records show that the federal government authorized the amount of $45,000 for rebuilding of the first-order lens on March 3, 1867.

Union soldiers regained control of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse by 1863. In order to reestablish the light, Union troops installed a third-order Fresnel lens. Under normal circumstances, a third-order Fresnel lens in the tower wouldn't be effective, but due to the war, lenses were in short supply.

A small band of Confederate soldiers made their way to the Core Banks on the night of April 2, 1864 in an attempt to put the lighthouse out of commission. Reports were that Confederate troops packed both towers with black keg powder and ignited them. Colonel John C. Whitford of the North Carolina Infantry reported to his superiors that the 1859 tower "had been destroyed beyond repair" and that 1812 tower was destroyed as well.

The Union report told a different story noting minimal damage. Rather than two destroyed lighthouses, Benjamin Dove, Commander of the North Atlantic Blocking Squadron reported that two powder kegs were ignited, some glass was broken, and the oil shed was destroyed.

The lower section of the iron staircase was also damaged during the raid, but due to an iron shortage during war time, it was replaced with wooden steps. An order was placed at a later time for sixty-one cast iron stairs and hardware for a landing after Congress authorized $20,000 for repairs to the lighthouse. Installation took place in 1867.

The claimed destruction of the 1812 lighthouse was false as records list it standing well into the late 1800s.

The keeper and his family continued to live in the 1812 keeper's quarters that measured only 800 square feet. However, with the advent of the new lighthouse in 1859, a first assistant keeper was assigned to the station in September of that year. A second assistant keeper was assigned in January of 1860. The head keeper's family had to move out to provide living space for the assistants.

In order to better accommodate the keepers assigned to the first-order light station, Congress appropriated $5,000 on June 10, 1872 for the construction of a new keeper's dwelling, a summer kitchen, and wood shed. The new dwelling would be large enough to house two keepers and their families. In order to keep construction costs down, many of leftover bricks from the Bodie Island Lighthouse were used.

By 1873, there were three new first-order lighthouses standing along the Outer Banks all very similar in design. In order to provide an effective daymark, the Lighthouse Board ordered each tower painted with a unique scheme on April 17, 1873: "Cape Hatteras tower will be painted in spiral bands, alternately black and white. Cape Lookout tower will be checkered, the checkers being painted alternately black and white. Body's [sic] Island tower is now painted black and white horizontal bands."

Planning started in 1873 for the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla utilizing the same design as the other three lighthouses, to help set it apart as a daymark, it was left unpainted.

Things were quiet at the station after that. It appears that some improvements to the station were made in 1889. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year has the following entry:

416. Cape Lookout, coast of North Carolina - Improvements of considerable extent were made in May. Three new store-houses were built, and the tower, dwelling and porches, cistern, fences and outhouses repaired.

By 1892, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board lists a "Cape Lookout Shoals light-ship, North Carolina...$70,000.00" under a section titled "Estimates for special appropriations." More detail is provided in another entry:

Cape Lookout Shoals light-vessel, North Carolina - Cape Lookout shoals extend 8 miles beyond the point of the cape. There are dangerous breakers on the shoals 5 miles from the cape. When a vessel drawing more than 15 feet of water has made sufficient offing to just clear these shoals, she is 10 miles distant from the Cape Lookout light. Although this light is of the first order, shown from a tower 150 feet high, and should be seen a distance of 18 miles under favorable circumstances, it may happen during thick or hazy weather that a mariner may fail to see it in time to avoid that line of shoals. A light-ship of the improved model now constructed for use at exposed stations and provided with a steam fog signal, to cost $70,000 approximately, would be a valuable aid to navigation, if placed near the southern extremity of the shoals. It is therefore recommended that an appropriation of that amount be made therefor.

More than seven years later, The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1899 upped the estimate for the Cape Lookout Shoals Lightship to $90,000. After several more years, Light Vessel No. 80 was approved on March 3, 1903. Plans and specifications were completed, and bids were advertised on October 1, 1903.

The ship was completed and delivered by the contractors to the Lazaretto Point Lighthouse Depot on December 1, 1904. As no money was available for maintenance, the vessel was laid up until March of 1905, and then fitted for duty. The vessel was placed to the south and east of the shoals off Cape Lookout on site April 1, 1905, where it remained on location through the end of the season.

Repairs were made continually over the years at the station. A new iron oil house was constructed in 1895. By 1900, recommendations were being made for a keeper's dwelling. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1900, had the following entry:

656. Cape Lookout, seacoast of North Carolina - The accommodations for the keepers here are inadequate. Only one dwelling is provided for the principal keeper and his two assistants. Their families can not be with them, and at such an isolated and lonely place this is a hardship. Better service would be rendered by the keepers if quarters were furnished for their families. It is estimated that for $7,500 a new building can be erected here, with cistern and outbuildings for the use of the principal keeper and for putting up solid partition in the present dwelling to make separate quarters for the first and second assistant keepers. The Board recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.

