Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Buxton, North Carolina - 1872 (1803**)

Photo of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-04-04.

The area off Coast of Cape Hatteras has an ominous name, "The Graveyard of the Atlantic." The name comes from the number of ships that have been lost on Diamond Shoals (over 2300 since the early 1500s).

There are two "rivers" that flow past the shoals, the cold Labrador Current that runs from the north, and the warmer Gulf Stream Current that flows up from the south. Mariners utilized these currents as they were often more powerful than wind. The downfall of the currents was that they passed dangerously close to Diamond Shoals which sit some fifteen-miles offshore.

Although ships were lost as early as the 1500s, it would be the late 1700s before a lighthouse was approved for the point. An act passed on May 13, 1794 stated that as soon as the land at the point is ceded to the United States, it will be the duty of the Secretary of the Treasury to furnish a lighthouse on the point. This same act also called for a lighthouse on Shell Castle Island, near Ocracoke Harbor.

It would take several years to acquire the parcels of land necessary to construct the two lighthouses. On November 29, 1797, the government acquired a small plot of land on Shell Castle Island. A year later on October 26, 1798, the government purchased four acres of land at Cape Hatteras from the Jennett family for $50.

After approval and funding for the lighthouses, Tench Coxe, the commissioner of Revenue had a hard time finding a contractor. Of the bids that he received, he felt many were "dishonest and impudent" and continued the search. For the next search, he advertised the projects in government offices from Maine to North Carolina.

Commissioner Coxe received a letter from Congressman Henry Dearborn who was in the process of completing his second term as congressman of Massachusetts. The inquiry stated that he might be interested in constructing the two lighthouses. After several exchanges, Dearborn submitted a bid. Once the bids from several contractors were received, they were forwarded to President Adams for approval.

Before President Adams could approve the bids, Coxe left the commissioner's office. William Miller, Jr. took over the position, and reviewed all previous contracts. After the review, he felt that Dearborn's contract was too vague, favoring the contractor. President Adams disapproved the contract per Miller's recommendation in February of 1798.

Miller reached out to Dearborn, and offered to help him rewrite the contract weeding out the vagueness. Dearborn resubmitted the bid in the fall of 1798. Miller solicited several other bids at the time, and forwarded them on to the President for selection. President Adams accepted Dearborn's bid on October 9, 1798, and sent it back for his signature. Dearborn signed the bid on December 31, 1798.

Dearborn's crews landed on the Outer Banks in August of 1799. By winter, the crews had completed the keeper's quarters of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before stopping for winter. Spring would see the crews return and construction start. Progress would start rapidly with the foundation and the first story being completed, however, progress would slow due to the onset of yellow fever.

Dudley Hobart, the man left in charge by Henry Dearborn reported the tower complete by August of 1802. The lighthouse was constructed of granite and brown sandstone, octagonal in shape, rising to ninety feet, capped off by a twelve-foot lantern. Also constructed at that time were an oil vault, and a wood-frame two-story keeper's quarters which measured thirty-four feet by sixteen feet.

Although the station was complete in August of 1802, Adam Gaskin, the station's first keeper, would not exhibit its light until the night of October 29, 1803. Soon after the light was exhibited, it was determined that the lamps were less efficient than originally thought consuming 1,400 gallons of oil annually which exceeded the capacity of the oil vault. A new 2,000-gallon oil cistern was installed to rectify the situation.

The Great Coastal Hurricane of 1806 made landfall near Wilmington, North Carolina, and would pummel the state for nearly thirty-six hours. The tower sustained considerable damage which took the lighthouse out of commission for nearly a month before repairs could be made.

The lamps employed at Cape Hatteras produced intense heat. As the lamps used oil as their illuminant, fires were not uncommon. In January of 1809, the keeper on duty accidentally spilled oil in the lantern room which resulted in a fire that destroyed all the glass panes. Repairs were made, but sporadic fires would continue through the years.

Another common occurrence at the lighthouse was bird strikes. Geese and wild ducks would occasionally fly into the lantern like moths to a flame. The results were broken glass, damaged lamps, and piles of lifeless birds at the base of the tower. The problem was solved by covering the entire lantern in protective netting, a tactic that would be employed at the Bodie Island Lighthouse many years later.

The lighthouse was deemed a failure almost from the beginning. Its lamps were too weak to cast its beam out past the shoals, and mariners often complained that they passed the point without ever seeing the light. Lieutenant H. J. Harstene of the U.S. Navy had recommended "if not improved, had better be dispensed with, as the navigator is apt to run ashore looking for it." As a day mark, it was also ineffective. The tower was never painted, so it retained the brown color of the sandstone which often blended into the shore.

