Ocracoke’s 75’ tall white tower with a steady beam is the island’s most recognizable landmark. Built in 1823 by Noah Porter of Massachusetts for $11,359.35 (this included the one-story keeper’s quarters), the Ocracoke Lighthouse is actually one of several lights that have guided mariners through the often-treacherous Ocracoke Inlet and surrounding shallow waters.

In 1715 the North Carolina colonial assembly passed an act to settle and maintain pilots at Ocracoke Inlet. Knowledgeable locals familiar with the shallow Pamlico Sound and the ever-shifting channels, shoals, and sandbars were necessary to protect shipping interests to and from mainland North Carolina ports.

Because pirate captain Edward Teach and numerous other buccaneers had made Ocracoke Island a haven for outlaw sailors, few law-abiding colonists were brave enough to settle on this remote and isolated spit of sand in the early eighteenth century. For decades ship captains sailed through Ocracoke Inlet and across Pamlico Sound as best they could, without help from local pilots.

No one knows for sure when the first Europeans permanently settled on the island. However, Ocracoke was considered a town by 1753, and virtually all of the original male residents were pilots.

In 1789 the North Carolina General Assembly, recognizing that even more needed to be done to help ensure mariners’ safety in the vicinity of Ocracoke Inlet, passed legislation to erect a lighthouse on Ocracoke. On September 30, 1790, five islanders (William Williams, John Williams, Joseph Williams, William Howard, Jr., and Henry Garrish) deeded a one-acre parcel of land to North Carolina for the purpose of erecting a lighthouse.

Because of the concerns of local pilots and merchants, as well as owners and captains of vessels that used Ocracoke Inlet, authorities decided that the lighthouse should instead be built on nearby Shell Castle Rock, just inside Ocracoke Inlet. This relatively stable 25-acre island of oyster shells was developed in 1789 by John Blount and John Wallace. At one time as many as 40 people lived and worked there, among docks, warehouses, at least one small store, modest homes, and even a wind-powered grist mill.

Congress authorized this first beacon in 1794, but it was not illuminated until 1803. According to a deed from J.G. Blount and John Wallace of February 7, 1795 for “land necessary for a lighted beacon on Shell Castle Island” it was stipulated that “no goods should be stored, no tavern be kept, no spirits be retailed, no merchandise be carried on, and that no person should reside on, or make it a stand to pilot or lighter vessels” on the land set aside for this lighthouse.

The lighthouse was a 55’ wooden, pyramid-shaped tower covered with cedar shingles and erected on a sturdy stone foundation. Atop the tower was a six-foot lantern and a three-foot dome. The builder of this lighthouse was Henry Dearborn, who also built the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Light was provided by one large whale oil lamp with four wicks.

The lighthouse is shown on an 1805-1810 pitcher (on display at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh) bearing an image of Shell Castle. This is the earliest known image of a North Carolina lighthouse, and the only surviving depiction of this early nineteenth century beacon and the business complex on Shell Castle Island.

Almost immediately after it was completed the Shell Castle Light was made ineffective for navigation due to the ever-changing channels and shoals. By 1806 the channel had moved so far that the lighthouse was almost totally useless. Construction of a new tower was authorized. On August 16, 1818, lightning claimed the original structure and the keeper’s quarters before a new tower could be built.

Not quite two years later, on May 15, 1820, funds were appropriated to station a light ship in Ocracoke Inlet. This proved inadequate for its purposes, and after two more years $20,000 was approved for the construction of the present Ocracoke Lighthouse. Jacob Gaskill, Justice of the Peace, sold the two-acre parcel of land for the lighthouse to the government for fifty dollars on December 5, 1822.

The 1823 Ocracoke Lighthouse stands 75 feet tall and tapers from a diameter of 25 feet at the base to 12 feet at the top. The tower’s solid brick walls are five feet thick at the bottom and two feet thick at the top. Although designed by Winslow Lewis, a New England sea captain, engineer, and inventor, actual construction was awarded to Noah Porter of Massachusetts, considered by most to be a much more competent builder. A counterclockwise wooden spiral staircase rose from the ground floor of the structure to within six feet of the lantern room floor. It was supported by a hollow central column and affixed to the inner brick wall. Landings were constructed adjacent to three of the lighthouse’s six windows. An iron ladder, with 2 ½” steps, led from the top of the stairs to the scuttle (hatch) in the lantern room floor.

