The Outer Banks of North Carolina and The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Atlantic sunrise, Fishing at dawn - Click image to enlarge

The Outer Banks of North Carolina will supply any photographer with a wonderfully diverse array of subjects to photograph.  Sand, sea, sky, wildlife, and some of the oldest and tallest lighthouses on the Atlantic coast are there for you to create memorable landscape and nature images.  My wife and I made our first visit in late October 2009, which turned out to be the perfect time to be there.  The summer tourist season was over, the temperatures were cooler, and we had our pick of places to stay.  We arrived with no reservations, turned south at Nags Head and drove down the coast until we spotted a nice house on the beach to rent in the town of Avon on Hatteras Island.  We had a fun and relaxing vacation and the photography was fantastic.  My favorite subjects were the lighthouses, sunrises and sunsets, and beach and seascapes.  Given its more than two century history, of particular interest was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

There has been a light at Cape Hatteras since 1803 when the first tower was completed.  It was an eight-sided sandstone tower and was perched on a 20 foot sand hill.  Eighteen open-flame lamps created the light for the tower, and no matter how well the keeper tended the lamps, the light given off was not strong enough to reach across Diamond Shoals, dangerous ridges of underwater sand that could destroy a ship.

In 1854 the first tower was heightened to 150 feet and a first-order Fresnel lens was installed.  The tower was also painted white for the first seventy feet to stand out against green foliage in the background when viewed from the sea, and red for the rest of its height to contrast with a blue sky.   It served well until after the Civil War when it was discovered that the aging sandstone tower had cracks and was worn from wind erosion.

In March 1867, Congress appropriated $75,000 for a new lighthouse, the very best that could be built.  Work began in November of 1868 with the best materials available.  One and a quarter million dark-red bricks came from kilns along the James River, the dressed granite blocks for the quoins came from Vermont, and an enduring iron spiral staircase was cast by Bartlett and Robbins of Baltimore.

At the summit of the 198 foot tall tower, a twenty-four panel, first-order Fresnel lens sparkled when it was first lit in December 1870.  And in 1873 the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received its black and white spirals that helped it become world-renowned.

The iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - Click image to enlarge

Hatteras Island is a barrier island migrating southwestwardly, and the coastline has changed gradually due to erosion, driven by rising sea levels and prevailing water and wind currents.  In 1870 when the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was completed, the tower was about 1600 feet from high tide.  Over the years the beach eroded and by the 1920’s the ocean had advanced to within 300 feet of the tower.  In 1987 the National Park Service asked the National Academy of Sciences to study and provide definitive, achievable advice on how to save the lighthouse.  The goal was to provide a long-term solution of 100 years or more and preserve the natural processes of barrier island migration.  “Move the Lighthouse,” stated the Academy’s report.

The keepers quarters and other buildings were moved first and on June 17, 1999 the Lighthouse began its 2,900 foot move to its new home.  On September 14, 1999 the last brick of the Lighthouse’s new foundation was laid, and on Saturday November 13, 1999 the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse flashed its brilliant beams of light once again.  Of the more than one thousand lighthouses built by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the most recognized in America.  Today it has earned the esteemed rank of National Historic Landmark, a fitting tribute it retains after relocation.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, view from the beach - Click image to enlarge


The Outer Banks is a 150-mile long string of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina that covers most of the coastline, beginning at the southeastern corner of Virginia Beach, and south to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on the east coast of the United States.  The major islands are Bodie (pronounced “body”), Roanoke, Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Portsmouth.  The Outer Banks is not anchored to offshore coral reefs like some other barrier islands and as a result significant beach erosion can occur during major storms.  In fact, the Outer Banks is the most hurricane-prone area north of Florida.  The treacherous seas off the Outer Banks and the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred there have given these seas the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

The Outer Banks is also a major tourist destination and is known for its temperate climate and wide expanse of open beachfront. The Wright brothers’ first flight in a powered, heavier-than-air vehicle took place on the Outer Banks on December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills near the seafront town of Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers National Monument commemorates the historic flights.

The English Roanoke Colony—where the first person of English descent, Virginia Dare, was born on American soil—vanished from Roanoke Island in 1587. The Lost Colony, written and performed to commemorate the original colonists, is the longest running outdoor drama in the United States and its theater acts as a cultural focal point for much of the Outer Banks.

If your time in the Outer Banks is short, must see locations are the Currituck and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses, the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, Ocracoke Island (including the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse), and the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve.

To see more images of the Outer Banks, please visit my Outer Banks gallery here.  If you have any questions about my photography or my website, please send me an email.

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