by Ellen Fulcher Cloud, from her book, Ocracoke Lighthouse, 1993, Chapter 6.

The Ocracoke Lighthouse and the structures within the compound were on the National Register of Historical Places long before the Village of Ocracoke became an Historical District. Approximately thirty-two thousand people visit this historical station annually. It is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), which is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the lighthouse. The keeper’s quarters are used by the National Park Service, which has the responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep in accordance with the terms of a written agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1987 the National Park Service (NPS) determined that the keeper’s quarters needed major rehabilitation, and by 1990 had expended $278,000 to rehabilitate the interior of the structure.

During this time several inspections were made of the lighthouse and it was found in need of immediate preservation work to stabilize its deteriorating condition. As a result of a Bicentennial Lighthouse Grant of seventeen thousand dollars, the NPS initiated an“Historic Structures Report” to assess the structure’s condition, document historic fabric, and develop a scope of work.

Near the Lighthouse is a small generator house, which holds the generator that keeps the lighthouse in operation when there is a power outage. Because Ocracoke gets its power from Virginia, the island is often with electricity; if anything happens anywhere down the line, we who are at the end of the line lose power. The lighthouse has continued to glow with or without power for 165 years until 1988, when the tired, worn out generator ceased to work. The U.S. Coast Guard decided not to replace it, as it would be less costly to install battery driven navigational lights on the hand rails that encircled the lamp of the tower. This was done by drilling holes through the structure base, through which cables could be run that would operate the lights by batteries. Not only was it unsightly, it added seriously to the weakening of the structure.

The presence of the light from Ocracoke Lighthouse had given the residents of Ocracoke, as well as captains of ships off shore, a feeling of security that even we were unaware of until the first power outage. None of us realized that, when an outage occurred, our first reaction was to immediately look in the direction of the lighthouse. A feeling of desertion and insecurity must have swept the island, for the power outage was a topic of the next day’s conversation. The two small battery operated lights that had been installed on the rail were on and the lighthouse was in darkness. The sight was viewed with anger and disbelief.

In February of 1989 a contract was put in operation to paint the lighthouse and repair the windows and door. The old wood-clad windows were removed and vinyl Anderson windows with snap-in muntins (which are in violation of the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for historic structures) were installed.

Upon learning of this, I contacted two friends, who joined me, and promptly took action, demanding that the contractor cease work. The contractor disregarded our demands, but we were able to make a quick inspection of the work being done.

Not only were the windows a violation by style and material, but they were not large enough for opening in the structure! The openings had been framed up with 4×4 material to make the windows adaptable. Inquiring about the old windows, we learned that they were to be sent to Portsmouth, Virginia, to be destroyed and were at this time inside the ground level of the lighthouse.

We left the premises in order to make some phone calls and inform the proper authorities. We talked to the U.S. Coast Guard, National Park Service, State Historical Preservation Society, and Congressman Walter P. Jones office. All agreed that these acts were in violation of Section 106 of the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966.

In one of those phone calls, I was made aware of a letter dated May 27, 1987, two years prior, from the Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh, North Carolina, to the United States Coast Guard in Portsmouth, Virginia, part of which follows:

“We seriously question the need to replace all windows and frames as specified in Section 8G. Our photographs of Ocracoke Lighthouse indicate that the existing wood windows and frames are in fair-to-good condition. The total replacement of all window frames and sash with the new vinyl-clad or aluminum-clad units with snap-in muntins would be in violation of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for use in either the door or windows of the Ocracoke Lighthouse.

“We recommend that each existing window frame and sash be carefully inspected for its condition. Any deteriorated elements of the window frames, such as sills, stops, jams, and lintels should be repaired or replaced to match the existing detailing. All sash which are in sound condition should be repaired and glazed as needed. Frames or sash which are too deteriorated to be repaired should be replaced with new frames or sash which have been milled or fabricated to match the existing ones. Any new replacement sash should be of true six-light construction, and identical to the existing sash. Snap-in muntins are not acceptable.”

Realizing that the workmen at the lighthouse at that very moment were in direct violation of all official instructions for the project and that we had confirmation of this fact, we returned to the lighthouse to inspect the windows which had been removed from the structure. Upon arrival we found the door of the lighthouse had been secured by twisting wire around the latch. With much protest from the contractor, we opened the door and found the windows to be in excellent condition. We proceeded to take the windows to our vehicle in order to hold them for safe keeping, ignoring the demands of the contractor to put them back.

Realizing, as we drove off, the seriousness of removing federal property without permission, we decided to call all authorities, both state and federal, to inform them of our act and demand they take action at once to render support and cease the destruction of this historical structure.