The original lantern room for the Ocracoke lighthouse was of the “birdcage” design. The 1822 construction contract specified that “on the top of the tower” was to be placed “an iron lantern of an octagon form…. The height and diameter of the lantern to be sufficient to admit an iron sash in each octagon, to contain twenty one lights of fourteen by twelve glass, the lower tier to be filled with copper….”

The illuminating apparatus consisted of fifteen Argand lamps and an equal number of parabolic reflectors and glass magnifying lenses. Whale oil was the fuel. This arrangement was the creation of Winslow Lewis.

The drawing above, of a Winslow Lewis apparatus, shows the Argand Lamp in the center. The Argand Lamp (invented by Swiss-born physicist Aime Argand in 1782) used a circular wick placed between two thin concentric brass tubes, and enclosed within a glass chimney. To the right is the thin, silver-plated copper reflector. On the left is the lens. A reservoir to hold the oil is situated behind the reflector.

John Blount (1752-1833) described the new Ocracoke beacon soon after it was put in service. He wrote, “At the entrance, on Ocracoke Island, a lighthouse is erected, exhibiting a revolving light, which you leave on your starboard hand entering the inlet. The time of each revolution is two minutes. It is elevated 75 feet above the water.” Although today there is no clear evidence of the clockwork mechanism that powered the revolving light, it is presumed that the hollow central column that supported the staircase provided space for the necessary weights and chains.

In a letter dated December 18, 1830, and published in 1832 by the Ocracoke District Collector’s Office, the reason for the Ocracoke light is made perfectly clear: “Its object is not to guide vessels into the harbor [this refers to the deeper waters of Teach’s Hole, not to Silver Lake Harbor) as no one can enter at night, but to give warning to mariners when off the Inlet, or to prevent vessels bound in from passing the bar at night.”

Unfortunately, Lewis’ parabolic reflectors tended to warp, resulting in a spherical shape. And the lenses were quickly covered with soot, greatly reducing the luminosity. In 1849 ten new lamps and twenty-one reflectors replaced the original apparatus, but problems remained.

In 1853 the United States Lighthouse Bureau decided to replace the inferior Lewis apparatus with a new lamp and a fourth-order Fresnel lens, a technological leap in lighthouse lighting. Augustin Fresnel, a Frenchman, had invented his new lens in 1822, but the Lighthouse Board had resisted making changes to US lighthouses. The much more efficient Fresnel lens, a marvelous array of precisely arranged hand-cut glass prisms and bull’s-eyes, was installed in 1854. The light was concentrated into parallel rays that produced a much brighter beam from a single light source. The Ocracoke light was now equal to 8,000 candlepower and was visible 14 miles to sea.

The Fresnel lens was manufactured by L. Sautter et Cie of Paris, France.

At the same time, Thorton A. Jenkins, Secretary of the Lighthouse Board, announced that the “present revolving light at Ocracoke, about 23 1/2 nautical miles to the southward and westward of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, will be changed to a — Fixed White Light, with a focal plane 75 feet above the level of the sea….” The original birdcage lantern room was removed, and replaced with a prefabricated lantern room manufactured by Hayward, Bartlett & Co. of Baltimore, Maryland, with twelve alternating trapezoidal glass panes. In order to make room for the scuttle in the floor, the new smaller lantern room was positioned slightly off-center.

A Coates-type lamp (known as a Franklin lamp) replaced the old valve lamp in 1899. A new Fresnel lens was installed soon thereafter.

The bronze base of the Fresnel lens, which is still in use today, is embossed with the name of the manufacturer: F. BARBIER & Cie. Constructeurs PARIS – 1890. The base for the lens was supplied with built-in wheels to allow for rotation of the lens, but because the Ocracoke light was now fixed, the base was retrofitted to remain stationary.