Upgrades were made over the years. The spider lamps were removed in 1812, and a Winslow Lewis patented system of lamps and parabolic reflectors were installed. In 1817, a higher quality of oil was employed to provide an improved light. Little changed, and the complaints kept coming in.

In an attempt to supplement the lighthouse, the federal government anchored a light ship at the outer edge of Diamond Shoals in 1824, fifteen-miles off Hatteras Island. The large ship bore the name Cape Hatteras and had two lanterns fixed aloft masts. The ship was only on station for three years before being blown ashore during a gale causing irreparable damage.

Winslow Lewis had upgraded the lighting system several more times over the next twenty years. In 1845, fifteen-inch reflectors were installed, but the change was barely noticeable. In 1848, a new set of reflectors were installed with twenty-one-inch diameters, nearly doubling the reflecting area. But nothing really changed, and mariners still labeled it substandard.

From 1820 to 1851 all lighthouse operations and aids to navigation fell under the U.S. Treasury Department with Stephen Pleasanton, the fifth auditor of the U.S. Treasury in charge. Mr. Pleasanton was a bureaucrat with little knowledge of engineering or maritime trades. He was known to frequently sacrifice quality to save money. Changes would come in 1851 when Congress organized the Lighthouse Board made up of naval officers, Army Corps of Engineers, and the superintendent of the U.S. Coastal Survey.

Much needed changes would finally come in 1854 when Congress appropriated $15,000 to increase the height of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to 150 feet and to install a newly adopted first-order Fresnel lens. The other change would be to make it a more effective day mark by whitewashing the first seventy feet of the tower and painting the rest red. To make for better accommodations for the keepers, a new two-story dwelling was also constructed in 1854 to house two keepers and their families.

With the changes made in 1854, mariners were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief as the passed the torturous Diamond Shoals. But the good fortune wouldn't last long. With the onset of the Civil War and the succession of North Carolina, both the North and South immediately recognized the importance of Cape Hatteras.

Confederate forces took control of all aids to navigation along the southern shores and ordered them darkened. At Cape Hatteras, troops removed the massive Fresnel lens and transported it to the mainland for safe keeping. In August of 1861, Union troops regained control of Hatteras Island and in autumn, defended against a Confederate plan to destroy the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Northern mariners called on the Lighthouse Board to reinstate the light at Cape Hatteras. Because of a shortage of lenses due to the Civil War, the Lighthouse Board utilized a smaller second-order Fresnel lens to re-establish the light in 1862. A first-order Fresnel lens would replace the second-order lens a year later.

That same year, the Lighthouse Board's chief engineer noted that the structure was deteriorating. Sand had been blown away from the base of the tower exposing several feet of the foundation; expanding cracks, aging wooden stairs, and degraded iron work were all listed in the report. With the cost of repairs prohibitive, the district engineer recommended a new lighthouse for Cape Hatteras. On March 2, 1867, Congress appropriated $75,000. Over the next two years, additional appropriations brought the total to $167,000.

The Lighthouse Board hired accomplished lighthouse builder Dexter Stetson of Maine to supervise the project. Construction started in December 1868 and was modeled after William H. C. Whiting's design for the Cape Lookout Lighthouse to the south. Since the sea was encroaching on the site of the 1803 lighthouse, the Lighthouse Board selected a site that was "above the highest level of the sea and so far removed from the waterline as to render it safe from encroachment from the sea." The site was located about 600 feet further inland from the 1803 tower and 1,600 feet from the high water mark.

To prepare for the project, Stetson first built quarters for his work crew, a blacksmith shop, storage buildings, lifting derricks, wharf, and three small scows to shuttle materials from larger vessels in Pamlico Sound. A tram railway linked the wharf to the construction site.

For the project, the Lighthouse Board ordered 1.25 million bricks from a kiln on the James River near Richmond, Virginia. Granite for the foundation, trim, and the entrance way came from as far away as Vermont. Several loads of these supplies would have to be sent again as the ships went down in storms.

To start on the construction of the tower, Stetson excavated six-feet of earth and arrived at hard compacted sand. He was unable to drive a pile into it, and was forced to improvise. Water was pumped out the hole, and two courses of crossed yellow pine timbers were laid. Large blocks of granite rubble were set in cement mortar and placed upon the pine timbers. When the stone was above the water table, crews re-flooded the hole. Submerging the pine timbers would prevent decay and ensure a stable foundation.

