Digest>Archives> October 2002

The Lost Light

The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel Lens

By Kevin P. Duffus


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Amid the sweet scents of flowering dogwoods, azaleas and wisteria on Easter weekend in April 1862, forty-four pine boxes containing the first-order Henry-LePaute Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras lighthouse were unloaded from a one-car train and transferred onto horse-drawn wagons. The lead-crystal illuminating apparatus was then hidden in a store-house near the small farming community of Townsville, North Carolina, nearly two hundred miles from its home. Left behind were the acrid odors of war-black powder and the smoke and ashes of forts, homes and churches.

In its wake, the Hatteras lens left a trail of defiance and recrimination. Forced to escape into hiding were its former keeper and his District Superintendent of Lights. In addition, the keeper, a seemingly insignificant participant in the War Between the States, was later investigated and pursued by no less than the U.S. Secretary of State, William H. Seward. A picturesque waterfront town that once harbored the lens was threatened with annihilation (as it subsequently was). The Federal Navy warned the Rebel-loyalist warehouse and steamboat owner who slipped the lens away less than 24 hours before its potential capture that his personal property would be destroyed if the lens was not returned. One year later, his steamboat, which had transported the lens, was eventually captured and sunk.

The first-order lens from the Hatteras lighthouse had become a pawn in the catastrophic calamity that was the Civil War. Confederates possessed the apparatus to flaunt their claim on what they believed was their lawful property. The Federal government desperately wanted to get the lens back and the Hatteras light re-established, first for humanitarian reasons, and secondly and more importantly, as a symbolic pronouncement proving that the Union, like the lighthouse, would prevail.

The Henry-Lepaute lens eluded its former owners, the U.S. Light House Establishment, and the voluminous historical writings of the War of the Rebellion. Even 28,000 men of General William T. Sherman’s Fourteenth and Twentieth Army Corps failed to discover its hiding place. And for 140 years, the whereabouts of the Cape Hatteras lens has remained, according to Timothy Harrison of Lighthouse Digest, “one of the great-unsolved mysteries of American lighthouse history.” The magnificent first-order lens simply vanished into the mists of time, a mystery created by myths, urban legends and mountains of public records.

It is a mystery no longer. The original Cape Hatteras Henry-Lepaute lens has been found!

More than thirty years ago I discovered a brief glimpse of the fantastic journey of the original Cape Hatteras lens while researching a sunken Confederate gunboat at the bottom of a black-water creek in eastern North Carolina. What started then as a search for the identity of a mysterious shipwreck, three decades later turned into a quest for the “lost light” of Cape Hatteras. Searches in the field along its well-documented trail yielded little but frustration and insect bites. I realized that the solution to the mystery (and to many others) lay in dusty and decaying records of the U.S. Light House Board and the Union and Confederate Armies at the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Record Group 26, which contains the archives of the U.S. Coast Guard and the consolidated bureaucracies that preceded it, represents 10,194 cubic feet of material, a veritable Everest-sized mountain in which lay the proverbial needle-the answer to what happened to the Hatteras apparatus.

On the eve of the U.S. Civil War, more than one hundred Southern lighthouses were extinguished and their lenses were removed. Mostly, the removals were done with surprising care, contrary to popular stories; and it makes sense-the Confederate Light House Bureau fully expected to stay in business and someday re-light its lighthouses. Surviving records, including detailed ledgers and pay-vouchers, show that skilled machinists were hired for the methodical process of dismantling lens components, blankets were wrapped around the glass panels as they were lowered over lantern balconies, and cotton-lined wood crates held the fragile lenses as they were transported to secure locations. At Cape Hatteras, a machinist who later helped to build Confederate ironclads was paid three dollars a day for seven days to dismantle the Henry-Lepaute first order lens and three sixth order lenses from smaller channel markers.

Of course, most, but not all lighthouse property was treated with care. While some expensive and delicate lead-crystal lenses, brass oil-lamps and bronze rotating machinery were removed and hidden in warehouses and barns, others were dumped into streams. A few lighthouse structures were damaged or destroyed by fire or explosives, other towers adjacent to military targets were shelled by enemy cannon, and lightships were torched and sunk-depredations inflicted by both Confederate and Union forces.

