|Cape Hatteras, NC|
Description: In 1903, on the high dunes of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Wright brothers launched their first successful foray into aviation. From their perspective, this location was ideal: high winds swept over miles of smooth sand that lined a shallow sea. However, for other forms of transportation, this coastline proved less accommodating.
For many miles off the coast near two opposing currents flow; close to shore the cold-water Virginia Coastal Drift flows south, and farther offshore the warm-water Gulf Stream flows north. At Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream veers into the Coastal Drift, forcing vessels into the dangerous waters around Diamond Shoals, where shifting sands extend more than ten miles from the Cape. Over two thousand ships have foundered and sunk in that treacherous stretch of water, known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Even when violent storms or hurricanes are not driving ships into the shallow waters, the flat coastline provides no visible landmarks, forcing navigators to sail close to the dangerous shore to get their bearings.
After the Fresnel lens arrived from France, it was placed on display in the Crystal Palace at New York until its lantern room was ready. The Lighthouse Board was quite pleased with the the lens: "This magnificent specimen of art, acknowledged to be the most perfect of its kind, it is believed, could not be more appropriately placed than in the position for which it is designed, to warn the mariner in approaching the dangerous shoals off Cape Hatteras, which have so long been the terror of seafaring men."
The bottom twenty feet of the heightened tower were painted grey, while the upper portion was red. The new lens commenced operation early in 1854, sending out a piercing white flash every twenty seconds that was heralded by mariners as the "greatest light in the world." But the new usefulness of Cape Hatteras Light wasn’t fated to last.
The Civil War saw Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the center of conflict. The Confederate army wanted to destroy the lighthouse to prevent Union ships benefiting from it, and naturally the Union forces wanted to protect the lighthouse. After several battles in 1861, defeated Confederate troops retreated with the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens. In 1862, the tower was relit with a second-order Fresnel lens, and then upgraded the following year with a first-order lens. The tower was severely damaged in the war, and after peace was restored to the country, the Lighthouse Board determined it would be less costly to build a new lighthouse, 600 feet to the north, rather than repair and refit the existing one. After the construction of its replacement, the original Cape Hatteras Light was destroyed in a blast of dynamite, and the Fresnel lens it had most recently housed was shipped to California for use in Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
The present lighthouse was constructed in 1868-70 at a cost exceeding $150,000. The Lighthouse Board appointed Dexter Stetson as Superintendent of Construction, who then hired and trained nearly 100 local laborers for a daily wage of $1.50. Well over one million bricks were used to construct the 208-foot tower, which is the tallest in the United States. The lighthouse was set on a “floating foundation” (two layers of pine beams placed crossways below the water table topped by massive granite blocks), which remained perfectly preserved for well over a century. Atop the foundation, cut granite quoins and brick paneling were employed to form the base of the tower. On December 16, 1870, the tower’s first-order Fresnel lens was activated for the first time.
In 2002, it was discovered that this “new” lens was actually the same lens used in the original tower before the Confederates absconded with it. The lens remained hidden throughout the Civil War, and when it was finally located, it was shipped to Paris for cleaning. Upon its return, the lens was placed in storage at the Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island until the new tower was ready to receive it.
In 1873, the Lighthouse Board had the tower painted with striking black and white stripes to replace the former daymark of a red upper portion and white lower portion. At last that treacherous stretch of coastline had a distinctive landmark.
In the spring of 1879, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was struck by lightning, which caused cracks to appear in the tower. After inspecting the lighthouse, the district engineer concluded that an imperfect grounding of the tower was the cause of the damage, and a metal rod was used to link the tower's ironwork to an iron disk buried in the ground.
Four shocks from the 1886 Charleston earthquake rattled Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. One keeper reported that he heard a rumbling noise ascending the tower, and then "the tower would tremble and sway backward and forward like a tree shaken by the wind. The shock was so strong that we could not keep our backs against the parapet wall. It would throw us right from it." Damage was limited to the cracking of storm panes in the lantern room and the overturning of a few light objects.
Unaka Jennette started his service in 1919 as principal keeper at Cape Hatteras, but his family had a much earlier connection with the lighthouse. Unaka’s sixth-generation ancestor, Christian Jennett(e), sold the government the four-acre tract on which the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was constructed. Before being assigned to Cape Hatteras, Unaka had twice served aboard the Diamond Shoals Lightship, established off Cape Hatteras in 1824 to help mark this dangerous section of the coast, once as quarter master and the second time as Captain. Unaka and his wife, Jennie, moved into the head keeper’s dwelling with two children, and over the years five more children would be born in the residence.
