lighthouse Legendary Lighthouses  Great Lighthouses: South Atlantic PBS Online

Great Lighthouses: Lighthouses of the South Atlantic

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Colonial Light at Tybee Island

Cockspur Island Lighthouse

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse

Key West Lighthouse


Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, 1803 and 1870

Active Aid to Navigation; Owned by National Park Service; beacon maintained by U.S. Coast Guard.

Cape Hatteras is unparalleled in grandeur, scenic beauty, popularity and history. At 208’ tall, it is the tallest lighthouse structure in the country (although others sit higher above the water because they are built on cliffs or rocks). Its beautiful diamond pattern daymark is distinctive and its beacon can be seen from more than 20 miles at sea.

History of the Lighthouse

This area is known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because two strong crossing currents -- the cold Labrador Stream from the north and the warm Gulf Stream from the Caribbean -- have pushed many ships too close to Hatteras and Diamond Shoals. Wrecks on Diamond Shoals include Spanish galleons, the Civil War Monitor, British boats and German U-Boats, and the ill-fated Tyrrel, whose only survivor, Purnell, floated for three weeks. (Roberts p. 25-26) Differing reports say that more than 600 ships (or more than 2300 according to Nancy Roberts) have sunk in the waters off Cape Hatteras and Diamond Shoals.

First lighthouse was authorized in 1794, completed in 1802 and lit in 1803, making it one of our nation’s earliest lights. It was built by Henry Dearborn. It was an imposing 90’ tall; however, it was not an effective marker. Sea captains complained they couldn’t see the light even when near the Cape. In an 1851 report to the U.S. Lighthouse Board, it was called "the worst light in the world." The Board ordered it raised and fitted with a first-order lens. However, the lens was destroyed by the Confederates in the Civil War.

Though the Federal troops repaired the lens, the lighthouse was still considered deficient. After the war, Congress appropriated funds for the new tower, which was completed in 1873.

Daymarks: In 1873, the U.S. Lighthouse Board decided to paint the Outer Banks lights with distinctive daymarks, since their similar structure made it difficult for mariners to distinguish them. Cape Hatteras was given black and white spiral stripes; Cape Lookout black and white diamond pattern; Bodie Island horizontal black and white stripes; and Currituck Beach was kept natural red brick. Some accounts have said there was a mistake made and Cape Hatteras should have been painted with the Diamond daymark because of its proximity to Diamond Shoals. But noted North Carolina historian David Stick has emphatically stated that this is not true -- that there was no error.

From 1936 to 1950, the lighthouse was darkened because of the threats of erosion. Its replacement was a skeleton steel light Buxton Light Tower. During that time, the first-order lens at Cape Hatteras was vandalized. (During World War II, Cape Hatteras stood dark, replaced by Buxton Light; its only function was that of a lookout tower.)

In 1946, the wreck of the $170,000 yacht Nautilus, whose captain was confused by the daymark of Hatteras and the beacon at Buxton Light, precipitated the restoration of the light to Cape Hatteras by the Coast Guard. The first-order lens was replaced by an electric beacon, lit on January 23, 1950. This was again replaced in 1972 by a powerful automatic beacon that is visible for more than 20 miles at sea.

The present light station consists of the tower, the brick headkeeper’s house, the assistant keeper’s duplex -- which is now the visitor center and Museum-by-the-Sea - and a brick oil house. Visitors can climb the 268 steps to the lighthouse service gallery.

Diamond Shoals Lighthouse is a "Texas-style" (similar to a Texas oil-rig tower) tower that sits in 54 feet of water 13 miles off-shore from Cape Hatteras Light. It can be seen from there on clear days. The lighthouse was built in 1967 to replace a series of lightships that helped protect mariners from the shoals. Its squat square body standing on screwpile legs offers an interesting contrast to the beauty of Cape Hatteras.

Rany Jennette, son of last keeper Unaka Jennette, grew up at the lighthouse. He served for many years as a park ranger at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. For more information, see the chapter on "Cape Hatteras: Through the Eyes of a Son" in the book Lighthouse Families.

