By JEFF HAMPTON, The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk
Ocracoke, NC (AP) – The bright, white Ocracoke Lighthouse has aided mariners for nearly 200 years, longer than any other in North Carolina and second longest in the nation.
The 75-foot-tall beacon opened for its viewing season last week, but remains second fiddle to the much more famous, taller and brighter Cape Hatteras Lighthouse a few miles to the north that draws thousands of visitors annually.
The Ocracoke beacon, built in 1823, has a much weaker light that does not flash in a unique sequence like others in the state. It just remains on like a staring eye.
It may have never been open to public climbing. A few dozen people daily come on summer days to briefly look inside.
But the Ocracoke light may be the most unique of the state’s lighthouses and has a rich history, said Letitia Lussier, a summer ranger with the National Park Service.
The tower’s white surface reflects the sun enough to force a visitor to don sunglasses. Shade from aged and large live oaks on the grounds helps. Lussier stands in her pressed park uniform and broad, flat-brimmed campaign hat ready to answer questions and tell the story.
“It is the most quaint,” she said. “She’s so tiny compared to the rest.”
For decades Ocracoke Inlet was one of the busiest in the state. Blackbeard once sailed here until he was killed in battle near where the lighthouse would stand more than a century later.
The lighthouse and house are on high ground and were a refuge for locals who came by boat down flooded streets to wait out a hurricane.
Inside the tower, narrow metal stairs end at the top where a ladder continues to an opening about the size of a ship’s hatch. To crawl through it to the balcony requires flexibility and a certain leanness. To get back down requires courage and a sure step.
“It’s just not safe,” said Jami Lanier, cultural resource manager for the National Park Service at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The bricks and mortar are slowly deteriorating. In the 1950s, a thick concrete coating replaced the original whitewash blend of lime, salt, Spanish whiting, rice, glue and boiling water. The concrete coating sealed moisture within the bricks causing cracks and crumbling mortar, Lussier said. The old whitewash allowed the handmade bricks to breathe.
Lussier brushed her finger over a joint inside the tower, wiping away the old mortar like dust.
“It’s going to need to be restored at some point,” she said.
The park service plans to replace the concrete coating with a whitewash when the budget allows, Lanier said.
Ocracoke Village began as a place called Pilot Town settled in the early 1700s by captains who guided vessels through the treacherous inlet, according to a park service history.
The first lighthouse was approved in the late 1700s to be built on 25-acre tract known as Shell Castle Island south of Ocracoke, according to local historian Philip Howard. It was not illuminated until 1803, he said.
The wooden tower stood 55 feet and operated on whale oil. By 1818, the inlet had drifted more than a mile and the light was no longer useful. The structure was destroyed by lightning that year, Howard said.
The federal government bought two acres for $50 in 1822 as the site for a new lighthouse. The next year, Massachusetts builder Noah Porter completed a one-story keepers house and the tower for $11,359.
Keepers over the years kept the light fueled with whale oil at first, then later with lard before switching to kerosene in the 1870s. They polished the brass, kept up the grounds and watched for ships in distress.
A fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced a reflector system in 1854, giving the beacon enough power to reach out 14 miles. Fresnel lens came in six orders with the brightest being a first order, the size used in the Bodie Island lighthouse. The lens was made up of an array of prisms that greatly magnified the flash. The light was electrified in 1938, Lanier said.
The last keeper left in 1954, but the Coast Guard maintains the light that still shines with the purpose of helping mariners on the shoaling waters off Ocracoke.
Interior of Lighthouse