America’s Big Barber Pole

The ocean is dark and full of terrors my friends. With today’s evolving oceanic technology and a long history of navigating great bodies of water, it is easy to forget how perilous our oceans can be. As we first began to acquire our sea legs, oceans contained pictures of sea monsters because they are, if nothing else, a great monster. If mythic sea creatures didn’t litter the maps’ oceans, the edge of the scrolls would read, “here there be monsters.’ Confident in our Captains, modern seafarers take for granted how treacherous the oceans are, even with advances in modern technology. Lighthouses mark a point of success and safety when traveling the open seas. These beacons of light have welcomed ships to our coasts for centuries, and the Outer Banks is home to the largest lighthouse in America, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

208 feet above the coast stands the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Construction of the current infrastructure known as the Cape Hatteras lighthouse began in 1867, after 60 years of mariners protesting that the prior lighthouse could not produce enough light to guide ships safely through the Graveyard of the Atlantic. North Carolina’s hazardous Diamond Shoals have been claiming ships for centuries. Close to 2,300 ships were lost to the rocky sandbars off of the Hatteras since the early 1500s. For the original construction 1,250,000 bricks were fired in kilns along the James River in Virginia and then taken by ship to the site of the lighthouse. That number does not include the 150,000 bricks that were lost to shipwrecks in the shallow shoals while in view of the construction site of the lighthouse that was supposed to warn them of that very danger. After so many ships carrying bricks were swallowed by the Carolina coast, a fleet of dinghies were used to transport the bricks from the boats traveling in from Virginia to the construction site.

In another comic blunder during the lighthouse’s construction, the artist contracted to paint the building confused it with another lighthouse he was completing at the time. The original design was supposed to be covered in diamonds to warn of the diamond shoals that had claimed so many ships before the erection of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The design for Cape Hatteras was switched with the design for Cape Lookout and the diamond pattern was replaced with a spiral stripe. The flub earned the lighthouse the nickname “The Big Barber Pole.”

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse projects enough light to reach a 20 mile radius into the sea. The lighthouse has changed and evolved over time. The original tower, like most early lighthouses, was powered entirely with whale oil. In 1880 the lighthouse switched to kerosene fuel before going electric in 1934. The lighthouse has also faced a few dim years due to erosion around the Hatteras coastline. Three additional lighthouses were built in close proximity to America’s lighthouse due to the threat of erosion that left the lighthouse dark for years at a time. The Atlantic began encroaching so heavily that in 1993 the entire lighthouse had to be moved.

In 1999 the big barber pole had to be moved 2,700 feet from where it had stood since 1870. Years of erosion caused a gradual westward migration of the Outer Banks coastline which caused the infrastructure to move from a safe 1,500 feet away from the shore to a mere 120 feet away by the 1970s. Storm tides were a constant threat to the lighthouse and if it wasn’t moved America’s lighthouse would face certain destruction. The lighthouse was lifted from its original pine and timber base, and moved along a small track progressing only 5 feet at a time. The lighthouse was equipped with 60 sensors that alerted of any odd tilt, load, vibration, and shaft diameter problems that may have occured during the trip. There was even a small weather station atop the lighthouse to measure temperature and weather. Awaiting the lighthouse in its new location were The Principal Keeper’s Quarters, Double Keepers’ Quarters, oil house, cisterns, and sidewalks which had been moved in early spring. In July, the lighthouse was placed atop its new base constructed of rock, brick, and a steel-reinforced concrete slab. This new location and base should keep America’s lighthouse safe for another 100 years.

americas barber pole

Tours through the Cape Hatteras lighthouse run from the Friday before Easter to Columbus day. Since it is America’s largest lighthouse, the landmark is easy to find from the highway and there is lots of lodging available around the coast. Visitors are welcome to climb the 268 steps to the top of the tower for a magnificent view of the Atlantic ocean. During the summer, the visitor’s center, located in close proximity to the lighthouse, offers a range of discussions and events on storms, shipwrecks, and a slew of other Cape Hatteras related topics. Will you be adding America’s lighthouse to your summer escapades?

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