The restoration of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was a catalyst to create the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 1953. Covering about 45 square miles on the Outer Banks, this is the most extensive stretch of undeveloped seashore on the Atlantic Coast. Recreation areas include Ocracoke and Hatteras Island and part of Bodie Island, connected by a bridge. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge covers a 6000 acre area on Hatteras Island. Birds include more than 250 species of local and migratory fowl.

And important erosion and preservation story: Cape Hatteras’ existence has been and continues to be seriously threatened by erosion. Originally built 1500 feet from the shore, it now stands just about 120 feet from the waves. There is an intense struggle by preservationists to have the lighthouse moved.

Back to top

Other North Carolina Lights

North Carolina Coast lights are situated about every 40 miles. From north to south, there is Currituck Beach, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke, Cape Lookout, and Bald Head. (The idea of having a lighthouse every 40 miles was new after the Civil War. Most Southern lights had to be rebuilt and the plan was that a mariner could pick up the next light on his bow before losing the other on his stern. The patterned daymarks and flash characteristics helped distinguish them.)


Currituck Beach Light, Corolla, North Carolina, 1871

Debbie Westner, Outer Banks Conservationist, Inc., has had Currituck Light restored and is involved with what’s left of the wild horses. This tall brick lighthouse and the keeper’s house have been splendidly restored.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Bodie Island, North Carolina 1847, 1859, and 1872

Some of the experts have said, "If you’ve seen Hatteras, you’ve seen Bodie". It was repainted this summer, and is in a classic desolate setting. The view from the tower is of undeveloped land surrounding the Croatan/Albermarle sounds, marshes and wetlands and the Atlantic Ocean. There are plans for restoration. Everything within is original from the 1870 first-order Fresnel lens, wooden doors and brass doorknobs, marble plaque over the entrance to the stairs.

Tybee Island Lighthouse, Tybee Island, GA, 1736, 1742 and 1773

Owned by United States Coast Guard, leased to and maintained by Tybee Island Historical Society.

The need for a lighthouse on Tybee Island was recognized by the founder of the British Colony of Georgia in 1733. General James Oglethorpe ordered the lighthouse to be built to mark the entrance to the Savannah River.

One of it was the oldest, tallest and most historic light stations in the country. It stood 70 feet tall and in 1736 it was the tallest building of its kind in America. However, it and the second lighthouse that was built in 1736, were too close to the sea and collapsed. (These dates provided by Tybee Island Historical Society; other experts question them -- and its history between 1775 - 1791, when the Federal Government took over the light station.) According to Ross Holland, the first tower had no light.

The third tower still stands today. The lower 60’ of the tower dates back to 1773. It was damaged in 1862 by Confederate troops who were concerned that the brilliance of its second order lens would aid Federal troops. They removed the lens and set fire to the interior of the tower and lantern. The tower was rebuilt by 1867, and added 94’ and a first-order Fresnel lens so that the tower stood 154’ tall. Both Barb Kochel and Ross Holland claim that it is 144’ tall.

According to Barb Kochel, the lighthouse property was a popular dueling place for Southern gentlemen, but the keeper was the only witness to the shoot-outs.

One of the most intact historic light stations, it includes the lighthouse, head keeper’s house, original summer kitchen, two assistant keeper houses, fuel storage building and garage. The head keeper’s quarters is now the visitor center, one cottage serves as a video theater. Visitors can climb the tower’s 178 steps.There is a Museum at Fort Screven, with exhibits and artifacts of Tybee from the seventeenth century through World War II.

The lighthouse is undergoing extensive restoration, including repainting to historic 1916 black and white daymark. There’s lots of water damage and evidence of cracks from an 1886 earthquake. Restoration should be complete by late March 1999.

It is still an important aid to navigation, standing at the entrance to Savannah, the fourth busiest seaport. It has one of the thirteen first-order Fresnel lens.

