Ocracoke Island Lighthouse

Ocracoke Island, North Carolina - 1823 (1803**)

 
Photo of the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse.
 
 
   

History of the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-03-24.

History of the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse

Ocracoke Island is a sixteen-mile-long barrier island located off the coast of North Carolina. With an act being passed designating Ocracoke Island as a port, it had residents as early as 1715. As they knew the inlet well, many local fishermen became pilots to safely guide vessels to the port.

One of the island's most famous residents, Edward Teach, was born in Bristol, England in 1680 to wealthy family. Rumor has it that he got his start sailing the seas during the Queen Anne's war against France when he joined a group of Jamaica-bound sailors. He would later become a privateer, which was a sailor sanctioned by the British government to rob enemy ships provided they shared the bounty with the monarch.

After the war, Edward Teach settled on the Bahamian island of New Providence, which was the base port for pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Edward Teach soon joined Hornigold's crew and was placed in command of a captured sloop. By the end of 1717, Hornigold retired from the pirate lifestyle, but Teach, better known as "Blackbeard" after his long thick black beard, continued on with the lifestyle.

Preferring fear and intimidation to actual combat, Blackbeard was rumored to put fuses into his beard and light them. This shrouded his face with smoke and scared those who witnessed it. But if intimidation tactics didn't work, he and his crew would fight.

To get a flagship, Blackbeard captured a French merchant vessel named the La Concorde. He renamed it Queen Anne's Revenge and outfitted her with forty guns. As the New World was actively being explored, many vessels made their way in and out of ports along the east coast of the United States. Blackbeard, along with another colleague, Stede Bonnet, nicknamed "The Gentleman Pirate", saw this as easy pickings.

By May of 1718, Blackbeard and his flotilla of four ships initiated a blockade of the port of Charleston. Over the next six days, they stopped every ship that came in or out of the port, ransacking them before allowing them to pass. While in Charleston, Blackbeard learned of the British plan to purge the West Indies of pirates and that Woodes Rogers was en-route with several men-of-war.

Blackbeard moved his flotilla north into Beaufort Inlet where they attempted to careen their ships to scrape the hulls clean. In the process, the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground damaging the ship beyond repair. In an attempt to free the vessel, ropes were ordered from the Adventure. During the effort, both ships were lost.

Over the course of the next month, Blackbeard pared down his crew, some say to have a larger cut of the loot captured. In June of 1718, Blackbeard turned himself in to Charles Eden, the Governor of the Colony of North Carolina and was granted a pardon for the crimes of piracy. For a few months after, he had settled in the port town of Bath, where he frequently traveled between there and Ocracoke Island where his sloop was anchored.

By August of 1718, Edward Teach was granted permission to travel to St. Thomas to seek commission as a privateer. He was given an official title to his sloop, which he renamed as Adventure. By late August, Teach had returned to piracy and stopped two French ships leaving the Caribbean, commandeering one vessel of which he reported to the court as deserted. A court agreed. He was ordered to split the cargo of sugar with Governor Eden, and allowed to keep the rest.

Ocracoke Island was a favorite hangout of Blackbeard due to its proximity of the shipping lanes off the coast. The vantage point allowed him to easily see the traffic into and out of the various settlements of eastern North Carolina. By the early fall, Blackbeard along with several other notorious pirates such as Israel Hands, Robert Deal, Calico Jack, and Charles Vane all called Ocracoke Island home.

The Governors of several neighboring colonies were worried of the congregation of pirates in the area. The Governor of Pennsylvania had sent several troops in an attempt to capture the pirates, they were however unsuccessful. Alexander Spotswood, the Governor of Virginia sent several troops overland to the town of Bath after receiving intelligence of Blackbeard's whereabouts. To ensure capture, he sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard in command of two sloops by sea.

On the way to Bath, Lieutenant Maynard spotted the pirate's ships at Ocracoke Island. At daybreak on November 22, 1718, Maynard's two ships entered the channel and were quickly spotted by Blackbeard. The pirates cut the anchor and hoisted the sails to maneuver the Adventure's starboard guns in the direction of the approaching vessels. The Ranger, Maynard's second sloop took the brunt of the guns, and was quickly incapacitated.

