Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-02-20.
There are two currents that run along the eastern coastline of the United States. There is the cold Labrador Current that runs from the Arctic Ocean south, and the warmer Gulf Stream Current that 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.
After the Civil War ended, sea-going trade had increased the number of vessels traversing the eastern shoreline. The coastline along North Carolina was well lit with Cape Lookout to the far south, Cape Hatteras, and Bodie Island along the middle of the barrier islands, and then to the north was the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse. This left nearly seventy-five miles of unlit coastline from Bodie Island to Virginia Beach.
Although a lighthouse was recommended and an appropriation was made in the 1860s, the Civil War put the project on hold. As the project was on hold, the funds reverted back to the Treasury. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1872 had the following entry:
- A first-order light-house at or near Poyner's Hill, a point about midway between Cape Henry and Body's Island light-house, sea-coast of North Carolina - The attention of Congress was drawn in the last annual report to the importance of speedily establishing a light-house to illumine the dark space of forty miles on the coast of Virginia and North Carolina between Body's Island and Cape Henry.
The recommendations contained in that report are again referred to, and the earnest attention of Congress called to the importance of establishing this needful light-house. The distance from Body's Island to Cape Henry is eighty miles, of which there is an unlighted space of forty miles. The land along the coast in this vicinity is low and in many places without trees, so that even in day-time there is danger of vessels getting into unsafe proximity to the coast before becoming aware of it. This danger is enhanced by the fact that vessels bound around Cape Hatteras from the northern and eastern ports keep well to the westward, in order to avoid the strong current of the Gulf Stream, and for the additional reason they have a favorable current of about a mile an hour, nearly as far as Hatteras, and a smoother sea in bad weather; but in the absence of powerful sea-coast lights sufficiently near each other to give warning of approach to danger, many vessels ladened with valuable lives and cargoes are in danger of being lost between these points. It is now believed that the construction of this tower should be no longer delayed. A glance at the chart of the coast will show its importance. An appropriation therefor of $50,000 is accordingly submitted to commence the work.
An appropriation was made about ten years ago for this light, but the money reverted to the Treasury. The light-house should be similar to that building at Body's Island, with a focal plane 150 feet above the sea, and visible at a distance of eighteen nautical miles. It is estimated that the total cost of a first-order light-house at this place will be $95,000.
Planning for the lighthouse began in 1873. A location approximately thirty-three miles south of Cape Henry, Virginia was selected. Foreman Dexter Stetson, who had overseen construction of the Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island Lighthouses to the south, was selected to oversee construction of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
Test borings were taken to determine the makeup of the soil. After that, a pile and grillage foundation utilizing timbers were set and then capped off with concrete upon which the tower would sit. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1874 had the following lengthy entry:
306. Currituck Beach, on the coast of North Carolina, about midway between Cape Henry and Body's Island light-houses - The site for this light-house was purchased and jurisdiction over the same ceded by the State of North Carolina to the United States in November, 1873. Borings to test the character of the soil on which the new structure is to rest were made by the engineer of the district in January. The upper stratum was found to consist of fine sand of light color, about 3 feet in depth; below this the sand became darker and apparently more compact, but no other material change until at about 9 feet depth, where a stratum soft mud was found about 4 feet thick; making the depth of its surface 13 feet below the surface of the ground. The test-pile that was driven penetrated this mud nearly a foot with a blow from a 1,600-pound hammer falling 18 feet. Below the mud the boring showed fine sand the way to a depth of 30 feet, no material change in its appearance being observed. Plans for a pile and grillage foundation were accordingly made, the piles to be driven to a depth of from 22 to 24 feet, so as to allow them to penetrate several feet into the hard sand, and at distances apart of 2 feet 10 inches. They are then to be sawed off, at depth of 3.5 feet below the level of the water, then capped by 12 by 12 inch timbers, which will be treenailed to the tops of the piles. At angles to these pieces another set of 12 by 12 inch timbers will be laid, each set of timber being notched into the other 3 inches. The grillage will thus be 18 inches thick. The spaces are to be filled in with concrete to the level of the top of the grillage on which the masonry of the tower will rest. The driving of the piles for the foundation was commenced on the 19th of June, a steam-pile driver and appurtenances having been first set up. At the present date about half the piles have been driven. Meanwhile the temporary quarters for the workmen, the carpenter's shop, blacksmith's shop, cement shed, have been put up, the wharf connecting the shore with the landing in Currituck Sound (about 500 yards in length) built, and a railway extending from its outer end to near the site of the tower laid. A pier has also been constructed near Church's Island, distant about twelve miles, in 6 feet water, to enable vessels to land material for the light-house. From this pier the material is lightered to the wharf, whence it is conveyed to the site by cars. The tower is to be 150 feet high, and show a light of the first order, which can be seen at sea a distance of eighteen nautical miles .The base of the tower is an octagonal pyramid, surmounted by a conical shaft. The establishment of this light will supply a want long felt by the commerce of the country, as will be attested by the numbers of wrecks that have struck this beach in the course of the last 22 years. The additional appropriation made by Congress June 23, 1874, will insure a steady continuance of operations; but, owing to the difficulties in getting materials to this station, and in securing a good foundation, an additional appropriation of $20,000 is asked.