Keeper Notes:

An early keeper’s log shows entries from a keeper who found a huge snake on his doorstep, and recorded in his log that he called neighbors to help. They responded by carrying every possible handled weapon at their disposal. In his concluding passage, wrote that the snake was no less than 14’ long. (See Bibliography: Kochel, p. 55)

Back to top

Cockspur Island Lighthouse, 1848

This light stands on an oyster bed off Tybee Island. It has been restored by the National Park Service and can be reached by wading, swimming or boat. There is a poignant story about Florence Martus, sister of keeper George Martus, who in 1887 fell in love with a sailor. He promised to return and marry her. As he sailed away, she waved a white hankie at him. He never returned. For 50 years she continued to wave in vain at every passing ship. Every year more and more sailors watched for her handkerchief as they passed her cottage. They would bring her gifts, including a llama from Peru.

Tybee Island is 20 minutes from Savannah. The lighthouse is in old Fort Screven, a military installation until 1947. The island was a summer getaway resort for wealthy Savannah residents from the 1870s until 1940s. Cab Calloway, Johnnie Mercer and Duke Ellington all played there in resorts. Automobiles and air conditioning caused its downfall. People started traveling more by cars to Florida and more exotic areas.

St. Augustine Lighthouse, St. Augustine, Florida, 1824 and 1874

Active Aid to Navigation; lighthouse owned and managed by United States Coast Guard; tower open to public; keeper’s dwelling a museum managed by Junior Service League of Florida.

First lighthouse in the state of Florida. It is possible that the Spanish built the first lighthouse in Florida. In the early 1800s the U.S. Government inspected a mysterious and old wooden tower built (in 1586, according to Barb Kochel) by early Spanish settlers near St. Augustine, near where Ponce de Leon had landed in 1513. However, it has never been determined that this actually was a lighthouse. At first Congress was going to refurbish the old tower as a lighthouse, but it proved impractical, so a new tower was built. The tower was darkened by the Confederates during the Civil War, and then was threatened by erosion in the following years. The present tower was built in 1874.

This is another success story of preservation efforts by local group. After the lighthouse was automated in 1955, the dwellings and grounds were subject to vandalism and fire. The Junior Service League of St. Augustine took on the restoration project in 1980 and the Lighthouse has been fully restored to its Victorian splendor from the year 1888. It is a beautiful lighthouse with black and white barber pole stripe tower standing 161’ and topped by a red lantern. It’s a near duplicate of Cape Hatteras. The keeper’s house is a Lighthouse Museum is operated under the direction of the Junior Service League. The residence is one of the most elegant keepers’ quarters and the exhibits in the house tell of the social life of this historic city. One of the few lighthouses in a populated area.

The lighthouse has a beautiful first-order Fresnel lens, which shines up to 24 nautical miles. The lens was shot in 1986 by a St. Augustine teenager. Due to efforts of the Junior Service League, funds were raised to have it repaired by US Coast Guardsman Joe Cocking in 1993.

Descendants of Keepers:

Story about "Cracker Daniels," son of keeper Cardell Daniels, who threw his sister’s cat off the top of the tower with a homemade parachute in the late 1930s. The cat’s jump was actually successful; however, the cat ran away afterwards. It was fifty years later when sister Norm Daniels found out why! Society has great photos of the family. Lots of other anecdotes. (See Bibliography: Cheryl Roberts, Lighthouse Families, chapter on St. Augustine.)

There is a strong Minorcan Greek influence in the area - with a tie to the lighthouse. In 1763, English traded Havana for East Florida (under Treaty of Paris). English "ruled" for 20 years. At this time a Scotsman named Turnbull brought a ship with about 1000 Minorcan, Greeks and Italians to New Smyrna, Florida, about one hour south of St. Augustine to work his lands. This was thought to be the largest, earliest settlement of its kind. Conditions were bad, Turnbull lost favor and control; and the New Smyrna colony moved north to St. Augustine where they have been since. Joseph Andreu, a Minorcan keeper at St. Augustine, fell to his death while painting the first lighthouse. The straps to the botswains chair snapped while he was painting the tower. His wife Maria became the keeper from 1859-1862. Today, St. Augustine has strong Minorcan presence. Many restaurants feature Minorcan chowder, a delicious hearty red soup. A local hot sauce made from Datil peppers is available.Supposedly the Minorcan women brought the seeds with them to the new world.

