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Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest functioning lighthouse in North Carolina and the second oldest lighthouse in the United States still in continuous service.
Ocracoke is at the southern tip of an eponymous 16-mile barrier island, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which separate the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Ocracoke inlet is the primary point of entry to the Pamlico Sound and was the gateway for practically all trade to northern North Carolina in the late eighteenth and early ninteenth centuries. Originally called “Pilot Town,” Ocracoke was settled in the early eighteenth century by pilots that navigating the Pamlico, serving as a residential community for the official state customs facility in Portsmouth, located across the inlet. Hatteras Inlet superseded Ocracoke as the principal port of entry after being cut through by a heavy storm in 1846, and both inlets saw the gradual decline of shipping traffic after 1860 with the advent of railroads that could more easily service Morehead City.
The North Carolina General Assembly authorized the first lighthouse at Ocracoke in 1789, but the current building dates back to an 1822 authorization by Congress. The lighthouse is part of a two-acre complex on the eastern edge of modern-day Ocracoke, just south of the Silver Lake marina. The Ocracoke Lighthouse was built in 1823 on land purchased from Jacob Gaskill for $50. Built by Noah Porter of Massachusetts, construction of the lighthouse and a three-room keeper’s quarters cost $11,359.35.
The lighthouse tower rises 65 feet and is 75 feet above sea level. The conical tower is built of brick covered in plaster. The walls at the base are five feet thick and taper towards the top. A wooden spiral staircase originally circled the inside walls, but in 1950 these stairs were replaced with a steel spiral stairway. The base of the lighthouse tower has a wooden doorway on the western facade. Four vertical sash windows (two on the north side and two on the south) provide views and natural light along the path of the interior spiral stair. The circular lens room at the top is enclosed by 12 trapezoidal lens panes and circumnavigated by an outside gallery and iron railing. The keeper’s quarters date to 1823–1824 and were also built by Porter. The original quarters was a single-story, brick, three-room house with a gable roof; in 1897 a second story was added. In 1928 the keeper’s quarters expanded again, this time with a wood-frame dwelling for a second keeper attached to the eastern end of the original structure. The following year a shed porch was built along the west elevation. A 1950 interior renovation included the installation of indoor plumbing and screens for the porch.
The original valve lamp and reflectors were replaced in 1854 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which was dismantled by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War; the lens was re-installed by Union troops in 1864. In 1938 the oil vapor lamps were replaced with electric bulbs, and in 1968 the tower was re-cemented and whitewashed. During World War II, Coast Guardsmen stayed in the living quarters and kept watch over the seas from atop the lighthouse. During bad storms, the lighthouse even functions as a refuge for locals who wait out the storm on the higher grounds.
The tower has been carefully maintained over time and appears much as it did when first constructed. Today, the light can be seen from up to 14 miles out to sea. The tower cannot be climbed but the grounds are open daily to the public.
Bishir, Catherine W., and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Bishir, Catherine W. North Carolina Architecture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Warfield, Ronald G., “Ocracoke Lighthouse,” Hyde County, North Carolina. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1977. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Zepke, Terrance. Lighthouses of the Carolinas: A Short History and Guide. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1998.
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