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Ocracoke, NC

Lighthouse History

Built: 1823

Type: Conical Tower

Height: 65 feet

Status: Active

Location: Ocracoke Island

Lens: Originally an oil burning light - 1854 Fourth Order Fresnel


Notes: Ocracoke Inlet was first put on the map when English explorers wrecked a sailing ship there in 1585. Two centuries later this was one of the busiest inlets on the East Coast. Ocracoke Inlet was the only reasonably navigable waterway for ships accessing inland ports such as Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Edenton. Ocracoke Village, then known as  Pilot Town, developed as a result of the inlet's use. Pilots hired to steer ships safely through the shifting channels to mainland ports settled the village in the 1730's.
By 1718, Blackbeard had come to regard Ocracoke as his favorite anchorage. He even reportedly had a house on the island, which he intended to use as a sort of pirate haven. The coastal citizens, understandably unenthusiastic about the prospect, bypassed their useless Governor Eden and appealed instead to Governor Spotswood of Virginia. Help came in the doughty figure of Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal navy, who brought with him two small sloops. Conflicting reports survive as to the beginning of the battle; some say Blackbeard fired on the two small boats Maynard sent to scout out his quarry. A more intriguing, though probably less reliable, legend claims that Blackbeard, knowing the sloops were nearby and eager to engage them in battle, spent the night before the fight impatiently crying out "O crow, cock! O crow, cock!" from where the inlet got its name.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service recognized that a lighthouse was needed at Ocracoke Inlet to assist mariners. In 1794, construction began on Shell Castle Island, a 25 acre, shell-covered island located between Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island to the south. This site was adjacent to the deepest inlet channel between shallow Pamlico Sound and the ocean. The wooden, pyramid- shaped tower was completed four years later. Nearby on the island, a small light keeper's house was built along with several cargo wharves, gristmills, houses, and other facilities. 
The lighthouse, a great blessing to mariners, was obsolete in less than 30 years due to migration of the main channel. By 1818, the channel had shifted nearly a mile away. That same year, both the lighthouse and keeper's house were destroyed by lightning. 
In 1822, for a charge of $50, the federal government purchased two acres at the south end of Ocracoke Island as the site for a new lighthouse. Constructed by Massachu- setts's builder Noah Porter and finished in 1823, the tower still stands today. Total cost, including the one story, one bedroom light keeper's house, was $11,359, far below the $20,000 budgeted. 
The lighthouse stands 75 feet tall. Its diameter narrows from 25 feet at the base to 12 feet at its peak. The walls are solid brick - 12 feet thick at the bottom tapering to two feet at the top. An octagonal lantern crowns the tower and houses the light beacon.
The exterior's solid white coloration serves as its identifying mark to mariners by day. The original whitewash "recipe" called for blending lime, salt, spanish whiting, rice, glue and boiling water. The mixture was applied while still hot.
A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1854, replacing the old reflector system. Its hand-cut prisms and magnifying glass greatly intensified the light. Early in the Civil War the lens was dismantled by the Confederates but re-installed in 1864 by Union forces. Originally an oil-burning light, the Ocracoke Light was electrified in the early decades of the 1900's. The present light is equal to 8,000 candlepower and casts a stationary beam that can be seen 14 miles at sea. A battery powered back-up light operates during power failures. 
As duties at the light station increased, an assistant keeper position was established. To house the additional keeper and his family, a second story was built onto the original quarters in 1897 and another section was added in 1929. The double keepers' quarters still stand on the site today, along with a generator house, once the oil supply shed.
During hurricanes the light station served as a place of refuge for some local residents. Situated on higher ground, the complex often remained above flood waters. Villagers, sometimes arriving by boats which navigated inundated roadways, waited out the storm in the keepers' home. Fully automated, the lighthouse no longer needs a resident light keeper to tend to its daily needs. The United States Coast Guard now oversees its operation.
The Ocracoke light is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the nation.  The lighthouse survived the Civil War with minimal damage; Confederate troops dismantled the fourth-order Fresnel lens early on, but in 1864 Union forces re-installed it. In the early 1900's it was electrified, and today the lighthouse casts a stationary beam visible for fourteen miles.

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