By late afternoon a meeting had been arranged for the following Wednesday with the National Park Service, our Hyde County Commissioner, and several U.S.C.G. Officers, including Commander Malrose and Lt. McCaffrey, both of Cleveland Ohio, who had the contract with the civilian contractor. I had several conversations earlier in the day with Malrose or McCaffrey. I felt they were neither cooperative nor courteous; on two occasions they refused to take my calls.

At the meeting, Commander Malrose and Lt. McCaffrey, who had flown in from Cleveland, heard our complaints and were informed of the seriousness of disregarding the regulations for compliance with Section 106 of the Advisory Council. This law was clearly explained by a specialist on restoration of historical structures at this meeting.

After hearing our complaints, Commander Malrose agreed to have windows milled like the old ones to replace the vinyl ones and to purchase a generator and remove the lights on the rail.

In April of the following year, after seeing no activity that would make the situation right, I called Commander Malrose, who denied making such agreements. He said he planned to do nothing until the summer of 1990. He was told that we wanted the lights removed before August 7th, which had been designated as National lighthouse Day, and that we could live with the windows until after that date. His reply was short and to the point, saying; “I wish you luck. I have no plans for the near future to do any of this work.”

I called Congressman Jone’s office, and talked with Mr. Floyd Lupton, who said he would get right on it. At 5:30pm Mr. Lupton called me back to inform me that a generator would be purchased and shipped that day. The battery-operated lights would be off before August 7th. He stated that the windows would take longer because they had to be milled.

As promised by Congressman Jone’s office, the generator was replace and the lights removed from the rail, though not in time for the August 7th celebration, for the generator house had to be restored. The old original windows have now been reworked and are back in place within the structure. The National Park service is to be given credit for this, for it was their restoration department that restored the windows, but I must add that the United States Coast Guard paid the bill.

This act was a startling realization of the importance of getting the lighthouse place under the control of the National Park Service. Several contacts have been made in an attempt to achieve this goal. The Coast Guard is anxious to transfer the structure to the National Park, but they must retain ownership of the light or lens at the top, since all aids to navigation are their responsibility. The National Park wants the ownership of the structure but must wait and go through all the government red tape necessary for such a transfer.

I in no way mean to criticize the U.S. Coast Guard, for they play a most important part in the lives of all the Bankers. They risk their lives every day in order to save others. Most of the male population of Ocracoke has served in or been a part of the Coast Guard or Life Saving Service, or in some way been helped by the service. It is a branch of the military service that we hold in great admiration and pride.

The Coast Guard’s responsibility is to save lives and not historical structures. It is for this reason we recommend the lighthouse be placed under the control of the National Park, whose main priority is the restoration of such structures.

As of this printing [1993] the U.S. Coast Guard and Cape Hatteras National Seashore are still negotiating the possible transfer of title of this, the oldest lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.


Ocracoke’s 75′ tall white tower with a steady beacon is the island’s most prominent landmark. Built in 1823 by Noah Porter of Massachusetts for $11,359.35 (this included the keeper’s quarters), the Ocracoke lighthouse is actually the third structure to guide mariners through the often treacherous Ocracoke Inlet.

Historic Ocracoke Lighthouse:

In 1715 the North Carolina colonial assembly passed an act to settle and maintain pilots at Ocracoke Inlet. Knowledgeable local pilots 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.

In 1789 the North Carolina General Assembly, recognizing that even more needed to be done to help insure mariners’ safety, passed an act to erect a lighthouse on Ocracoke Island.

Because of the concerns of local pilots and merchants, as well as owners and captains of vessels that used Ocracoke Inlet, the lighthouse was, instead, 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, a grist mill, at least one small store, modest homes, and even a windmill.

Congress authorized this first beacon in 1794, and it was completed and illuminated in 1798. The lighthouse was a 55′ wooden, pyramid-shaped tower covered with cedar shingles, and mounted on a substantial 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 NC 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 1798 beacon and the business complex on Shell Castle Island.  Photographs of the pitcher can be seen here.

Almost immediately after it was completed, however, 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 one 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 $20,000.00 was approved for the construction of the present Ocracoke lighthouse. Jacob Gaskill, Justice of the Peace, sold the 2 acre parcel of land for the lighthouse to the government for fifty dollars.

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 12 feet thick at the bottom and two feet thick at the top. An octagonal lantern housing the light sits atop the historic structure.

When first built, the lighthouse utilized a system of silvered reflectors to magnify the flame from a whale oil lamp. In 1854 a newly introduced Fresnel lens replaced the old system. Augustin Fresnel, a frenchman, had invented a marvelous array of hand-cut glass prisms and bulls-eye lenses in 1822. The new lens magnified and intensified the light so that it was now equal to 8,000 candlepower and was visible 14 miles to sea.  Later the oil lamp was replaced by a 100 watt incandescent bulb.

