Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2017

Is This the First or the Second Cape Hatteras Lighthouse?

A Lighthouse History Mystery


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Completed in 1870, the current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, at 193-feet in height, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States of America. And, in 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was also the tallest lighthouse ever moved, when it was relocated 2900 feet from its original location to save it from the encroaching sea. But it was not the first tower built at Cape Hatteras.

The current 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was built to replace the original and first tower that was built way back in 1803. And it wasn’t until 1873 that the spiraling black and white stripes were painted on the 1870 tower.

However, when it was decided that the original 1803 tower was not tall enough, in 1853 Congress appropriated funds to increase the height of the tower from 90 feet to slightly over 150 feet in height, which is the image shown here from artwork by the late Paul B. Van Nostrand, who drew it from written descriptions of what the lighthouse looked like.

Adding an additional 60 feet in height to the tower must have been an engineering accomplishment in its time. It was officially lighted in 1854.

So, technically, but although not exactly factually, the answer to the question posed in the headline is “both.” It is the first 90-foot tall tower, and it is also the heighted (in 1854) tower, so it could very easily, and theoretically, be also considered as the second Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Interestingly, the original 1803 tower stood the entire time that the 1870 tower was being built, right up to its completion. But, mysteriously, photographs of the 1803 tower, which was still standing as late as 1870, seem to be nonexistent. Searches in the files of the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and various historical societies and museums have never turned up any - and plenty of people have searched. A number of years ago, Lighthouse Digest even offered a $250 reward for a photo, but again, none was submitted to us. So, this “history mystery” continues to this day.

To augment the history mystery of the lost photos of the 1803 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse tower, photos of the 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before its black and white spiraling stripes were painted on it, or, for that matter, photos of the stripes being painted on the 1870 tower, are also nonexistent.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2017 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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