Where was the Cape Hatteras lens? The Civil War had ended and the Fresnel lenses of extinguished Southern lighthouses were being found throughout the coastal regions of the rebellious states.
When General William T. Sherman’s 84,000-man army swept into Raleigh, North Carolina, at the close of the war, they discovered stored in the state Capitol building, “a vast pile of lighthouse apparatus.” The missing Cape Lookout lens was there, along with many smaller lighthouse lenses. Others were soon found elsewhere. A second-order apparatus was discovered at Savannah and was suspected to be from the burned-out Tybee Island Lighthouse. The second-order revolving lens from the destroyed Hunting Island light was found but in “very bad order.” In Florida, Keeper James Armouk found and recovered from a local creek, the first-order Fresnel lens from the lighthouse at Jupiter Inlet. Thirty-six cases of lens apparatus from the Pensacola light were found in a storehouse at Pensacola Navy Yard but not until the June of the following year.
The Lighthouse Board was overwhelmed by the recovery operation of lenses and had difficulty keeping track of their locations. The process was handled at the highest levels of government. Admiral Harwood, representing the board, wrote to Gen. E.D. Townsend of the War Department on August 16, 1865, asking the adjutant general to “...furnish this office with a copy of the W.D. [War Department] order relative to recovery of Lighthouse property scattered over the Southern part of the country.” Fresnel lenses from lighthouses that had been demolished by Confederate saboteurs, such as the third-order lens from Bodie Island and the first-order apparatus from Sand Island, Alabama, were recovered and returned to the Light House Board’s Staten Island, New York, depot. But four months after the cessation of hostilities, Admiral Shubrick and his staff anxiously wondered what happened to the most important and most symbolic lens of all, the Henry-Lepaute first-order apparatus from Cape Hatteras. It had yet to be found.
The lens had been removed from the top of the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1861, in a desperate act to prevent the beacon from aiding the Union Navy’s blockade. The strategy failed but the lens became a relic in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. Nearly a year later, the 3-ton apparatus, made of more than 1,000 crown-crystal prisms, was hidden in “a good storehouse” in a county, 200 miles from the Cape. It was the last known location of lens, according to published historical records. For 140 years, the lens has been considered lost, its fate a mystery created by myths, urban legends and mountains of public records.
I first became aware of the missing lens from Hatteras more than 30 years ago while researching the identity of a sunken Confederate gunboat in a dark Carolina creek. About 18 months ago, I set out to solve the mystery of the lens, and the stunning story of its odyssey. That I really could was beyond my imagination.
At National Archives, the Library of Congress, and North Carolina Archives, I searched for clues to the mystery of the lens through thousands of original, handwritten documents, letterbooks and maps, rolls and rolls of microfilm of War Department letters, and the published memoirs of Civil War generals. Numerous letters yielded clues. The vast puzzle of extinguished Southern lighthouses and missing lenses began to take shape. I began to understand the much larger story of what happened to the lighthouses of the Confederacy but there were no immediate solutions to what happened to the Hatteras lens.
I compiled hundreds of photocopied papers and the puzzle became more complete. Still, the solution to the mystery of the Cape Hatteras lens was elusive. When I thought I was close to determining the whereabouts of the lens, I was surprised by yet another sharp turn in the story. One archival letter indicated that the lens had been found, another that it was again missing. The collection of research and its analysis became an obsession. But just as the reader of this story will discover, the ultimate destination in the incredible odyssey of the Cape Hatteras Fresnel lens was not revealed until the very end of my search.
I was on a solo visit to the National Archives in Washington-three more costly days in the city. There were no guarantees of success, and no underwriting support. I had high hopes that I would finally find the answer to the mystery. I thought I knew where to look and I even thought I knew what had happened to the lens. I was wrong.
