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Next to the State Capitol few public buildings in the state are as universally recognized and revered as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Even political foes Jesse Helms and James B. Hunt Jr. found common ground when they united for a photograph as part of an effort to save the structure from the effects of shoreline erosion.
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The present lighthouse is counted as the second of three at Cape Hatteras. Congress in 1794 authorized the original ninety-foot sandstone tower, completed in 1802. By the 1850s complaints were voiced about the inadequacy of its light and in 1861 it was damaged by Union shelling. After the war the Light House Board gave top priority to construction of a new lighthouse to be built with top-quality materials and methods. Project foreman Dexter Stetson devised a foundation six feet deep in the sand using yellow pine heart timbers. Transporting materials to the remote site by scow was a considerable task. The specially-designed Fresnel lens was lighted December 16, 1870. The total cost was over $150,000. Upon completion, the lighthouse, measuring 180 feet from foundation to the light and 208 feet from the bottom to the top of the roof, was the world’s tallest. It remains the tallest brick lighthouse in this country.
The 1802 tower was destroyed in 1871. The Light House Board assigned to Cape Hatteras the spiral band paint scheme. In 1935 shoreline erosion threatened the lighthouse and it was abandoned, its place taken by a skeleton tower built to the northwest above Buxton Woods. The Civilian Conservation Corps helped stabilize the area and, on January 23, 1950, the 1870 tower was reactivated (the 1935 light is used as a backup). In 1999, the National Park Service, working with a private contractor, moved the lighthouse one-half mile west to save it from the Atlantic Ocean. The public attention brought to the project was considerable.
David Stick, The Outer Banks of North Carolina (1958)
David Stick, North Carolina Lighthouses (1980)
“Cape Hatteras Lighthouse,” National Park Service pamphlet (1954)
H. G. Jones, North Carolina Illustrated, 1584-1984 (1983)