The North Carolina Coast Feature

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North Carolina Lighthouses

A flashing beacon in the distance marks one of North Carolina's "mighty seven" lighthouses that still guide mariners along the state's treacherous shore. Each tower has its own tale to tell and, oftentimes, a staircase to climb.

Set along what mariners long ago named the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the lights guided ships along rough currents and shifting shoals, thereby saving many mariners' lives.

The first lighthouse was a wooden, pyramid-shape structure built in 1794 on Ocracoke Island; its early lights were fired with whale oil. Today, the lighthouses sport modern lenses and refurbished staircases that delight tourists more than mariners, who have the luxury of electronic navigation tools. Still, the beacons remain comforting signals, which assure travelers that a safe return to shore is not far away.

Shoddy Construction

Building a lighthouse was not easy in the mid-1800s and mistakes did happen. Former customs official Thomas Blount oversaw construction of the first Bodie Island Lighthouse in 1847 and unwittingly ordered it constructed with an unsupported brick foundation. His lack of engineering experience became apparent when the 54-foot tower began to lean two years later. It was abandoned in 1859.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

The last major lighthouse constructed is the first you reach traveling from north to south. Currituck Lighthouse's redbrick exterior was left unpainted to distinguish it from other lighthouses. Now visitors may marvel over how builders in 1875 could perfectly place bricks in circles winding to the top of the 162-foot-tall structure.

Bodie Island Lighthouse

In 1837, the U.S. government determined that more vessels wrecked off Bodie Island than anywhere else off North Carolina. Ten years later, the first light was erected but fell victim to shoddy construction. During the Civil War in 1861, Confederate troops blew up the second light so that Union soldiers could not use it. The current Bodie Island Lighthouse was built in 1872, stands 156 feet tall, and is covered in broad horizontal black-and-white stripes.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Built in 1870, America's tallest brick lighthouse—you can climb its 248 cast-iron steps—reaches 210 feet into the sky. After saving hundreds of ships from deadly fates, the light itself became threatened by the Atlantic Ocean's eroding forces and had to be relocated 2,900 feet inland in 1999. The tower's black and white candy stripes are known worldwide.

Ocracoke Lighthouse

The second-oldest lighthouse in the United States still in continuous service, the 77-foot-tall, pure white tower was rebuilt after a fire in 1823. The bright exterior, matched by a charming picket fence, is a photographer's dream.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

The distinctive black-and-white diamonds on Cape Lookout Lighthouse aren't just pretty decoration, they serve a navigational purpose. The black diamonds are oriented in a north–south direction, the white in an east–west direction, pointing ships away from shallow waters and toward deeper water respectively.

Bald Head Island Lighthouse

Built in 1817 and nicknamed "Old Baldy," North Carolina's oldest lighthouse is 90 feet tall and stands on an island accessible only by boat. The octagonal shape and weathered gray exterior set the simple tower apart.

Oak Island Lighthouse

Close to the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, the 169-foot-tall Oak Island Lighthouse is the United States' youngest lighthouse. Built in 1958, it lacks the elegance of its older siblings but contains the last manually operated light in the world. The completely cylindrical tower has three broad horizontal stripes—black, white, and gray.

Updated: 2013-09-10

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