Beside my table was a cart-full of large, ornately bound, handwritten letterbooks through which I had to search. Each volume contained more than 500 pages of correspondence. I flipped through page after page, once for a six-hour stretch. Research is expensive, even if you do it yourself-food and rest breaks steal valuable minutes. My time in Washington was nearly up, just one hour left and still no answer. It was a Thursday evening. The Archives closed at 9 p.m., and I was one of only a few researchers remaining in the stone and oak vaulted room on the second floor. The green shades of reading lights cast the only light. Across Pennsylvania Avenue, at the Navy Memorial, a military band and choir had been playing well-known, patriotic songs: “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It would have been nice to be able to go across the street and listen. At 8:45 p.m., the security officer announced the Archives would be closing in 15 minutes. There was still no answer to the mystery of the “lost light.” The choir began to sing “America the Beautiful.” I thought of calling it a day, but before I did, I turned one last page. There it was, the evidence needed, the answer for which I searched. Thirty years after exploring a mysterious shipwreck in a blackwater estuary, I had solved the mystery of the “lost lens.” I was stunned when I realized what became of the crown-crystal, first-order Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
If you don’t want to spoil the surprise ending of my book, The Lost Light, read no further.
When the U.S. Light House Board examined the lenses from the Capitol building in Raleigh, the Cape Hatteras lens was not among them. Four months passed before the Hatteras apparatus was found by a Union patrol in Henderson, North Carolina, in September 1865. The long sought-after lens was returned to Staten Island, and in 1867, it was sent to its manufacturer, Henry-Lepaute of Paris, for repairs. One year later, the lens was returned to the lighthouse depot at Staten Island. As construction of the modern Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was nearing completion in 1870, the U.S. Lighthouse Board decided to install the original and newly repaired lens from the obsolete 1803 Hatteras tower, into the new tower. The origins and amazing journey of the historic lens did not seem remarkable to the staid Lighthouse Board in 1870, and no public announcement was made of its former service. A 1920’s fire at the U.S. Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., destroyed many of the old lighthouse service records, further clouding the story of the original Hatteras lens.
The lens continued in operation until 1936, when the lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard, which was concerned that the tower would be imminently destroyed as a result of severe erosion. During a six-year period between 1943 and 1949 the storied, Henry-Lepaute lens was vandalized and many of the glass panels and prisms were taken for souvenirs. In 1949, the National Park Service acquired the Hatteras tower and removed what remained of the lens. Today, most of the surviving pieces of the lens and its entire bronze framework are stored in a National Park Service facility on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
In September 2002, the National Park Service, and the managers of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, made a commitment to lend to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village, most of the surviving pieces of the Fresnel lens, for an exhibit at the museum. The Museum has been planned to be a major cultural and educational resource for North Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic region, preserving the remarkable history of 400 years of shipwrecks along the Outer Banks. The foundered and sunken ships of the Graveyard of the Atlantic represent one of the greatest densities of vessels lost in the world. Many unfortunate seafarers met their fate just beyond the reassuring beam of light that radiated through the 1,000 prisms and bulls-eye lenses of the historic Henry-Lepaute lens. In the coming years, visitors to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum will be able to view the famous and historic, but incomplete, first-order apparatus up-close. The museum also hopes to be able to recover many of the pieces of French-made crown-crystal that were removed from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. People in possession of pieces of the lens will be invited to return the artifacts either anonymously or in exchange for recognition near the lens exhibit. No one expects that the Henry-Lepaute lens can be fully restored, but without question, every additional prism or center flash panel that can be returned to the lens will contribute to a happier ending to the mystery of the “lost light.”
The extraordinary odyssey of the Hatteras lens and the fate of other Southern lighthouse lenses are described in a new book by Duffus titled: The Lost Light-A Civil War Mystery of Extinguished Southern Sentinels and Hidden Lighthouse Lenses. The book spans 200 years of American history and is a spellbinding tale of plot-twists, ironies, redemption and dishonor. The Lost Light (240 pages and more than 50 photos and maps) will be released by Duffus and Looking Glass Productions of Raleigh on November 1, 2002. The book can be ordered by calling (800) 647-3536. For information about the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, call (252) 986-2995.
This story appeared in the
November 2002 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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