CAPE LOOKOUT LIGHTHOUSE
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
South Core Banks
Cape Lookout, NC
Latitude: 34° 36' 19.0" N
Longitude: 76° 32' 10.0" W
The Cape Lookout Light Station has developed a rich and colorful history following its first authorized federal funding in 1804. One year later, a four-acre parcel was deeded to the government and construction began on the much-needed beacon. The land was located at the south end of beautiful Core Banks Island, named for the Coree Indians. A lighthouse was finally completed in 1812.
The first tower consisted of "a tower within a tower." The inner tower was constructed of brick and was conical in design. The outer tower was built of wood from local white pine and oak trees. It reached ninety-six feet above the sand, but its lighting mechanism, thirteen oil lamps, produced a poor light. The Lighthouse Board tried fitting the tower with a first-order Fresnel lens in 1856, but this improvement did not satisfy mariners needing more light farther out to sea.
In 1857, Congress authorized a new, more “modern” and much taller light. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse we know today was put into service on November 1, 1859. The lighthouse is 163 feet tall with its focal plane (height at which light is emitted) at 150
feet. It is of a tapered conical design with graceful, solid brick walls surmounted by an iron lantern. The first-order lens was transferred from the old tower, which was later used as a residence for a few years. As a coastal warning light, the greater height of the second tower enabled the light to reach up to nineteen miles seaward which better served the increased shipping demands of the area during the mid nineteenth century. Its design was considered so successful that subsequent lighthouses built on the Outer Banks used this improved plan.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Confederates realized that the coast was vulnerable to Union attack and that the lighthouses could benefit Union ships. As a response in early June of 1861, the Confederate Light House Bureau called for the Superintendent of Lights to “cause all the lenses, fixtures, and apparatus of the Lighthouses to be removed to some place of safety with as little delay as possible.” Cape Lookout’s valuable first-order Fresnel lens was packed and moved to district storage just as would happen at all Southern lighthouses. Cape Lookout was not yet two years old.
After General Ambrose Burnside executed his amphibious assault on the eastern shores of the state, the race was on to further hide the Fresnel lenses from oncoming Union troops. Most of the lenses were moved to and hidden at the Capitol in Raleigh where they stayed until the end of the war. Meanwhile, the U.S. Lighthouse Service (then known as the Light-House Board) got busy replacing lenses in the towers to get them operating again. It took until 1863 to get Cape Lookout back in service with a third-order Fresnel lens. Note that at that time, two towers stood at Cape Lookout with the 1859 lighthouse overshadowing its old, inactive 1812 red-and-white-striped predecessor nearby.
On the night of April 3, 1864, Confederate raiders set off an explosion inside the tall lighthouse, which damaged the lower level of the tower as well as the first landing and first two flights of the spiral staircase. Windows and lantern room glass shattered and the lamp oil supply were all destroyed. Fortunately, after only several days, repairs were made to the stairs, more lamp oil obtained, and the lighthouse resumed operation.
Following the end of the war, the original first-order Fresnel lens was sent back to France for repairs and reseated in the tower in 1867 and the temporary wooden stairs were replaced with cast iron. Cape Lookout’s strong light was greatly needed to again warn ships of dangerous Lookout Shoals offshore.
In 1873, the lighthouse received not only a larger keeper’s house to accommodate the principal keeper, but also its internationally famous black-and-white-diamond paint scheme as its distinctive daymark pattern. These “diamonds” were known as “checkers” at that time. It is thought to be the only daymark that is directional: black diamonds point north-south while the white diamonds point east-west. That same year, Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island were painted with spirals on the former and bands on the latter. This was the clever plan created by U.S. Army Corps Engineer and Union Civil War leader, Peter Conover Hains.
In 1950, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) automated the light, which continues as an active aid to navigation. In 1975, an aero beacon replaced the Fresnel lens.
On June 14, 2003, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was transferred from the USCG to the National Park Service and became part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Fast forward a dozen years, and the Department of the Interior allowed a budget of nearly one-half million dollars for repairs to allow public climbing. It was opened on July 15, 2010.
The year 2016 marked the 50th anniversary for the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Established by President Lyndon Johnson, the fifty-six undeveloped miles of wild and beautiful shoreline within Cape Lookout National Seashore have been a favorite recreational location for generations. It won Best National Park Beach in 2016.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse is open for climbing mid May through mid September Tuesdays through Saturdays. Also, it will open for climbing on some Sundays. Up-to-date schedules and information on climbing the lighthouse can be found on the Climbing the Cape Lookout Lighthouse webpage. Moonlight climbs are also offered during May through September, weather permitting. For current information, you may also call Park headquarters at 252-728-2250.
The Lighthouse can be reached only by passenger ferries (no vehicles allowed) or private boat since no roads or bridges touch the island where the tower is located. A new visitor center, bathrooms, and shade shelter have been built at the lighthouse dock. The boardwalk from the dock leads to the lighthouse side of the keepers' quarters. The keepers' quarters (one house in which at least two keepers lived when keepers were on duty) was renovated as a museum in fall 2006 and welcomes visitors every day.
On the mainland next to the Park’s headquarters is the must-see Harkers Island Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center. On an adjacent nine-mile island are the wild horses on Shackleford Banks. On Core Banks Island at the lighthouse, a visitor can choose to stay on the soundside beach, make a short trek to the ocean, or take a ride on one of the trucks (separate expense arranged privately) to Cape Point for some of the best shelling in the world. There are a multitude of activities in the park including birding, fishing, water sports, and camping. While in the area of Harkers Island, nearby attractions are found in Beaufort and Morehead City as well as Atlantic Beach and Fort Macon. A bit farther down the road in Pine Knoll Shores on NC 58 is the North Carolina Aquarium.
The Cape Lookout National Seashore main website is the best place to visit regarding directions to your desired destinations, because the seashore and islands are so vast and varied. Park headquarters and one of the visitor centers are located on Harkers Island (the mainland and reachable by car) and are open year-round. The Cape Lookout Keepers' Quarters Museum and facilities are near the lighthouse on South Core Banks, and the Portsmouth Village Visitor Center is all the way at the northern tip of the park; each is open seasonally. For transportation to the Cape and other locations within the seashore, a list of authorized ferry services is available.
The Beaufort Visitor Center (the only other place connected with the park and reachable by car) is open on the first floor of the Beaufort Town Hall at 701 Front Street. Follow 70 East from Morehead City to Beaufort. Across Front Street is Graydon Paul Park where this area’s ferry departures take place. Ferry tickets for Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks are sold at both visitor centers. Departure from Harkers Island is from the dock at the visitor center on the mainland.