On August 22, 1933, a powerful hurricane struck Cape Hatteras. Unaka sent a report to his superiors a few days later saying:
I beg leave to submit herewith-detailed report of the damage done by the recent storm of the 22nd inst. I wired you hastily on the morning of the 23rd, but have heard nothing from the office since that time. This was by far the highest sea tide recorded since I have been at Cape Hatteras. Two store houses and garages were washed down. Three toilets washed down. Floor bursted up in one room of 2nd asst. quarters…. The entire reservation is completely submerged, and I have been forced to move my family away from the station. Respectfully, (signed) U.B. Jennette, Keeper
Another storm, just three weeks later, caused further erosion and damage at the station. A steel, sheet-pile groin was built to protect the station in 1933, but by 1935, the coast had eroded so much that the sea lapped the base of the tower, once a safe 1,500 feet from the water. The noble lighthouse was abandoned, and Keeper Jennette moved his family into his father’s house in Buxton. A make-shift skeleton tower was erected a mile northwest of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton Woods, on land provided by Unaka. Keeper Jennette minded this new beacon until 1939, when the Coast Guard assumed control of the nation’s lighthouses. Unaka chose to remain a civilian employee and was transferred to the offshore Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, from which he retired in 1943. Keeper Jennette’s twenty years of service at Cape Hatteras was the longest tenure of the tower’s eighty-three keepers.
The defunct Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was transferred to the National Park Service in 1937, and through the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps and a helping hand from Mother Nature, the shoreline around the lighthouse built up. Over the next several years, souvenir hunters and vandals repeatedly entered the lighthouse and removed several pieces of the Fresnel lens. In 1950, with the tower now apparently safe from the ocean, the Coast Guard removed the pillaged lens and reactivated the lighthouse using a modern beacon. But by 1987, the lighthouse was only 120 feet from the shore, and the National Park Service determined it would not survive the onslaught of the sea another decade.
In what would be named the “2000 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and its two keeper’s quarters were moved a half-mile inland. Under the direction of a team of twenty-two experts, on June 17, 1999, the lighthouse was raised six feet off its base and carefully moved, in five-foot increments, along a roadway constructed for that purpose. It arrived safely at its new location on July 9, 1999, and was relit a couple months later on November 13.
A ring of foundation stones was left to mark the former site of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and in 2001 the names of the eighty-three keepers who served at the lighthouse were engraved into the granite blocks. A "Hatteras Keepers Descendants Homecoming," organized by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society and attended by over 1,000 descendants, was held at the site in May of 2001, shortly after the memorial was completed. Though the relocated Cape Hatteras Lighthouse itself receives most of a visitor's attention, a stop by the ring of foundation stones to remember the lives of the keepers and their families, the real soul of the lighthouse, is an often neglected but satisfying part of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse experience. The ring of stones was buried by Hurricane Sandy in 2013.
Head Keepers: Adam Gaskins (1803 – 1808), Joseph Farrow (1808 – 1821), Pharoah Farrow (1821 – 1830), Isaac S. Farrow (1830 – 1842), Joseph C. Jennett (1842 - ), Joseph C. Jennett (1849 – 1853), William O’Neal (1853 – 1860), E.F. O’Neal (1860), Benjamin T. Fulcher (1860 – 1862), Abraham C. Farrow (1862 – 1864), George W. Rodgers (1864 – 1866), Alpheus W. Simpson (1866 – 1868), Benjamin C. Jennett (1868 – 1871), John Shepperd (1871 – 1872), R. Jennett (1872 – 1877), Oscar F. Rue (1877 – 1880), George A. Bliven (1880 – 1881), Augustus C. Thompson (1881 – 1887), Tillman F. Smith (1887 – 1897), J. Wilson Gillikin (1897 – 1900), Ephraim Meekins, Jr. (1900 – 1906), Fabious E. Simpson (1906 – 1919), Unaka Jennette (1919 – 1939).
Located on the southeast corner of Hatteras Island, not far from the town
of Buxton. The frame and a few remaining prisms from the Fresnel lens formerly used in the lighthouse can be seen at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, located next to the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry landing. Lens photograph courtesy of Rick Canter. The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds/dwelling open, tower open in season.
The frame and a few remaining prisms from the Fresnel lens formerly used in the lighthouse can be seen at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, located next to the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry landing. Lens photograph courtesy of Rick Canter.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds/dwelling open, tower open in season.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Cape Hatteras was the second lighthouse I ever visited. That first trip happened to be in a downpour, but still the tower was an impressive site with its base of Vermont rose granite and red brick, and its distinctive spiral stripes. My return visit was made in 2000, and the signs of the tower's move the previous year were clearly evident. A third visit in 2006 found the lighthouse more at home in its new surroundings and gave me the opportunity to finally climb the tower.
See our List of Lighthouses in North Carolina
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.