Last night I spent most of the evening tromping around Cape Hatteras National Seashore in search of locations that I will be bringing my workshop to in a couple weeks for a night photography session. Naturally one of the first places that I hit was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
If you have only seen this lighthouse from afar, be prepared for a completely different experience walking up to it on a clear night. This is a monster of a lighthouse and for good reason. By the 1850’s the Cape Hatteras Light was considered to be the most important lighthouse in the world. The only problem was, it was also considered to be the worst one in the world as well!
You see, this is actually the second Cape Hatteras Light. Construction of the first one was completed in 1804 and it was lit by 18 lamps. For such a critically important lighthouse, one that stood watch over the most notorious stretch of coast line and deadliest complex of shoals in the Western Atlantic, the original light fell far short of what was truly needed here in what sailors referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. From the early 1500s to mid 1900s some 2,000 ships have fallen victim to the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and more have sunk right here off of Cape Hatteras and its infamous Diamond Shoals than anywhere else along this coast.
For nearly half a century mariners protested the inadequacy of the Cape Hatteras Light. Finally, Congress appropriated the funds for a second light which was completed in and lit in 1871. Standing 193 feet tall, this second Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was the tallest lighthouse in the world.
Today the light of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse can been seen under optimal conditions a full 24 miles out to see.
Lighthouses along this coast line are all painted different colors and have a different sequence of lights from each other. From the Currituck Beach Light down to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, each and everyone is completely different from the next. The reason for this is multifaceted but the primary purpose of these lighthouses other than warning mariners of shoal water was that they were to also stand as navigational aids. Along these dry and seemingly barren strands of islands, few if any recognizable landmarks were visible from see. This meant that one stretch of the coast looked very much like another stretch some 200 miles distant. In order to give sailors something to work with here in terms of navigation, the lighthouses were painted different colors and given different sequences of lights. This means that as a ship sailed up the coast line they could easily distinguish the black and white barber pole paint job of the Cape Hatteras Light during the day, or its sequence of flashes of light every 7.5 seconds from that of the red brick Currituck Beach Light and its sequence of lights that is 3 seconds on and 17 seconds off. A quick glance at the naval charts would confirm which lighthouse and therefore geographically where they were in the world.