Once the foundation was set, crews started work on the octagonal granite and brick base upon which the tower would rest. They were able to complete this by November of 1869, slightly behind schedule due to worker illness and material transportation issues. To make up for lost time, Stetson hired local laborers from the island in 1870.

The 193-foot tower was completed by September of 1870 and the lantern was installed that November. In December, the lampist arrived on site to install the first-order Fresnel lens made by Henry Lapaute of Paris, France. The keeper lighted the lamps, exhibiting the beacon for the first time on December 16, 1870. The old lighthouse was torn down in February of 1871.

With the construction of the new tower, the Lighthouse Board appointed a third keeper to help with the duties. This led to overcrowding in the 1854 keeper's dwelling which was built to house two keepers and their families. The engineer in charge, Brevet Brigadier General James Hervey Simpson requested permission from the Lighthouse Board to use the surplus brick and lumber to erect a new principal keeper's dwelling.

The Lighthouse Board agreed to the inquiry, and two weeks later, plans for a four-room dwelling with kitchen arrived from Baltimore. Work on the structure started in December of 1870 and was completed by March of 1871. After the dwelling was finished, Dexter Stetson packed up his equipment and crews and headed north where he would start on construction of the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse, when first completed bore the same distinctive color day mark as the 1803 tower. The entire tower was whitewashed with the upper section painted red. Upon completion of the Bodie Island Lighthouse, there were now three lighthouses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina that were all of the same design.

In order to differentiate the Cape Lookout, Cape Hatteras, and Bodie Island lighthouses from each other as a day mark, the Lighthouse Board ordered a unique color scheme for each 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."

In the spring of 1879, the lighthouse was struck by lightning. The resultant strike produced cracks in the masonry of the tower. The engineer of the district determined that this was due to an imperfect ground of the iron work of the tower. To remedy the situation the iron work was linked to an iron disk sunk in the ground by a metal rod.

The keeper's dwellings received significant repairs in 1881. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1881 had the following entry:

359. Cape Hatteras, about 2 miles north of the southern extremity of the Cape, sea-coast of North Carolina - Extensive repairs were made in March and April. The chimney of the keeper's dwelling was rebuilt, and the doors, windows, and porches were repaired. The plastering of the keeper's and assistant's dwellings was repaired and both buildings painted. The wood-work and brick-work of the cisterns were thoroughly repaired and painted and the pumps put in order. The fencing around the premises was renewed. The iron-work of the tower was painted, the brick-work outside scraped and the black and white striping renewed. The call-bell wires and bells were put in order. Some minor repairs, also, were made and the station left in thorough order.

Around 1874, plans were set in motion for the construction of a smaller lighthouse to mark the entrance to Hatteras Inlet. The lighthouse became known as the Hatteras Inlet Beacon. Construction of the "frame dwelling, square in plan, resting on a foundation of five solid wrought-iron piles" started in July of 1874, and was completed by September. The tower received a fourth-order Fresnel lens and was first lighted on October 1, 1874.

The lighthouse was very short-lived as the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1879 lists the light as being discontinued June 30 of that year. It is unclear as to why it was deactivated; however, it wouldn't stay dark for long. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1883 states that it was repaired and reactivated on December 15, 1883.

The third assistant lighthouse keeper was placed in charge of the Hatteras Inlet Beacon. By 1888, the Lighthouse Board recommended that a new dwelling be erected near the beacon as his duties pertained entirely to the beacon. As oil was stored on the floor of the beacon, which was a fire hazard, the board also recommended construction of an oil house. They requested $5,000 for the construction of both, however, the money wouldn't be forthcoming.

Starting in 1882, numerous petitions from insurance companies, merchants, and masters of vessels starting coming in to the Lighthouse Board asking that either a light vessel or an offshore lighthouse mark the Diamond Shoals. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse did a good job, but during inclement weather, the range of light was impacted.

Two attempts were made to erect a lighthouse several miles offshore to adequately mark the shoals. The first attempt which took place in 1891 ended when storm carried away most of the machinery and equipment used in construction of the lighthouse as well as the upper portion of the caisson.

Another attempt was made starting in 1894 with soil samples and mounting of a boring apparatus. The apparatus was monitored for a year to ensure it could handle the open Atlantic Ocean. The following year, the Lighthouse Board moved forward with plans to construct an iron skeletal tower much like the ones employed in the Florida Keys.