Back to top

Ponce De Leon (Mosquito Inlet) Lighthouse, Ponce Inlet, Florida, 1887

Owned by Town of Ponce Inlet and managed by Ponce de Leon Lighthouse Preservation Society; beacon reactivated in 1983 by United States Coast Guard; listed on National Register of Historic Places.

This lighthouse, one of the tallest on the East Coast, is a complete light station, and has all its original buildings. It has undergone an excellent restoration and the buildings serve as one of the best lighthouse museums on the East Coast. A very highly visited site. The Preservation Society is very active. The museum has many resources, including lots of old photos and a visitors video on its history.

History of Station

Mosquito Inlet was known for its treachery as far back as 1565, when the French fleet of Jean Ribaut was wrecked there. The area was originally called Mosquito Inlet in 1569 because of the preponderance of those insects. The lighthouse name changed in 1926 to Ponce de Leon Inlet. The explorer Ponce de Leon was believed to have been there in 1513.

The first lighthouse, built in 1834, collapsed before it was ever lit. The oil lamps had not yet been delivered when in 1835, a storm undermined its foundation. Work to restore it was delayed because of hostile Seminole Indians. It took 50 years until the new tower was built.

The story of the construction of the present lighthouse includes one tragic note: Chief Engineer Major O.E. Babcock and four of his seven companions drowned in sight of spectators on the shore as they were approaching the lighthouse site on a construction visit in 1884.

The lighthouse is built of Baltimore red brick. The conical tower stands 175 feet tall, the second highest lighthouse on the East coast. It had a beautiful first-order lens that weighed 2,000 pounds. When it arrived from France, it had to be disassembled and carried up 203 steps to the top of the tower and reassembled in the lantern. (See Bibliography: Tom Taylor, Building the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, Keepers Log, Fall 1994) Curtains had to be drawn around the light in the daytime to prevent the prisms from cracking.

The U.S.S. Commodore sunk off this light in 1897 with author Stephen Crane on board. The Lighthouse Museum has a large exhibit on the Commodore through the end of 1997, including artifacts that were brought up from the Commodore and a video "Stephen Crane and the Commodore," chronicling Stephen Crane’s filibustering adventures, and the sinking of the tug-steamer, which led to his writing the famous short story "The Open Boat" set off Mosquito Inlet. When the Commodore sank, Crane and three companions spent 30 hours coming ashore in a 10-foot dinghy. The filibusters did illegal gun-running to help Cuban freedom-fighters in the Cuban Revolution against Spanish repression. The U.S.S. Maine was one of the U.S. Navy ships assigned to try to prevent these activities.

The lighthouse was deactivated in 1970, when a beacon at nearby New Smyrna Coast Guard Station made it redundant. It was taken over by the Preservation Society in 1972. However, in 1983, the building of a hi-rise condominium obscured the New Smyrna beacon. The Coast Guard then reactivated the beacon.

Included in the present day station and museum are:

  • - the entrance building, built in 1992 from blueprints drawn in 1883
  • - the lighthouse, where visitors can climb its 203 steps to the gallery
  • - the woodshed (video theater) and restored assistant keepers’ privy
  • - the boatyard, where historic vessels are displayed
  • - the second assistant keeper’s dwelling, now the Lighthouse Museum
  • - the principal keeper’s dwelling, now the Museum of the Sea
  • - the pump house
  • - generator/radio shack building, displaying tools, equipment and photos
  • - Lens Exhibit building, built in 1995, displays 6.4 ton first-order lens from Cape Canaveral Light, third-order lens from Ponce Inlet, and others
  • - USLHS Bell, that sank in Charleston Harbor, SC, and recovered in 1987
  • - Oil Storage House, with samples of small aids to navigation
  • - the first assistant keeper’s dwelling, restored and furnished to the turn of the century, named for Gladys Meyer Davis

Back to top

Key West Light Station, Key West, Florida, 1825 and 1847

Leased by Coast Guard to Monroe County; subleased and managed by Key West Arts and Historical Society.