It appears that little movement was made on the additional keeper's dwelling. By 1901, the Board had repeated the recommendation for the new dwelling, but also noted that "electrical supplies were furnished for the telephone line" and that "the lens apparatus and the curtain rollers were put in order." The same entry appears in the 1902 report, so it is hard to determine when these items actually took place.

By 1904, it appears that the new dwelling was getting some traction. An act approved on April 28, 1904 provided $5,000 for the construction of a new dwelling. Later that year, plans and specifications were drawn up, and the job went out to bid on January 4, 1905.

Only two bids were received, and both were rejected for unspecified reasons. Several changes to the plans and specifications were made, and the job was once again advertised. This time, four bids for the job were received. The sealed bids were opened on June 19, and the lowest was accepted. Contracts were drawn up.

It would still take over a year before construction on the dwelling would start. Work commenced on June 24, 1907 starting with the brick piers for the foundation being laid adjacent to the 1873 dwelling.

By November of 1907, the dwelling was complete at a cost of $4,479.13. After the new construction, the old 1873 dwelling was renovated into two apartments, one upper and one lower, for the assistant keepers and their families.

After construction of the keeper's dwelling in 1907, things remained relatively quiet. The only changes through the years after that would be the lighting and how it was delivered. Through 1912, kerosene was the fuel for the five-wick and chimney lamp. From 1912 to 1914, kerosene was still the fuel; however, the lamp was changed to an incandescent oil vapor (IOV) lamp which provided 77,000 candlepower.

Then next big change to come to the station was in 1914 when the signal was changed over from a fixed white light to a flash. Its characteristic was two 10-second eclipses each minute which it retained through 1933.

The lighthouse was changed over to electricity in 1933 when the lightship LV-72 was decommissioned. The illuminating mechanism from the ship was salvaged and employed at Cape Lookout. The four 250W lamps were installed in the Fresnel lens, powered by dual five kW gasoline-powered generators backed up by lead-acid batter racks in the summer kitchen. This system boosted the light's output to 160,000 candlepower.

The station was automated in 1950 when the Coast Guard installed a "sun sensor" to turn the beacon on and off. During this time, the Coast Guard sold the 1907 keeper's dwelling to Dr. Graham A. Barden Jr., the son of a New Bern congressman for $666 in 1958. Using a trailer, bulldozer, and a tractor, he moved the structure a mile south to a plot of land he owned for use as a summer cottage. It is now a private residence, and from the view on Google Maps, it appears that the dwelling is still be there.

The 1873 dwelling sat abandoned for many years until ownership was transferred to the National Park Service in 1976 upon establishment of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Modernization took place in 1975 when the first-order Fresnel lens and the lamps were removed. In their place, two 1000-watt DCB-24 aerobeacons were installed providing 800,000 candlepower.

When the Lemonnier-Sauter first-order lens was removed, it was transported to the Coast Guard Support Center at Portsmouth, Virginia despite all the protests put forth by local community, leaders and politicians. Once there, it was placed on display where it remained until 1994.

In 1994, after a successful move by International Chimney Company of Buffalo, NY, the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation asked the Coast Guard about the availability of a first-order Fresnel lens. Although the group had a first-order Fresnel lens, due to environmental concerns over the mercury float mechanism, they were not allowed to refit back into their lantern.

The Coast Guard gave permission, and transported the massive lens to Block Island where it was mounted into the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse. The foundation had the tower relighted on August 27, 1994.

An underwater electric cable was run from Harkers Island out to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse providing stable electric power in 1982. As a backup, an emergency generator was installed at the base of the tower to keep the light lit during a power failure.

Modernization continued at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. In 2011, a VRB-25 marine rotating beacon by Vega Industries was installed. Multiple acrylic Fresnel lenses rotate around a 100-watt 12-volt light-emitting-diode (LED) lamp. Today, power is augmented by a solar panel array located to the southwest of the lighthouse.

The lighthouse tower and the other property that wasn't transferred in 1976 were transferred to the National Park Service on July 14, 2003. The National Park Service had open house events to allow the public to climb the tower several times a year from 2003 to 2007. Following a safety inspection in 2008, the tower was closed pending repairs.

The tower reopened for climbing in 2010.


  1. Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore website.
  2. Lighthouses of the Carolinas - A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.
  3. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  4. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.

Directions: With this lighthouse sitting on a barrier island, you have to take a ferry from Harker's Island to the Core Banks. We used Calico Jack's ferry service (919) 728-3575. He was really good, we gave him $10.00 / person and he took us there, asked us what time we wanted to come back, then came and got us. If you visit the island, you will need to take all of your own supplies with you as there are no vending machines, etc on the island.

Access: Grounds and tower are open. Tower open for climbing from May 15 through September 21 on Wednesdays through Saturdays. More information located at NPS website.

View more Cape Lookout Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 163.00'
Focal Plane: 150'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 34.62278 N
*Longitude: -76.52450 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.