After getting the plans together, advertising for contracts, and looking over the bids, the Lighthouse Board scrapped the plans and commissioned the construction of a light vessel. Starting in 1897, a light vessel was assigned to the shoal and would remain through 1966 when replaced by a "Texas Tower" style lighthouse. The light was deactivated in 2001.

Diamond Shoals Light Tower picture
Diamond Shoals "Texas Tower" Light

The quarters requested for the assistant keeper in charge of the Hatteras Inlet Beacon back in 1888 were finally constructed in 1892. However, it was not separate building as was originally requested. The main building was remodeled to provide an adequate residence. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1892 had the following entry:

486. Cape Hatteras, seacoast of North Carolina - One of the kitchens forming the wings of the assistant keepers' dwelling was moved to the rear, and changes were made to adapt it to the use of two families. The main building was extended on its front and back lines about 16 feet; the enclosure constituted an addition 16 feet by 20 feet 3 inches in plan and two stories in height. This provided comfortable quarters for the assistant keeper in charge of the Cape Hatteras Beacon, whose previous accommodations were scant. A brick oil house was built 15 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 6 inches in plan, with walls 8 feet 6 inches high and 9 inches thick, and a gable roof 4 feet high. The principal keeper's dwelling, the old parts of the assistant's dwelling, and the tower were put in complete order. One of the storehouses was moved from near the tower to the vicinity of the principal keeper's dwelling, and various repairs were made at the station.

Erosion was a constant problem at the station since its inception back in the early 1800s. The first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse went into operation on October 29, 1803. By 1810, most of the sand hill the lighthouse rested on had blown away exposing four feet of the foundation. Brush was stacked around the foundation in an attempt to stop the dispersal of sand and possibly capture it.

By 1821, problems with sand being blown away from the tower again crept up. A suggestion was made by the collector of customs to place tar near the base of the tower in an attempt to stem the erosion. More problems with erosion were logged in the 1840s as well.

The location for the new Cape Hatteras tower was carefully selected to place it in an area that would be sheltered from the steady winds that caused the erosion around the 1803 tower. However, the Hatteras Inlet Beacon was placed closer to the sea. On October 1, 1889 the high-water mark was fifty feet away. After two severe gales, the water was within a few feet of the tower. In January of 1890, the structure was moved back 200-feet.

In November of 1895, the Hatteras Inlet Beacon was in danger of being lost. A storm had removed thirty-five feet of beach in front of the lighthouse, and in less than 24-hours the water line was up to the structure's piles. Plans were put in place to mount a temporary light on a pole as a precaution. Less than a year later, the temporary light was put into use when a storm submerged the beacon. By November of 1896, the beacon was moved 275-feet closer to the main Cape Hatteras light and 25-feet to the west.

It would take another three years, but again the Hatteras Inlet Beacon would need to be moved. On February 24, 1899, the beacon was moved 435-feet closer to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It appears that even though the beacon was moved, the temporary post light was still being used as the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1900 reports that the light-post was overthrown by a severe storm in August of 1899, and that it was re-erected and reestablished on August 24.

By the 1920s, erosion was a again a major concern for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The ocean was just around a hundred yards away compared to the one-mile it was at construction. In an effort to stabilize the dunes, shrubs and grasses were planted. This did help a little; however, after two hurricanes rolled through in August of 1933, the ocean was nearly at the base of the tower.

On May 15, 1936, Keeper Unaka Jennette extinguished the lighthouse. In August of that year, the Acting Treasury Secretary approved the transfer of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to the National Park Service. By 1939, the United States Coast Guard took control of all aids to navigation. The Coast Guard erected a steel skeletal light a mile-and-one-half away from the lighthouse in Buxton Woods.

During World War II, the lighthouse was pressed into service as a lookout tower to scout for German submarines that frequented the east coast of the U.S. The area around Cape Hatteras became known as "torpedo junction" with as many as sixty commercial merchant vessels and oil tankers being sunk in the area.

Over the years, starting in 1930 many plans were attempted to control the erosion at Cape Hatteras. Steel groins, dikes, breakwaters, and wooden revetments were put in place. Some of these measures seemed to help for a few decades.

By 1948, through natural processes and beach stabilization efforts, nearly 1,000 feet of sand lay between the lighthouse and the surf. The Coast Guard leased the tower back from the National Park Service through a special use permit. They performed some maintenance work to prepare the lighthouse for relighting which included removing the remains of the first-order Fresnel lens and replacing it with a Crouse-Hinds 36-inch rotating beacon. It was re-activating on January 23, 1950.

