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Think Lighthouses

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, August 2, 2004

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North Carolina has an ongoing love affair with its lighthouses.

You will see photos, paintings, and models in homes, offices, and front yards in every region of our state. Calendars and special issues of magazines and newspapers feed our seemingly insatiable appetite to look at them and their surroundings from different angles.

August 7 is National Lighthouse Day.

Churches, restaurants, food stores, and art galleries all over the state claim the lighthouse name and adopt lighthouse models as their logos.

Sometimes, as in Currituck County, people who go to church with each other on Sundays fight like the devil over who should own and control their lighthouse. A few years ago, the state split into warring factions about whether the Hatteras Lighthouse should preserved by building bulkheads around it or by moving it.

These are our monuments to our connection to the sea. Our adoration for them borders on worship.

So why don't we have some kind of holiday to honor and celebrate them?

Guess what. We do. August 7 is National Lighthouse Day. It recognizes that on the same day 215 years ago, by act of the first U.S. Congress, the Federal Government took responsibility for building and operating the nation's lighthouses.

There probably will not be a parade in your town. The post offices and the banks will stay open. But there will be special events at some of the lighthouse sites. For instance, at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, some lucky people who made reservations well in advance will be allowed to climb to the top of the light - a privilege the National Park Service gives only on rare occasions.

Another way for North Carolina lighthouse lovers to celebrate is to take a look at the latest book on the topic. Its authors, Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts, co-founded the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society in 1994. Since then, they have concentrated their professional and civic efforts on research, spreading the word, and mobilizing support.

Bruce Roberts has been photographing North Carolina places and people for many years. His "The Face of North Carolina" published in 1962 is a favorite in my collection of books about our state. Roberts' stunning photographs (together with great ones from other photographers) fill their new book. He captures the lighthouses and surrounding scenes with lights and angles that give his work the quality of a master painter.

Amongst the photos, the authors' text describes the place in history of each of the seven remaining big lighthouses on our coast, including new information from their research.

They begin their book on North Carolina's southern coast where the Cape Fear River flows into the sea. On the south side of the river, the Oak Island Lighthouse flashes a light that can be seen 24 miles away. It is our newest lighthouse, built in 1958. Across the river on Bald Head Island is our oldest, Old Baldy, built in 1817-1818.

Up the coast, at Cape Lookout is our oldest "active" lighthouse, built in 1859, under the supervision of William Henry Chase Whiting of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As a Confederate general, Whiting oversaw the defense of Fort Fisher, was captured when it fell to Federal troops, and died as a prisoner of war. The black and white diamond paint pattern at Cape Lookout helps guide sailors during the day. The black diamonds point north-south; the white ones, east-west.

The Robertses tell much more, including new information about the lighthouses at Ocracoke, Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Currituck.

For each of the seven, the new book gives us an almost two-feet high photo that shows the height and majesty of the lighthouse.

Another treasure is a satellite photo marked to show the hazardous shoals and inlets that made the guidance from the lighthouses so important.

Modern navigation equipment may have made the lighthouses less important for the safety of the sailing lanes. But their importance in the hearts of North Carolinians is not subsiding. As long as that is the case, good lighthouse books, like the ones the Robertses have just given us, will always be welcome.

And, someday, maybe we will even have a parade on August 7.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home
cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through
Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of
UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This
week's (August 8) guest is Lynn York, author of The Piano Teacher.

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