Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As Big As They Come

Magnet # 119: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Material: Resin

Purchased By: Me

It stands 208 feet tall, towering over every other lighthouse in the United States. And on this day in 1871, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse gave off its first light. It's also the largest brick lighthouse in the world, and over one million bricks were used in its construction. This is indeed a megastructure and one of the most beloved lighthouses our country has to offer.

The current lighthouse is actually the second one built at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina's Outer Banks. The first was considered almost useless by sailors and when its lens and lantern were destroyed, funds were allocated for another lighthouse. This time, a team of engineers and scientists on the Light-House Board conferred with Navy officers to determine the optimum design and placement for the new structure. Their task was of critical importance. Cape Hatteras is located on one of the most treacherous areas on the East Coast, where the warm currents flowing north from the Gulf Stream collide with colder ones coming south from Labrador, resulting in powerful storms at sea and very high swells. Also, the sandbars of Diamond Shoals that extend from Cape Hatteras can travel as far as 14 miles into the sea, further endangering sailors. The combination of these two deadly factors resulted in quite a few ships sinking or running aground at the area, so many that it was given the dubious nickname of "Graveyard of the Atlantic." Clearly, something needed to be done. And with the lighthouse's completion in 1870, the area finally became much safer for ships to navigate.

One of the more amusing bits of trivia about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is that it was intended to be painted with a diamond design that would have been particularly appropriate, considering the nearby location of Diamond Shoals. But, as the legend goes, an engineer accidentally swapped its plans with those of the nearby Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Now, that lighthouse features a diamond pattern and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is painted in spiral stripes, a look that has earned it the nickname of "The Big Barber Pole."

When determining the best place to construct the second lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, the Light-House Board overlooked one critical consideration: erosion. Almost since its completion, the Atlantic Ocean has been getting closer and closer to this enormous structure. The situation became critical in 1919, when the water was getting as close to the lighthouse as 300 feet. Dikes and breakwaters were created to try to keep the tides away, but finally, in 1935, the waters reached the site of the lighthouse. It was then that another, less attractive light was installed at a safer distance and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was abandoned. But when wooden revetments were installed and they managed to keeps the waters at a safer distance, a new light was brought to the lighthouse and it resumed its duties in 1950. Even then, the encroaching water remained a threat. Finally, in 1999, the decision was made to move the historic structure a half mile inland. Considering it weighs over six thousand tons, this plan of action caused a great deal of controversy. Many believed the lighthouse would be destroyed during the move, but it went on nonetheless. It was cut loose from its base, hydraulically lifted onto supportive steel beams, and slowly moved across railroad tracks until it reached a new, safer location. All told, the process took 23 days. And now, the lighthouse has reopened to the public, and is as far from the ocean as it was at its 1870 completion.

If all this of this information about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has piqued your interest and left you itching to climb its 268 steps, don't hop into the car and head over just yet. It's actually closed this time of year, and should re-open around April. I confess, I've never seen it before, but since I've began this blog I've gotten progressively more interested in seeing the Outer Banks, perhaps because they're fairly close to my location here in Savannah. And what trip to the Outer Banks would be complete without seeing its most famous lighthouse? I think it's absolutely worth visiting this incredible structure that has saved so many lives and enriched even more.


  1. Great post. I never new about the diamond versus stripped controversy. If you ever have a chance to climb Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, do it! Although it can be difficult, the view from the top is spectacular. I finally do it this summer. As a matter of fact, the picture is from the top. If you get the opportunity, by all means do it!

    -- Dan
    Outer Banks Revealed

  2. Sounds like fun - I hope I get a chance to!