Cape Lookout Lighthouse - continued:

In 1873, when the paint schemes were devised for Lookout, Hatteras and Bodie Island, all three lighthouses were red brick, and distinctive "day markers" were needed so mariners could tell them apart in the daytime. The pattern chosen for Cape Lookout gives the visual illusion of having two different lighthouses. This is graphically depicted at right. The brain perceives the left tower as being black with white "diamonds", and the right tower as being white with black "diamonds".

It seems this unique aspect of the checkered pattern was taken into account, because it so happens that the white and black markings are specifically oriented to the compass. If you see white diamonds on black, you are viewing the lighthouse in an east/west orientation. If you see black diamonds on white, you are viewing from a north/south orientation. For Cape Lookout, this was an important visual clue to ships, since the deeper waters and safe harbors lay east and west of the lighthouse, and shallows were to the north and south.
Visual Illusion

It has been proposed that the paint schemes for Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout were confused when time came to lay paint to brick. Cape Hatteras guards "Diamond Shoals", so having "diamond" markings seems to make sense. However, the Lighthouse Board never called them "diamonds". They were specifically identified as "checkered" markings, so such a blunder as mixing the paint schemes is considered unlikely.

Birds get to see Cape Lookout from above, like this Brown Pelican cruising over the surf at Cape Lookout. But getting a view over Cape Lookout from the Lighthouse is a rare event. Because the lighthouse needs repairs, and general structural work for public safety, and other modifications to make it "visitor friendly", it had not been open to the public for many years.

A long awaited renovation making the lighthouse visitor friendly was completed in 2010. Now the public can climb Cape Lookout Lighthouse on a regular schedule. Advanced reservations are not required. Prior to the renovation the author was lucky enough to get one of the few reservations available for the November 1, 2003, open house for the 144th anniversary of its first lighting (Nov. 1, 1859). Then again for June 12, 2004, another climb opportunity came for the open house celebrating the 1st anniversary of the lighthouse transfer from the U.S. Coast Guard to the National Park Service (on June 14, 2003).

For these open houses, each visitor was allowed about a half hour to climb the 201 steps, take photos, enjoy the view, and come back down. About 15 minutes of that time is allotted to be on the gallery. The photo at right shows some of those visitors patiently waiting at the base of the lighthouse for their turn in November of 2003, while others climb the wooden steps to the entrance for their turn.

Looking in

Looking out

Apparently the high entrance has always been accessed from wooden stairs. Original drawings of the lighthouse design show a two-story oil storage building attached to the entrance (similar to Bodie Island and Currituck), but it was never built. There is an electrical room below the entrance, which is entered by a door on the back (south) side of the structure from ground level. The wall is extremely thick at the base. It seems thicker than the other three tall lighthouses, judging from the view "looking out" at the far right. Perhaps this is because it has no "flared" base of granite to sit on as do the other three, so the width was built right into the walls.

The first thing you notice inside is how different the space looks and feels compared to the other tall lighthouses. The openness you sense comes from the uncluttered spiral staircase design of the cast iron stairs, a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. The visual effect of the stair design is that of propellers or fan blades spiraling around a long fluted shaft. The open feeling is enhanced by the gap between each tread, allowing you to see up ahead of you as you climb. This is well depicted by the photo at left below, and the photo below it as well.

There area no obvious bolts, screws, rods, brackets or braces of any kind along the wall. No grooves or notches in the brick or mortar were visible either, leaving the impression that the pie-shaped treads are attached only to the central fluted pole, which runs the full vertical height of the stairs. When this was mentioned to a park volunteer who was assisting with the climb, he said he was a retired engineer, and happened to know the step were indeed supported at the wall. A second inspection finally revealed small metal cleats well hidden by the mortar, which stick out of the wall just far enough to catch the end of the metal treads. Then it was discovered the end of the steps next to the pole were fit over a small pin, revealing just how the stairs were assembled, one by one onto the pole.

Unlike Currituck Beach or Cape Hatteras, there is no central opening or "well", and no inside railing. The only handrail is along the wall. This, and the fact that the steps are thin (depth wise) on the inside by the pole make it unsafe to pass on the stairs. Climbers should only pass on the landings. This is a major concern if you have many visitors constantly going up and down.

There are four landings between the entrance floor and the work room floor. The two photos at right show one landing with a metal floor, and one of wooden planking. The work room is essentially a 5th landing, as it covers only half the width of the tower, just as the landings do. It is closed off by a wooden wall, seen in the photo below left. It is at this point you see the first of the white painted diagonal metal braces which were added to the tower.

These braces circle the wall at the service room level, and continue up into the watch room. This structural bracing was added in the 1980's to "stabilize the lantern room". Space is at a premium at the top, as the diameter of the top of this lighthouse is smaller than the other three tall lighthouses. The bracing takes up space going through the service room door, and makes the small stairs leading up to the watch room even smaller.

There is much more to see. Next - page 3
Continue to Cape Lookout Lighthouse - Page Three > Cape

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Related Links -

National Park Service - Cape Lookout Lighthouse

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Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the Lighthouse Gallery

Beautiful Photos of
Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the Lighthouse Gallery

Copyright © 2003 Fred Hurteau           * Copyright information and image use policy *

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