By the mid-1960s, the erosion returned. In 1966, 312,000 cubic yards of sand were pumped ashore, but later disappeared. A year later, large sand bags were placed, but did little to help. In 1969, more steel groins were put in place in an attempt to capture sand. Between 1971 and 1973, 1.5 million cubic yards of sand were pumped ashore. Despite all of these efforts, the ocean had reclaimed nearly 125-feet of the shore.

By the fall of 1980, the Atlantic Ocean was within seventy-five feet of the tower. Many protective measures were enacted in an attempt to save the lighthouse which had become the symbol of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Some of these measures included granite stone groins and artificial seaweed, neither of which did much to help.

In 1984, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began designing a seawall. It would stand twenty-three feet above sea level and extend another sixteen-foot below the Atlantic and would be one-foot-thick. The wall would then be reinforced by twelve-foot-thick riprap of boulders and five-ton concrete pods. Once complete, they presented their plan to the National Park Service.

The other option presented to the Park Service was to move the lighthouse. In December of 1989, the National Park Service had opted to move the lighthouse but opted to wait until the "threat of not moving...clearly outweighed the risk of moving."

During the early 1990s, the National Park Service favored interim measures which included installing more groins. However, by 1996 the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and the Division of Coastal Management refused to support any additional interim measures.

In 1996, the new superintendent of the Cape Hatteras Seashore sought one last opinion, and asked for a recommendation from North Carolina State University. After forming a committee and reviewing the National Academy of Sciences report on the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, their recommendation was to move it, and soon, or see it destroyed.

Planning started in the spring of 1997, and by 1998, the National Park Service had narrowed down the contractors to International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, NY and Emmert International of Clackamas, Oregon. After reviewing both proposals, International Chimney Corporation, the company that had successfully moved the Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod and the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse in Rhode Island, was selected on June 19, 1998.

Photo of Cape Hatteras being moved in 1999Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved in 1999.

Several lawsuits were filed to stop the move believing that the lighthouse, if moved, would lose its historical relevance. The lawsuits failed, and the site closed in October of 1998 to prepare for the move. International Chimney Corporation arrived on site in December to start the work.

In preparation for the move, the light in Cape Hatteras was extinguished on March 1, 1999. The move started several months later on June 17 at 3:05 p.m., after completion of the prep work. Five massive hydraulic jacks pushed the lighthouse several feet each day while the steel track was leapfrogged from back to front allowing the lighthouse to continue to move. On July 9, 1999 the hydraulic jacks pushed the lighthouse the final 79 feet, and it arrived at its new home at 1:23 p.m.

The move, which was supposed to take a month, was completed in 21 days. I was living in Raleigh, North Carolina at the time, and planned to see the move in progress, but ended up missing it by two days. I have many photos on the website from July 11, 1999 while the lighthouse was still up on the moving apparatus.

The keeper's dwellings and other outbuildings were placed in the same configuration and distances relative to the tower as they were prior to the move. On August 17, the full weight of the lighthouse was set on its new pad. On November 13, 1999 the National Park Service held a relighting ceremony, and the light was exhibited once again from the lantern.


  1. Lighthouses of the Carolinas - A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.
  2. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  3. "Only one bidder enticed by Diamond Shoals light," Sam Walker, The Outer Banks Voice, September 4, 2012.
  4. "Man pays $20,000 for abandoned light tower," Jack Horan,, October 7, 2012.
  5. The Civil War on the Outer Banks - A History of the Late Rebellion Along the Coast of North Carolina from Carteret to Currituck, Fred M. Mallison, 1998.
  6. Lighthouses & Keepers - The U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy, Dennis L. Noble, 1997.
  7. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - Sentinel of the Shoals, Dawson Carr, 2000.
  8. Out of Harm's Way - Moving America's Lighthouse, Mike Booher and Lin Ezell, 2001.

Directions: Take Route 12 south from Nags Head about 50 miles to Buxton, NC. From here, you can make a left onto Forest Road which will turn into Lighthouse Road and lead you to the lighthouse. Since the tower has been moved, make sure you visit the original location of the lighthouse which is at 35.251N and -75.522W.

Access: Grounds and tower are open. Climbing is available the third Friday in April through Columbus Day (early October).

View more Cape Hatteras Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 193.00'
Focal Plane: 198'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 35.25055 N
*Longitude: -75.52883 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.