The South Atlantic coastline from the northern border of South Carolina
through the southern tip of the Florida Keys is one of the most dangerous coastal
regions of the United States. The South Atlantic coast is distinguished by its sand
bars, shoals, rip tides, and reefs. These particularly treacherous hazards are as
stealthy and changing as the shifting sands themselves. Therefore, the lighthouses
of the South Atlantic are not welcoming lights, but lights of warning. The coastline
is unpredictable, ever changing, and tremendously difficult for navigators.
Responding to the gradually rising sea level of the past several thousand years,
barrier island systems have migrated westward. Hatteras Island is no exception. This
migration occurs as storm-driven ocean tides wash completely over the islands, moving
sand sediments toward the sound shoreline. Because of this migration, barrier islands
are among the most unstable land masses on the face of the earth. The Cape Hatteras
area is known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because of two strong
crossing currents. The cold Labrador Stream from the north and the warm Gulf Stream
from the Caribbean collide off the South Atlantic coast to create these dangerous
The Florida Keys were one of the most dangerous sealanes and numerous ships perished
in the narrow strait between the Gulf Stream and the Florida Reef. The area became
a prosperous resource for "wreckers" and pirates.
As a result of these numerous shipwrecks caused by the dangerous shifting ocean waters,
warning signals were very important to the navigators of the South Atlantic. Lighthouses
were warning lights commonly built on rocky cliffs at the shoreline. These lights
guided ships through the labyrinth of barrier islands along the coast of the Carolinas
and Georgia. At the southernmost tip of the United States, around the Florida Keys,
lighthouses steered cargo ships from the Atlantic ocean into the Gulf of Mexico.