Digest>Archives> August 2002

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

By Robert L. Parker


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The author, Robert Parker, ready to climb the ...

"The Big Barber Pole" stood like immovable granite pointing its huge, cylindrical bulk more than two hundred feet in the air as I approached its entrance. Climbing it proved to be an arduous task paralleling my female companion's and my climb of a mountain two years previously to locate the wreckage of a downed aircraft. The long trek upwards with stops at several levels to view the beautiful but potentially dangerous beaches and oceans below, brought back memories of the many times I had sailed past this historic lighthouse. I remember with trepidation, even after many years, of one trip on a hastily built Kaiser Liberty ship when it registered force twelve on the Beaufort and above. It was almost my last trip ...

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The author, Robert Parker, 80 pounds lighter.

Poetic fallacy aptly describes voyages on the Atlantic Ocean, particularly off the coast of Hatteras, when it pronounces it "an angry sea." Lighthouses and their dedicated keepers by tending and shining their gleaming, probing lights during stormy seas did much to soften the blows from these deadly, turbulent waters. Many times it was the lighthouse beacon and the keeper that helped to bring ship and seamen to a safe shore.

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The view from Cape Hattears Lighthouse give one ...
Photo by: Robert L. Parker

The year I climbed the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was 1998, one year before the massive structure was relocated; a task others and myself did not deem practical or even possible. Six thousand tons plus does not move easily. But, after a marvel of engineering, it was done and with no damage to this historic monument.

Cape Hatteras at its best is rough; its waters at its worst are correctly and succinctly labeled "The Graveyard of the Atlantic." Ghosts and goblins still seem to prowl within the skyscraper interior akin to those still present at Kill Devil Hill, the Alamo, and on board that dormant Cunard Liner the QUEEN MARY. I've experienced a sense of the unknown at all three of these locales but in the lighthouse there is no escape from them, only up and down ...

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse though not the oldest in the country is the tallest. Standing two hundred and eight feet from deck to truck, its unusual black spiral striping coupled with its massive brick construction, sets it apart from many other mariner's beacons. Although the Coast Guard has assumed authority over the old Light House Service and their keepers replacing them with Coast Guard personnel, the mystique of these famous beacons has not diminished; in fact, as their history is revealed, it has intensified.

Many of these beacons of the past have been automated; some have been razed; still others sold privately. Hatteras lighthouse, now in public trust, makes you an anachronism when you visit. You become a throwback to the days when keepers made that long, lonely trip up the stairway to the sky to tend the lamps, trim the wicks, fill their reservoirs with whale oil or, in this modern day and age throw the switch to la luz electra. A memorable experience even if just in the mind.

Today's Cape Hatteras's lantern can be seen twenty miles out to sea weather permitting. The quality of the building materials used in the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, stone and brick, is a marked improvement over the old iron towers. An example of the latter: the Minot's light tower off the coast of Massachusetts. In 1851 during a violent gale, its iron supports snapped tumbling the top-heavy light tower into the sea taking its two keepers to their deaths.

Minot, rebuilt of granite, has since and still does, stand the rigors of violent storms. Waves as high as one hundred and five feet have been photographed engulfing the tower, which though it shakes and shudders, still remains intact.

When the great Hatteras tower was moved, staying within the boundaries of the National Seashore Park, it proved to be a fascinating sight to watch its movement as it was literally inched along to its new location. It was feared, because of its huge weight and bulk it might topple, but because of the amazing skill and expertise of the engineering company masterminding the project, the relocation culminated slowly but successfully. The original site where the lighthouse stood has been marked and preserved for posterity.

It is sad, at least to this writer, to accept the fact that because of the introduction of new navigational aids many lighthouses are obsolete. However, it is not to infer these aids are unwelcome; anything that saves the lives of ocean travelers indicates positive progress. God knows when a boat or ship goes out from under you as it did with me, at that time nostalgia is unimportant, rescue is. Still, lighthouses were and in some cases still are, an important era in American history. In their day lighthouses and their keepers have saved a lot of lives and shipping. In that respect, navigational aids and lighthouses are synonymous.

The keepers too must not go unheralded. Without them contemporary and beacons of yore would be pointless, figuratively and literally. The keeper's job was a lonely, lowly paid, often-mundane existence with spurts of excitement injected into the lives of these tenacious guardians of the beacons.

Musing further, I remember one such keeper stationed at the Mount Desert Lighthouse located more than twenty miles off the coast of Maine. Shining its first light in 1830 it enjoyed a succession of keepers. My friend, with his family, was one of them when the lighthouse came under the auspices of the Coast Guard. Though he tended the light faithfully and was awed by the beauty and magnitude of the "rockpile" the loneliness and solitude was gladly exchanged for civilization when his tour was up.

The lighthouses surrounding our coastlines and the Great Lakes stand like guardian sentinels whether dormant or active all up and down America from the Atlantic, Pacific, and inland lakes etc. Cape Hatteras light, one of the most famous of these beacons still stands and I hope will, as long as this country of ours does ...

This story appeared in the August 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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