17th Century ship captains called the Keys "Islas de las Martires" either referring to the twisted trees that looked like Christian Martyrs or to the many mariners who perished among the reefs.

One of the first four lighthouses commissioned in Florida, the story of Key West traces just about to the time Florida seceded from Spanish rule and became part of the U.S. in 1821. A Spaniard named Juan Pablo Salas sold the land to John Watson Simonton for $2,000. At that point, the Federal Government with Simonton’s encouragement, formally claimed the island and Lt. Matthew C. Perry planted the flag in 1822.

Because the Florida Keys were one of the most dangerous sea lanes 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. Wreckers were individuals who recovered the cargo from wrecked ships and sold it at auction. This was a legitimate business, but there were "mooncussers" who illegally tried to have ships crash, so they could profit. Simonton was a legitimate wrecker.

This was a flourishing business in the 1820s, when there were still no lighthouse beacons to warn ships to steer clear of the reefs. Many wreckers would auction their goods in the Bahamas or Cuba, but in 1825 Washington outlawed the transfer of these goods to foreign ports. This turned Key West into the auction house. In 1825, when Key West Lighthouse was built, $293,353 worth of salvaged goods were auctioned. The "wreckers" business peaked in the 1850s-60s, when more lighthouses were built along the reef and into the Gulf.

*Wrecking was a practice that flourished all along the Atlantic Coast. The term "mooncusser" was born because a moonlit night was bad for illegal salvaging. Nags Head received its name from wreckers who led ponies along the beach with lanterns tied around their bobbing heads to resemble the flashing light of a coastal lighthouse. Ships would steer clear of this warning and then end up crashing on a reef. Block Islanders would tie lanterns on poles or cows tails and march around buildings to create this effect. - (Ken Kochel p. 22)

History of the Tower

1825 -- First Key West Lighthouse built on Whiteheads Point -- stood 85 feet tall.

1846 -- Tower collapsed and Keeper "tragedy " occurred during an October 10, 1846, storm. This major unexpected storm cropped up after a sunny day in 1846 (no tv or radio weather forecasts in those days). Keeper Barbara Mabrity, a widowed mother who had been appointed keeper after the death of her husband, struggled to protect her children and 12 or so townspeople who sought refuge from the storm. Although the lighthouse was trembling miserably, she managed to climb to the lantern and tend the lights. As she was descending the stairs, the walls cracked. She ran, with oil lantern in hand, screaming for people to escape. Bricks and mortar created a cloud of dust so she could hardly see people. The lamp fell and started a fire. She found one child, whom she pulled out in time. However, as she turned to go back in the entire lighthouse collapsed, burying her seven other children and seven other people. (see Bibliography: DeWire, Guardians of the Lights, p. 123-4)

1847 -- Tower immediately rebuilt -- stood 60 feet tall.

1890 -- Tower improved with the addition of 20 feet of height.

1970 -- Coast Guard discontinued tower as an active aid -- it was considered too far inland -- (and it may be the furthest inland of any U.S. beacon, according to DeWire).

Present Day: The Key West Art and Historical Society undertook the restoration project and the light station has been restored to its 1900 appearance as the Key West Lighthouse Museum. It offers an excellent example of a complete light station with tower, keeper’s dwelling, oil house, and water cistern. It sits among picturesque pine trees. Visitors can climb 88 spirals stairs of tower for an excellent panoramic view of Key West. The interior keepers dwelling has been beautifully restored as a museum. Visitors can step inside a 12’ First-order lens that came from the Sombrero Key Lighthouse. There are hundreds of species of tropical plants on the ground.

Descendants of keepers: Mary Bethel lived in the lighthouse with her three children and served as lightkeeper from 1908, when she replaced her husband, until 1914.

Back to top

|| Geography || Lighthouses || Great Stories || In the Shadow... || Contact Sheet || Bibliography ||
|| Home || Lighthouses/Region || Photo Gallery || Video/Book Offer ||
|| Program Schedule || Series Information || PBS Online ||