Above photo: Bodie Island Lighthouse. Courtesy National Park Service. Right: Hatteras Weather Station, one of three remaining weather stations of eleven built across the nation. Courtesy National Park Service.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
When most people think of Cape Hatteras today, they think of those historic lighthouses and those beaches stretching along the Atlantic Ocean, luring the tourist to the sand. But there's a lot more to the stretch of seashells along the sea here, just as there is at the other national seashores that stretch across the nation. There's Civil War history, a maritime past of shipwrecks and pirates, plus fishing, hiking, and boating. Hey, we're not trying to take away your fun here, we're trying to let you know that your fun has a historic past, and during a visit to the beach or a lighthouse or a visitor center, you just might learn a few historic items along the way. Then you're bound to get sandy.
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Cape Hatteras Then
The shoals and shores of Cape Hatteras have been a hazard for ships and their sailors for centuries with numerous hulls finding the bottom of the sea after crashing into the obstacles that rip down the Atlantic Ocean coast along this stretch of North Carolina. In 1837, the federal government decided that Bodie Island needed a light. One was built after ten years of negotiation and haggle, but it was poorly constructed, leaned after two years, and was abandoned in 1859. A second lighthouse was constructed that year, then blown up by Confederates in 1861 who didn't want Union ships to be able to use it. It took until 1871 for the current Bodie Lighthouse and nearby buildings to take shape. In 1953 it became part of the National Park Service property, but still serves as a beacon for sailors.
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse was built to navigate ships to avoid the twelve mile sandbar Diamond Shoals. Its first incarnation was completed in 1803, ninety feet tall when built with a sixty foot extension added in 1853. By 1871, a second lighthouse was lit and the first demolished. Still standing, the lighthouse is one hundred and ninety-eight feet tall, but it has been moved. Due to beach erosion, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the Keeper's Quarters, and other buildings were moved in 1999 and now are located two thousand nine hundred feet from its original location.
Navigating the Ocracoke Inlet has been a hazardous affair ever since its first shipwreck in 1585. The first light in the inlet was built in 1794. However, the channel moved and within twenty years that light was useless. The second tower, still there, was built in 1823 and stands at seventy-five feet in height.
During the Civil War, battles for the nation kept the coast off Cape Hatteras busy. The Battle of Hatteras Inlet occurred on August 28, 1861. Two forts had been constructed by Confederate troops; Fort Clark and Fort Hatteras. After seven Union ships began to bombard Fort Clark, causing Confederate troops to abandon and seek refuge in Fort Hatteras, the Federals then took aim on the second fort. Within hours, it surrendered, giving the Union its first victory of the war and a major morale boost to its cause.
The area would see fighting throughout the war, including the October 1861 Chicamacomico Races, a back and forth affair that proved fruitless in the end, and the Battle of Roanoke Island on February 7, 1862, which gained the Union a foothold in eastern North Carolina.
Photo above: U.S. frigate Wabash in a gale off Cape Hatteras in 1856. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: The sand and sea of Cape Hatteras. Courtesy National Park Service.
Cape Hatteras Now
Light Stations - Today three of the lighthouses remain to tell the stories of the past. Bodie Island Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse can be visited and climbed during the summer season, and Ocracoke Lighthouse can be viewed from outside. There's a museum that tells the story of the Outer Banks, and four visitor centers that show exhibits and assist with navigation of the fun kind. All three lights still function as beacons for navigation. Ocracoke Lighthouse is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the United States.
While the past saw the construction of lighthouses to protect mariners from the vagaries of the difficult coast, the remnants of those that did not fare well are littered along the shore. During some tides, you can see the remnants of the Laura Barnes, June 1, 1921, near Coquina Beach; the Lois Joyce, 1981, near Oregon Inlet; Oriental, a Federal Transport of Union soldiers and supplies, May 16, 1862, near Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge; and the G.A. Kohler, August 23, 1933, four miles south of Salvo. Beach and water fun. With an Off Road Vehicle permit, you can ply the sand in designated areas. With your feet and desire, you can walk, fish, and swim along the seventy miles of shoreline.
T-Shirts and Souvenirs
Cape Hatteras National Seashore T-Shirts and other history souvenirs from the official merchandise of America's Best History.
Things You Should Not Miss
1. If you're able, take a lighthouse climb. Both the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse are treats to climb and gander at the coast. There's two hundred fifty seven steps at Cape Hatteras light and two hundred steps at Bodie, so be aware that it is strenuous and should only be taken by those capable. They are self-guided tours and do require a ticket.
2. Take a walk on the beach. It's only seventy miles from tip to shore and if you're into getting off the sand onto other tails, there are three designated trails at Cape Hatteras National Seashore as well. Buxton Hills and Hammock Hills (Ocracoke) are short 3/4 mile trails. The longer 4.5 mile trail, Open Ponds, goes from Buxton Hills to Frisco.
3. Head to the sound. Pamlico Sound is the second most famous waterway within Cape Hatteras. It's a great place to crab, fish, kayak, and canoe.
4. Take some time to lay on the beach and wade in the water. There are three lifeguarded beaches at Cape Hatteras; Bodie Island's Coquina Beach, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Beach, and Oracoke Day Use Beach. Take care when you're in the water there, or at the other beaches which are not lifeguarded. The Atlantic Ocean, or any body of water, has many hazards, including rip tides, sharks, and jellyfish. Take care so that your visit can remain safe and fun.
Photo above: Historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. Over two hundred fifty steps and twelve stories tall. Courtesy National Park Service.