Popular accounts of the battle tell of the three ships running aground near each other. Maynard had planned on his ship being boarded by the pirates and ordered many of his men below deck. When Maynard's vessel, the Jane, was close to the Adventure, Blackbeard's men fired grappling hooks, and homemade smoke grenades.

Blackbeard and his men quickly boarded the Jane, and were surprised to see very few men. They figured that the furious cannon attack most likely killed many, and were taken aback when the men came charging out of the hold. The battle quickly escalated and ended up with Maynard and Blackbeard in a sword fight.

When it looked like Blackbeard was about to get the upper-hand, one of Maynard's crew members slashed Blackbeard across the neck. Other members quickly joined in, and finished him off. With Blackbeard dead, the remaining pirates surrendered. Maynard's troops quickly captured the rest of Blackbeard's crew still aboard the Adventure.

To prove to Governor Spotswood that Blackbeard had indeed been killed, Lieutenant Maynard cut Blackbeard's head off and suspended it from the bowsprit of his sloop, and tossed his body overboard. There is a legend that Blackbeard's ghost still haunts the island in search of his head.

Being free of pirates led to an increase of people arriving on the island. This paved the way towards a permanent settlement of Ocracoke Island in 1750. As trade increase with the many inland ports, such as New Bern, Elizabeth City, and Edenton, shipping traffic through the inlet increased. The local residents had requested a lighthouse to help guide the traffic to the port. The North Carolina General Assembly agreed, and authorized its construction in 1789.

The Colony of North Carolina joined the Union on November 21, 1789. By 1790, a budding port community was on the rise on nearby Shell Castle Island. Due to the shallow waters of Pamlico Sound, ocean-going vessels would need to stop at the port and unload. The cargo was then transferred to lighter, shallow-draft vessels for transport up coastal rivers in a process called "lightering."

Shell Castle Island Lighthouse Shell Castle Island Lighthouse
Image courtesy of the NC Museum of History

Many ancillary structures were constructed on Shell Castle Island to support the pilots, such as wharves, warehouses, cisterns, windmill, and a tavern. However, construction of the lighthouse was delayed when the federal government took control of all navigational aids in 1790.

Although merchants, sea captains, and pilots preferred Shell Castle Island for the location of the lighthouse, it appears that the federal government had its eye on Ocracoke Island when it had purchased one acre of land on December 14, 1790. There must have been some discussions lasting several years, but in the end, Congress approved the construction of a lighthouse on Shell Castle Island on May 13, 1794.

The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, Volume 1 had the following entry regarding the Shell Castle Island Lighthouse:

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of the Treasury be authorized to provide by contract, which shall be approved by the President of the United States, for building on an island in the harbor of Ocracoke, called Shell Castle, a lighted beacon of a wooden frame fifty-five feet high, to be twenty-two feet at the base, and to be reduced gradually to twelve feet at the top exclusively of the lantern, which shall be made to contain one large lamp with four wicks, and for furnishing the same with all necessary supplies. Provided, That no such lighted beacon shall be erected, until a cession of a sufficient quantity of land on the said island shall be made to the United States by the consent of the legislature of the state of North Carolina.

The owners of Shell Castle Island, John Wallace and John Gray Blount, agreed to provide the land necessary for the construction of the lighthouse on February 7, 1795. Congress approved additional appropriations on July 10, 1797, but the deed officially transferring the land wouldn't be signed until November 29, 1797.

There are inconsistencies as to the date the tower was completed and lighted. Some books and websites list 1798 and others list 1803. From the information provided, I would believe that the correct date is 1803 as the government received the deed to the land on November 29, 1797, and an entry in the book Laws of the United States Relating to the Establishment, Support, and Management of Light-Houses, etc. The entry approved on March 2, 1803, states:

For the payment of a balance due on contracts for building the light-house on Cape Hatteras, and beacon on Shell Castle Island, and for a compensation to the persons who superintend and inspect the execution of the work, the balance of the former appropriation being carried to the credit of the surplus fund, one thousand dollars.

The lighthouse was constructed on a 70-foot by 140-foot plot of land by Henry Dearborn, who would also construct the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Also constructed at that time were a 29-foot by 50-foot keeper's dwelling and an oil vault. Because the lighthouse utilized a spider lamp, the light was weak. The tower was used for a fifteen years before burning to the ground after being struck by lightning in 1818.

