Carolina's Outer Banks boasts five lighthouses, or "light stations",
which collectively attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each
year (see author's note ). The buttons at right show the
five lighthouses in order from north to south. Each button links you
to the page(s) about the lighthouse it pictures. These navigation
buttons will be on the left sidebar of each lighthouse page. The "Lighthouses"
button in the top menu will bring you back to this main page.
Here are some interesting facts. Among these
What makes them similar, and what makes them different?
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the only unpainted structure.
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the only one that is original
to it's site. The other four replace prior structures at or near
their current sites.
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the only one not on or completely
surrounded by Park Service property.
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only one whose light stays on
24 hours a day.
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only one with an actual ship's
hatch for a doorway to the gallery.
- Bodie Island Lighthouse is the only one with an outside ladder
from the lower gallery to the upper gallery (around the beacon
- Cape Hatteras is the only one whose door to the gallery is on
the south side. All the rest open onto the north side of the gallery.
It is easy to overlook the individualistic details
of these inspiring lighthouses when actually confronted with the sheer
size and grandeur of such amazing structures. The finer details of
these architectural marvels usually go unnoticed by all but those
visitors who come specifically because of their interest in architecture.
Comparing details is difficult since the lighthouses are many miles
apart. So to address that problem, the lighthouses are presented here,
side by side, with some decidedly non-technical notes on a few of
those often overlooked details.
the five, Ocracoke is the most strikingly different. It's the shortest
(beacon at 75 feet), and the oldest (completed 1823), and is constructed
of brick covered in cement or plaster (much like Bald Head Lighthouse
of that same era -1818). Its asymmetrical shape and off-center beacon
room (easily discernable in the photo at left) gives it a quaint crudeness
that befits its more humble height. Because of its complete uniqueness
among these five lighthouses, the rest of this page will focus on
the other four, which came later, and which took on decidedly different
Much taller than any before it, the successful
design of the current Cape Lookout Lighthouse, completed in 1859,
became the model for the Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Currituck
Beach lighthouses, which came after it. At 165 feet, Cape Lookout
was much taller than its 95 foot high predecessor at the same site.
This provided a more visible day marker, and a longer visible range
for the beacon. The only problem was that the new Cape Lookout Lighthouse,
and the first two patterned after it, each tall and slim and red bricked,
looked too much alike by day. To remedy this, a paint scheme was devised
so they could be easily identified from each other in daylight. But
underneath the paint and beyond the general shape, there are other
differences and similarities that are interesting.
Windows - Cape Lookout (1859) has rather plain,
simple windows, as shown here (left and right). If not for the curvature
of the walls, they could easily be mistaken for normal house windows.
The example at left is near the top of the structure, where the brick
flares outward. It has a stone (or perhaps formed concrete) lintel
to support the brick over the window. Note the roughness. This may
be due to some damage (Civil War?), or perhaps just poor workmanship
or poor materials.
The first lighthouse built after the successful
model of the 1859 Cape Lookout Lighthouse was Cape Hatteras (1870).
The project forman was Dexter Stetson, whose fine work lives on, not
only in the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, but in the two that followed
it. The tall slim, deeply recessed windows of Cape Hatteras (shown
at left) are not at all house-like, and look even plainer than those
of Cape Lookout. But the windows of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse were
not always quite so plain.
According to the Cape Hatteras Light Station
National Historic Landmark Study by Ralph Eshelman, each window originally
had a "granite pedimented hood".
They were similar to the pediment
over the lighthouse door, just on a smaller scale. Evidence
of these hoods is clearly visible in the above right photo. An
black and white photo of the lighthouse from NOAA archives shows
the "pedimented hood" over the windows as it was originally constructed.
While the photo is not extremely clear, the form is unmistakable in
this detail (at right) from the archive photo. But Eshelman states
that all of these hoods were "removed sometime after 1969". Close
inspection of the author's own 1973
photos of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse indicate the presence of only
a drip sill projecting from the base of each window. It is obvious
the ornate hood that was above each window was already gone by November
Other design elements of the Cape Hatteras structure
were very different from Cape Lookout, and will be covered farther
along. As far as window design, the window treatments became even
bolder when the next two lighthouses were constructed.
After Dexter Stetson completed the Cape Hatteras
Lighthouse, he took on the task of building the new Bodie Island Lighthouse
(1872), and then the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875). Except for
the paint, these last two are practically twins. As evidenced in the
two photos at right, the window treatment is virtually the same on
both lighthouses. The windows became an even bolder design element
than the decorative hood originally over the Cape Hatteras windows.
Currituck Beach, having been spared the almost charlatan paint schemes
endured by the other three tall lighthouses, retains the warm, comfortable
feeling of a fine brick home. The window's stonework contrasts the
brickwork, providing a classic elegance that is hidden from view at
Bodie Island by the paint scheme.
As mentioned, other cosmetic elements on later
lighthouses changed drastically from the Cape Lookout design, while
still retaining the tall proportions and general construction techniques
it established. Here all four lighthouse bases are compared.
Left: Cape Lookout is bricked to the ground, and has
no decorative base at all. Some form of wooden stairs has apparently
always been the method of accessing the raised entrance.
Above Right: With painted panels framed in octagonal
stonework, Cape Hatteras has always been a showpiece. The grand
oversized entrance (right) is unique among North Carolina's
lighthouses. It's almost as if Cape Hatteras was destined to
become an eye-catching showpiece even before it was given its
unforgettable candy stripe paint scheme three years after it
Below Left: Bodie Island's base is unpainted octagonal
stonework of obvious quality and craftsmanship.
Below Right: While similar to Bodie Island, the
Currituck Beach octagonal base has a lower ring of stonework,
with brick between it and the upper stonework ring. Were it
not for the paint, both lighthouse entrance buildings would
Another interesting area of design comparison
is the top of these lighthouses. We'll begin with Ocracoke (right).
It is completely different in all respects from the four later tall
lighthouses. The beacon window frames use a pleasing diagonal astragal
form, whereas the others all have rectangular window framing. Ocracoke
has no lookout gallery below the beacon as do the others. At far right
is shown Cape Lookout, which has a simple flared top to support the
lookout gallery. Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Currituck Beach all
have gingerbread brackets to support the gallery.
These images show Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island
and Currituck Beach (left to right respectively), with a close-up
of their gingerbread brackets shown beneath each one. The Cape Hatteras
brackets appear slightly heavier, and in fact, are slightly more ornate
than the other two. Bodie Island and Currituck Beach look identical.
They seem to be taller with more delicate proportions than Cape Hatteras,
although they are quite similar in general appearance to Cape Hatteras.
Also note the main spindles in the Cape Hatteras
gallery railing (left photo) are much more ornate than the simple
cylindrical pipe verticals of Bodie Island, Currituck Beach or Cape
Each of these lighthouses has its own personality,
defined as much by its location and surroundings as by its size, shape
So click one of these buttons to choose your first lighthouse to visit
North Carolina has three other standing lighthouse structures which
are not on the "outer" barrier islands and therefore are not included.
They are Oak Island Light Station and Bald Head Lighthouse near Cape
Fear, and the remains of a pre-civil war river range light on the
Cape Fear River at Price's Creek. These may possibly be added to this
web site at some later date.