By the time the tower was finished, appropriations of over $178,000 were released, and over one-million red bricks were used. The 162-foot tower was lighted for the first time on December 1, 1875. The massive first-order Fresnel lens supplied a fixed white light with a red flash every ninety-seconds which was visible for eighteen miles. The lighthouse is nearly an exact replica of the Bodie Island to the south, and Assateague Island to the north, but was left unpainted so it could be easily identified by mariners during the day.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The Victorian "stick style" keeper's dwelling was pre-fabricated off-site. Once complete, it was and barged to the location and re-assembled in 1876. There was enough space for the keeper, his two assistants, and their families in the duplex.
Day to day operations took over, and not much had changed for over a decade. Then in 1892, some three thousand running feet of fence was installed around the station. By 1896, several sections of the fence were in need of replacing, and two new gates were installed. Also installed in 1896, was a new iron oil house.
In 1899, a telephone system was installed at the station, but less than two years later, a new system was needed to replace the burned out one. Five years later, a new wharf was constructed.
Sometime around 1920, an additional keeper's dwelling was brought to the site. In the early 1900s, The Lighthouse Board decommissioned the Long Point Lighthouse in Coinjock Bay. Crews loaded the dwelling on a barge, and floated it across Currituck Sound. This allowed for one of the keepers to move out of the duplex.
The lighthouse was automated in 1939 when the United States Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service. The keepers packed up their belongings and left the location. After World War II, the station's usefulness declined, and the property was abandoned.
By the 1970s, the keeper's dwellings were in dilapidated condition. Windows were broken and doors were missing allowing the elements to permeate the structures. Anything of value was missing, the porches collapsed, and vines had overtaken the structures.
A group of concerned citizens formed the Outer Banks Conservationists, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the character of the Outer Banks. Around 1980, the group signed a lease with the State of North Carolina for the dwellings (excluding the lighthouse) and the grounds. The wording of the lease charged the group with restoring the keeper's dwellings and overall improvements of the station.
The group has since restored the smaller dwelling which is now a museum and gift shop. The exterior of the duplex has been restored, and the group continues to work on the interior. Other structures on the grounds have been restored as well. These include the two cisterns which were at either end of the duplex ensuring that each keeper had their own water supply, the privy and the storehouse, which today serves as the lighthouse staff office.
Through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was made available to any local, state, or non-profit organization. In 2003, the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC), Inc. as well as Currituck County applied for the lighthouse. The Department of the Interior granted the lighthouse to the OBC. Currituck County appealed the ruling and claimed that the OBC was in violation of local ordinances pertaining to parking and rest rooms. After a long and ugly fight which included a lawsuit against the federal government, Currituck County dropped the lawsuit in April of 2006.
The lighthouse is one of the several lighthouses that dot the barrier islands of coastal North Carolina that are open to the public. One can climb the 214 steps to the top and look out over the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound, or shop in the lighthouse museum.
Directions: This lighthouse is located in Corolla, NC. It is at the Northern most tip of the Outer Banks just off of Route 12 about 37 miles north of Nags Head.
Access: Grounds and tower open. Tower open for climbing daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day.View more Currituck Beach Lighthouse pictures