Congress appropriated $14,000 on May 15, 1820 for "a lighthouse on Shell Castle Island, or a light vessel, if preferred." However, by then the channel had shifted making Shell Castle Island impractical for a lighthouse. With that, the federal government established a lightship near the inlet. The light on the ship was deemed inadequate at best and was only is use for several years before a lighthouse was recommended.

On May 7, 1822, the federal government appropriated $20,000 for establishing a lighthouse on Ocracoke Island. The same act recommended the light boat be moved to the narrows in the Potomac River and appropriated $1,300 for the move.

Ocracoke Island Lighthouse Ocracoke Island Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

The federal government purchased two-acres of land near Silver Lake Harbor for $50 from Jacob Gaskill on December 5, 1822. The 65-foot lighthouse consisting of brick covered with cement was completed in 1823 by Massachusetts's native Noah Porter for the cost of $11,395.35. The cement was then whitewashed with a mixture of lime, salt, Spanish whiting, rice, glued, and boiling water applied by workers before cooling. A single story keeper's cottage measuring 34-feet by 20-feet was also constructed at that time.

When completed, the octagonal lantern room was outfitted with a reflector and lamp system displaying a flashing white light. As the Lighthouse Board adopted the superior Fresnel system in the early 1850s, most lighthouses were changed over around that time. Ocracoke Island received a fourth-order Fresnel lens which was typically used in harbor lighthouses on June 1, 1854. When the lens was changed, the characteristic was changed to a fixed white light.

With the onset of the Civil War, the Confederates removed the lens in 1861 to prevent Union troops from using the lighthouse to navigate the channel. By 1863, the Union had controlled many areas along the Outer Banks and had reinstalled the Fresnel lens.

Several repairs and new sections of fence were added in 1883. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1883 had the following entry:

365. Ocracoke, north side of Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina - The old fence was removed and 1,200 feet of new paling fence substituted. The plastering in the dwellings was renewed, two new floors were laid, the lot was graded, and various minor repairs were made. The station is now in excellent order.

Duties at the light station increased in the late 1800s, and so in 1897, a second story was added to the keeper's cottage to house an assistant keeper. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1897 had the following entry:

579. Ocracoke, entrance to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina - The dwelling, built in 1823, was a one-story structure with a gable roof, containing only three comfortable rooms. The upper or roof part has been entirely removed and a full story added to the structure, providing three good rooms. The old flooring was renewed and the structure was thoroughly repaired.

The station would receive several other upgrades. Starting in 1899, new lamps were installed in the Fresnel lens. A new wooden plank walkway between the dwelling and the tower was installed in 1902.In 1904, a small woodshed was built and 324-running feet of new fencing constructed.

The lighthouse was automated in 1946, and continues to operate today. The original staircase in the tower was constructed of wood. However, by the 1950s, the steps were rotten and replaced with a spiral staircase made of steel. The original wooden windows were removed in 1989 and almost destroyed. However, the have since been restored by the Ocracoke Preservation Society.

Significant restoration work took place in 2009. The Ocracoke Lighthouse was darkened on November 13, 2009. The historic lens, protected by a specially designed cover, stayed in the lighthouse during the work, which included repairs to the metalwork, new glass in the lantern, and lightning protection added to the tower. The light was re-exhibited on March 3, 2010.

The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina.

Reference:

  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. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
  4. "Shell Castle Island - Explorers search long-lost harbor," Associated Press, Sunday Star News, June 11, 1995.
  5. North Carolina Lighthouses - Stories of History and Hope, Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts, 2011.

Directions: We got on the island from the ferry in Buxton. This dropped us off at the northern tip of the island. We drove to the southern tip of the island. (~12 miles) This is where the little community actually is.

Once in the town, we could see the lighthouse, however, it eluded us several times. As you get closer, you lose it in the trees. From Route 12, once in the village of Ocracoke, make a left onto Lighthouse Road. A short ways down the road you will see the lighthouse.

Access: Tower closed. Grounds around the lighthouse are open. Minimal parking is available.

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Tower Information
Tower Height: 65.00'
Focal Plane: 75'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 35.109 N
*Longitude: -75.983 W
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* 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.