Over the next decades several different fuels were used. In 1867 lard took the place of whale oil; and eleven years later the much more economical kerosene replaced lard. Finally, in 1929, the beacon’s oil lamp was replaced by an incandescent bulb.

The present-day 250 watt quartz-halogen marine bulb is barely larger than the last two joints of a little finger. Four identical bulbs rest at ninety degree angles in a sophisticated lampchanger that automatically rotates to a new position when the top active bulb burns out. The lamp is activated by a light sensor and can be monitored remotely. A backup generator helps ensure a steady beam under virtually any conditions.

There are six sizes, or orders, of Fresnel lenses. Ocracoke’s Fresnel lens is fourth-order. Sixth-order lenses are the weakest, and are generally used on lakes and harbors. First-order lenses are the strongest, and are used along the most treacherous coasts.

From 1853 to 1861 another lighthouse operated on nearby Beacon Island, just a short distance from Ocracoke, in Pamlico Sound. This beacon was 39 feet high. By 1857 it was considered useless, again due to the shifting channels. The same fate befell a new lightship that was installed near Ocracoke Inlet at about the same time.

 

Following is a list of all keepers of Ocracoke Lighthouse:

  • Joshua Taylor (or Tayloe), 1823-1829 (his title was Collector [of Customs] & Superintendent of Lighthouse)
  • Anson Harker, 1829-1846 (first person of record listed as Keeper; Joshua Taylor is listed as Superintendent)
  • John Harker, 1847-1853 (probably Anson Harker’s son)
  • Thomas Styron, 1853-1860
  • William J. Gaskill, 1860-1862
  •  Enoch Ellis Howard 1862-1897 (the longest serving Keeper; he died in office)
  •  J. Wilson Gillikin 1897-1898
  • Tillman F. Smith 1898-1910
  • A.B. Hooper 1910-1912
  • Leon Wesley Austin 1912-1929
  • Joseph Merritt Burrus 1929-1946 (the last keeper to serve under the US Lighthouse Service)
  • Clyde Farrow 1946-1954 (Ocracoke’s last lighthouse keeper, after the Lighthouse Service was merged with the US Coast Guard)

More information and photos from inside the lighthouse are available here: https://www.ocracokenavigator.com/ocracoke-lighthouse/#photospheres.

For descriptions and photos of various lighthouse lamps, regulators, and burners see http://uslhs.org/sites/default/files/assets/resources/Lighthouse%20Related%20Patent%20Models.pdf.

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The most recognizable symbol of Ocracoke Island is the lighthouse.  This simple 75 foot tall white tower with a steady beam has been guiding mariners for one hundred and eighty-four years.

Built in 1823 at a cost of $11,359.35, the lighthouse continues to inspire seafarers, islanders, casual visitors, artists, and photographers.

In August, 2004 I published a basic history of the Ocracoke lighthouse on this web site.  You can read it here.

Captain Joseph Merrit Burrus was appointed lighthouse keeper in 1929, the same year that the beacon was electrified. The light was automated in 1954, eight years after he retired. At that time Clyde Farrow, Ocracoke’s last lighthouse keeper, was transferred to Washington, NC.

Capt. Joe Burrus on the Lighthouse Balcony:

Captain Joe, as he was frequently called, came to Ocracoke from Hatteras.  His wife, Eleanor, affectionately called “Miss El,” was born on Hatteras as well. Captain Joe retired in 1946, after serving forty-three years with the US Lighthouse Service, his last sixteen years at Ocracoke.

During his long career in both Virginia and North Carolina Captain Joe served at Tangier, Virginia; Thimble Shoal, Virginia; Diamond Shoal Lightship, NC; Cape Lookout, NC; Croatan, NC; Cape Hatteras, NC; Oliver’s Reef, NC; Bluff Shoal, NC; and Ocracoke.

