Digest>Archives> May 2001

Lost in the dusty pages of time

Few know of the Hatteras Beacon Light

By Cheryl Shelton-Roberts


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Henry Bamber, the official photographer for the United States Lighthouse Service, photographed the Cape Hatteras “Beacon Light” in 1893. His two views of the Beacon Light may be the only surviving photographs of this light that was located at Cape Point. Built in 1855, it endured the full force of storms sweeping in off the Atlantic, causing it to be moved several times during its career.

It was the responsibility of the Third Assistant Keeper under the supervision of the Head Keeper at the primary station at Cape Hatteras to take care of this beacon. Tilman F. Smith lighted it for the last time in November 1898.

Tilman Smith became Assistant Keeper at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1878 becoming Head Keeper in 1887. He served until 1897 at Cape Hatteras making him the keeper with the second longest tenure of duty.

During his time at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, he served with over two dozen men. Around 1877, he married Sabra Simpson who was the sister of three of Smith’s fellow keepers. All three of these assistants had large families, but Tilman and Sabra had no children themselves.

Following is a letter Keeper Smith sent to the Fifth District Inspector about the Hatteras Beacon at Cape Point.

Dec. 1, 1898

Comdr. B. P. Lamberton,


Baltimore, MD


The beach had cut away from the Beacon so that the whole structure was in the sea at high water with a dead smooth sea. On the 25th of November, I light [sic] the lamp on the pole, and on the 28th. I took the lens and other property except the tank and storm panes out of the beacon. The sea got rough and has been huge ever since with only a nominal high wind so I cannot get them out until it gets smooth. Anything like an ordinary gale will demolish the structure. The Light on the pole is by far superior to the light in the Beacon - it is larger and brighter light and is higher - and out of the way of the spray - but it takes two men to hoist it up.

Very respectively,

T.F. Smith, Keeper

I hope this meets with your approval.

What is enigmatic about this event is that Keeper Smith is recorded to have transferred to Ocracoke Light Station January 1, 1898, months before the date of this letter. As a long-time keeper at Cape Hatteras Light, had Smith returned to help with the final closing of the Hatteras Beacon and the reestablishment of the light on a pole nearby?

In 1898, the trip by boat from Ocracoke to Cape Point was several hours by sailboat. If the letter had been misdated as 1898 instead of 1893, the pieces fit; however, the other letters in the same volumes are also dated 1898.

This story appeared in the May 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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