Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Although I write books about the American Revolutionary War  now, I started out writing magazine articles. Lighthouse Digest printed several of those articles. Next to American history, I enjoy lighthouses. I don’t think this article about the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was in the Digest.


Cape Lookout Lighthouse stands guard over many broken ribs and splintered masts of ships that didn’t correctly negotiate her treacherous waters. With the Cape Lookout and Core Banks area being so low and without tall markers, a ship could be on a shoal in the “Horrible Headland”* even in good weather, before the captain realized he was in shallow water. Like Cape Hatteras and Diamond Shoals 70 miles to the north, the Core Banks area is a continuous part of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” (*American Lighthouses: A Comprehensive Guide, Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones.)


On a recent visit to Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Sandy Sheppard, who ferried us from Harker’s Island Fishing Center to the lighthouse, said the shallow waters in Core Sound and the surf in the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the lighthouse are so hazardous his company would not rent boats to tourists. Visitors must be ferried over to the lighthouse. “These waters are as treacherous as the waters around Cape Hatteras,” Sandy said. “There are plenty of wrecks on the bottom to prove it.” Simply put, that’s why the area needed a lighthouse.


The first Cape Lookout Lighthouse was designed differently from most other lighthouses of the time. The interior had a brick stairway with wooden outside walls. In 1812 when it was completed, the project cost an awesome sum of $20,678. The octagonal structure was slightly over a hundred feet tall and painted in red and white bands. The light was produced by thirteen oil lamps with parabolic reflectors but was so weak it could not be seen as far as it needed to be.


There were many complaints about the poor quality of the coastal lights, not only at Cape Lookout but all along the North Carolina coast. The lights were so bad one captain said if they were not improved; (they) should be dispensed with, because a navigator was apt to run ashore looking for them.


The lighthouse at Cape Lookout, as described, when William Fulford was keeper in 1850, had thirteen lamps. That wasn’t the only problem Keeper Fulford had. During his time Mr. Fulford was obliged to continually remove sand that threatened to cover the keepers housed. He reported “the sandbanks are now higher than the tops of the windows; and only a few feet from them, at high water mark. On the east side, it has washed away about 100 feet last year by abrasion and sea flow.” (Historically Famous Lighthouses: CG-232, Government Printing Office, p. 73)


On March 3, 1857 Congress passed a bill appropriating $45,000 for upgrading the Cape Lookout Lighthouse to a first order Fresnel lens with a new higher tower. The new lighthouse was completed in November 1858 and is still used. The tower is 163 feet tall. At the base, the walls are nine feet thick, thinning out to 19 inches at the top. The lighting apparatus was upgraded in 1857 to a single oil burning lamp inside a large, glass Fresnel Lens. Over the years the light was fueled by various types of oil.

As with other southern lighthouses, Cape Lookout was forced into darkness by soldiers of the Confederate army. She was relighted by 1863 and temporally fitted with a third order lens.


There were many complaints that the lighthouses in line with Cape Lookout were not well distinguished. Five of the major lighthouses on the North Carolina coast including the lights of the Graveyard (of the Atlantic) were built somewhat alike. In 1873 the North Carolina Lighthouse Board decreed they should be painted differently as day marks to help mariners distinguish them during the day. With the exception of the Currituck Light at Corolla that remains unpainted red brick, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Oak Island were all painted black and white but with different designs. Going down the coast southward after Corolla, the next light is Bodie Island Lighthouse that is painted in black and white bars. Then the famous Hatteras light is next with its spiral black and white stripes. One would think the Hatteras light would have had the diamond design because it warned sailors of Diamond Shoals. Cape Lookout Light has the diamonds with the black diamonds on the north-south sides and white diamonds on the east-west sides. This design makes the lighthouse appear to change colors when seen from different sides. Oak Island Light is painted in thirds from top to bottom black and white and gray die-impregnated concrete. These designs have become the nation’s leading examples of maritime day marks and coastal lights.


It is interesting that the Cape Lookout area also had a lightship assigned to it between 1905 and 1933. The station was southeasterly from Beaufort, and 20.3 miles, 162 degrees from Cape Lookout. Lightship LV-80 served from 1905 until 1924 when LV-107/WAL-529 was used. In 1933 the station was replaced by the Cape Lookout Bell Buoy number 14, placed near the former lightship station.


The lighthouse as built in 1858 is 169 feet above the ground with a focal plane of the lantern150 feet above mean high water. The diameter of the base is 28 feet. The light shows a flashing white electric light every 15 seconds and is visible 20 miles.


On our return trip across Core Sound, Sandy, our captain, delighted us with his story about the sunken ship, Oliver Furlow that he and a friend discovered while spear fishing “not far from here.” He said there were lots of ships on the bottom but it was very exciting to be the first to find an uncharted one. They called the proper authorities and had it registered in order to protect the wreck.


The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is now under the care of the National Park Service and is open to the very few visitors lucky enough to get their call for reservations through to the Park Service within the two hour time period in the morning of the four open days. Or, who may know the right persons. I have to admit, after making the trip down from Virginia, I would have loved to just see the inside of the lighthouse. I am not very lucky and won’t even try to get my call accepted within that tiny speck of time on those four mornings reservations are accepted. It would be too much of a disappointment to make the trip and not get my call through. I would prefer they open the lighthouse more often to more people but not allow those people to climb the 201 steps to the top.


The lighthouse is on a barrier island that is allowed to remain in its natural state. There are ample boardwalks from the receiving dock to the lighthouse complex and the ocean, as well as a covered picnic area. Every thing (except boardwalks) was freshly painted and well kept.


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