During the severe winter of 1917-1918 much of Pamlico Sound was frozen solid.  Joe Burrus was stationed at that time on the old screw-pile lighthouse at Bluff Shoal, about seven and one half miles from Ocracoke.  According to old timers the cold lasted so long that for several weeks no supply boats could reach the light station on Bluff Shoal.  Eventually Captain Joe ventured out onto the ice and walked quite a distance.  Whether he was attempting to walk all the way to dry land, or just trying to relieve the boredom, is uncertain.  At any rate he turned back and remained at the lighthouse until the weather broke and food and supplies were finally delivered to him.

When the supply boat eventually made contact with Captain Joe the seaman reported that the lighthouse keeper had run out of food.  Of much more concern to Captain Burrus, however, was the fact that he had used up his supply of chewing tobacco.  Maybe that’s what he was after when he stepped out onto the ice that cold winter day.

By all accounts Captain Joe was a likeable, entertaining, and humorous Outer Banker.  Aycock Brown, in his November, 1941 issue of the Ocracoke Island Beacon reports that “Captain Burrus is a Republican (he likes to tell people that he is the only “out and out” GOP man on the island), but among his best friends are Congressman Bonner, Comptroller General Warren and others, all outstanding Democrats.”

According to Brown, “Capt. Burrus is a Hatterasman, but on the beach road at Ocracoke he has built a beautiful cottage where he will live with Mrs. Burrus and family after he retires.”

Captain Joe retired from the lighthouse service in 1946.  He lived in his new cottage until he died eight years later.  Captain Joe’s son, Oscar, inherited the house, and later Oscar’s daughter acquired it.  In the 1970s Ann Ehringhaus purchased the house and opened Oscar’s House Bed & Breakfast.  Ann claims that she still occasionally hears Captain Joe walking from room to room upstairs, especially on dark, cold winter nights when Ann is alone in the downstairs parlor.

Recently I discovered an Ocracoke story recounted by B.A. Botkin in his 1957 long-titled book, A Treasury of American Anecdotes, Sly, Salty, Shaggy Stories of Heroes and Hellions, Beguilers and Buffoons, Spellbinders and Scapegoats, Gagsters and Gossips, from the Grassroots & Sidewalks of America.

On page 62 Botkin tells the story he calls The Greatest Tobacco Chewer on Ocracoke Island.  When I discovered the reference to this story on the internet I knew I must find the book and read the entire story.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Botkin’s tale is an only slightly different version of a story about Captain Joe that I had heard from one of the island’s old time storytellers (although Botkin identifies his character as “Old Marty” this story is actually about Joe Burrus).

It seems that Miss El, or so it was told, chanced to look out her back doorway and noticed Captain Joe walking through the yard dragging something behind him attached to a string.  She wondered what he was up to when she realized that he was turning the corner into the side yard.  She walked into the parlor and opened the front door.  Here came Joe dragging that object behind him.  Next thing she knew he was again in the back yard.

When he rounded the corner into the front yard once more Miss El called out to him.  “What in the devil are you up to, Joe, traipsing around the yard hauling that old piece of string behind you?  The neighbors will think you’ve gone off your rocker.”

“El,” Captain Joe, replied, “I’ve lost my chewin’ tobaccy.  So I’ve decided to tie my false teeth to this here string and drag them through the yard.  If that tobaccy is anywhere in the vicinity these teeth will latch onto it, sure as my name is Joe Burrus.”

 


As a footnote, I am including several interior photos of the lighthouse, courtesy of islander, Dale Mutro.

At the top of the spiral staircase is a ladder, about 7 or 8 feet tall that leads to this hatch, the only access into the lantern.

The fourth order fresnel lens originally enclosed an oil lamp.  It is now electrified.

This four-bulb lamp changer operates automatically.  When the upright 250 watt bulb burns out the changer rotates 90 degrees and another bulb is turned on.

The only access to the outside balcony is a 3 foot tall door.  The iron railing is visible behind the man crawling through the doorway.

Perhaps you can imagine why the Ocracoke lighthouse is not open to the general public.  In addition to being almost two hundred years old, the small lantern, ladder, hatch, and 3 foot door do not lend themselves to visitors.

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