Almost all of North Carolina’s two dozen lighthouses had been snuffed-out during April 1861 and their lenses were removed soon after. But that was not enough-the property was spirited away to mainland hiding places to prevent its capture. It was a desperate act during a time of despair. Confederate defenses crumbled and strategic port towns fell with appalling swiftness to the overwhelming forces of Union General A.E. Burnside’s expedition throughout the Tidewater region of the state. Although, the state’s lighthouse lenses could not be found despite numerous forays into various towns reported to be secret hiding places, much to the dismay of Burnside and Chairman W.B. Shubrick of the U.S. Light House Board. It was not until Sherman’s cyclonic and voracious army swept across North Carolina’s Coastal Plain and into its capital city, Raleigh, that any of the U.S. government’s lighthouse property was recovered.

It was a discovery of stunning proportions made by a young signal officer and a captain of the Provost Marshall’s office. In the rotunda of the Greek-revival North Carolina Capitol building, on the second floor between the House and Senate chambers, lay “a vast pile of lighthouse apparatus: costly lamps and reflectors of Fresnel and Argand that were purchased by the United States Government for the coast of North Carolina, and removed by the Rebels at the outbreak of the Rebellion,” wrote a northern correspondent traveling with Sherman’s army. “The glass concentric reflectors of Fresnel are viewed with novel curiosity by the Western men, to whom light-house paraphernalia is something new.”

But was the Hatteras lens among the piles of apparatus? No one was sure.

While Sherman was engaged in his controversial negotiations to secure the surrender of the last major Confederate army in the field, his quartermaster ordered the lighthouse lenses prepared for shipment back north. But before either Union officer completed his task, General Ulysses S. Grant and Brevet-Major General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of U.S. forces, made a surprise appearance in Raleigh. Grant came to redirect Sherman’s terms of surrender, and Meigs to facilitate the recovery of the Light House Board’s lenses. What Meigs discovered was appalling. That young boys were in the streets of Raleigh “playing” with prisms from North Carolina’s lighthouses was not the worst of what Meigs observed. The panels of lenses and prisms of lighthouses were being wrapped in the papers of the State Archives, which had been scattered about the floor of the Capitol when the building was evacuated prior to Sherman’s arrival. The documents that were being used for packing material were considered priceless, even in 1865.

Meigs quickly dispatched a letter to Admiral Shubrick of the Light House Board: “I notice that the workmen in packing the glass used the papers which in the first occupation of this city, or in the evacuation by the Rebels, had been strewn about the floors of the Capitol. Among those remaining on the floor I saw revolutionary documents bearing the signatures of Thos. Jefferson and Charles Thompson, and John Knox. It will be well to have these papers examined by some intelligent person, that all that are of any interest may be preserved. I saw one of 1756-many of ‘76 to ‘69.”

One week later the North Carolina lenses arrived in Washington, along with their valuable wrapping paper.

When the War of the Rebellion had begun, there were only two first order Fresnel lenses among North Carolina’s nearly two dozen lighthouses, beacons and screwpile towers-the Henry-Lepaute lens at Cape Hatteras and the Cape Lookout lens manufactured by the firm of Lemonnier, Sauter and Company. The French manufacturers usually identified their lenses with the company’s name etched on a brass plate at the base of the apparatus as well as on each panel. The manufacturer’s name and the lens’ flashing characteristics would clearly identify the lighthouse from which the lens was removed. Hatteras was a revolving lens that flashed once every ten seconds. Lookout was a fixed (non-revolving) apparatus.

The Engineering Secretary of the Light House Board opened the crates and immediately discovered that just one first order lens was among the third, fourth, and sixth apparatus present. If there was only one, which one? Cape Hatteras or Cape Lookout? The workers were, no doubt, holding their breath as they searched for the manufacturer’s identity among the catadioptric panels of the first-order lens. What they found was the Cape Lookout apparatus built by Lemmonier-Sauter. The other lenses discovered at Raleigh included Bodie Island’s 3rd order apparatus; the 4th order lens from Bogue Banks lighthouse near Fort Macon; and numerous 6th order lenses from the North Carolina Sounds.

The Cape Hatteras lens was still unaccounted for!

It would be months later that the Henry-Lepaute apparatus was recovered by the Federal government. And even then, the remarkable odyssey of the lens was far from over. What remains is a stunning story of plot-twists, ironies, redemption and dishonor. Next month in Lighthouse Digest, I will reveal the conclusion to “one of the great-unsolved mysteries of American lighthouse history.”

Kevin P. Duffus, award-winning documentary producer of Move of the Century and War Zone-World War Two Off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, has written a new book, The Lost Light-The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel Lens. The Lost Light is a Civil War story that describes in thorough detail how and when Southern lighthouses were extinguished and how Fresnel lenses were hidden, recovered, repaired and returned to service. The surprise ending to the mystery is at once, shocking and sobering.

This story appeared in the October 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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