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

According to island native, Ellen Marie Cloud, no one seems to know who the first of Ocracoke’s lighthouse keepers were. Records do not begin until 1847. Keepers were appointed regularly until 1946 when the light was fully automated.

Following is a list of known lighthouse keepers:

John Harker, 1847-1853

Thomas Styron, 1853-1860

William J. Gaskill, 1860-1862

Enoch Ellis Howard 1862-1897 (he died in office)

J. Wilson Gillikin 1897-1898

Tillman F. Smith 1898-1910

A.B. Hooper 1910-1912

Wesley Austin 1912-1929

Joe Burrus 1929-1946

Clyde Farrow 1946-1954

Ocracoke lighthouse is the oldest North Carolina lighthouse still in continuous service.

Ocracoke Lighthouse after a Snowstorm:

lighthouse snow

It is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the U.S. The beacon still in use at Sandy Hook, New Jersey is the oldest, built in 1764. The Sambro lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada, built in 1760, is the oldest operating lighthouse in North America.

Thanks to Ranger Gail Fox, the base of the Ocracoke lighthouse will be open to the public this summer on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 1 pm to 4 pm.

Inside View of Lighthouse from Ground Level:
Inside Lighthouse

Because of the narrow, nearly vertical ladder that leads into the lantern; the small confined space around the light and lens; the fragile brick walls and spiral staircase; as well as other architectural features, the lighthouse is not open to the public for climbing.

For more information about the Ocracoke Lighthouse see the following references:

Ocracoke Lighthouse by Ellen Marie Fulcher Cloud

Ocracokers by Alton Ballance

The Story of Ocracoke edited by Calvin O’Neal, Alice Rondthaler, & Anita Fletcher



Happy Holidays to all of our friends!

Ocracoke Lighthouse in a Winter Snow, 2002
Ocracoke Lighthouse Snow

As the depth of winter envelopes us we often come together with family and friends to pass through this season of long nights with meaningful rituals.

On Ocracoke, as elsewhere, many folks decorate their homes with lights and greens.

Ocracoke Christmas Decorations
Sue O'Niel's House

The Ocracoke Preservation Society hosted its annual Tree Lighting & Wassail Party on Friday, December 13.  The term “wassail” comes from the Old Norse language meaning “to be well or healthy.”  Today it refers to a traditional English toast to someone’s health, as well as to a hot drink made with cider, spices, and sugar.  Wassail is traditionally served in a large punch bowl during the Christmas season.  Although “wassail” can refer to riotous drinking and revelry, Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) normally hosts a rather mild gathering.

On Saturday, December 14, OPS also sponsored the second annual Historic District House Tour.  Eight homes were represented and over two hundred residents and visitors walked, biked, or drove through the village for an opportunity to view some of Ocracoke’s historic structures.

Later that evening, Jimmy & Linda Jackson and Jamie Jackson opened up their garage for another community Christmas party & pot luck dinner. Several hundred residents were there to share food, drink, stories, music and dance.

Tables filled with food line the garage

Paula visits with David as he readies his fiddle
David and Paula

A friend makes a special guest appearance

Several of us also gathered on December 22 for our second annual solstice pot luck dinner.

As we now know, of course, the earth is actually nearer the sun in January than it is in June — by three million miles.

The seasons of our year, therefore, are caused not  by the proximity of the earth to the sun, but by the 23.5º tilt of the earth’s axis. The angle of the earth’s rays to the surface of the earth varies based on how far the surface is tilted toward or away from the sun. 

At 8:14 pm EST, December 22, 2002, the northern hemisphere of the earth was tilted furthest away from the perpendicular angle.  This is the winter solstice — the first day of winter, when the sun appears lowest in the sky and night time hours are maximum.  The tilt also causes the seasons to be reversed in the southern hemisphere.

We continued last year’s tradition of crowning Ocracoke’s Monarch of the Winter Solstice.  Last year we followed a medieval tradition and baked a bean in a holiday cake.  Pat Tweedie, mother of Molasses Creek’s fiddler Dave, found the bean in her dessert and was crowned Queen in 2001.  This year we drew lots and Blanche Howard Jolliff was honored with a throne, a staff, a royal robe and a star-studded crown.

Blanche, Queen of the Solstice, 2002
Solstice Queen

In other news, the Ocracoke Assembly of God church held their annual Christmas program on Sunday, December 22.  The Methodist church hosted a live nativity on the church lawn this holiday, and conducted a traditional Christmas eve candlelight service.  Christmas caroling, again this year, was a joint venture of the Methodist and Assembly churches.  Caroling was on December 20.

Of course, the days will now be gradually lengthening, the sun will be rising higher and higher into the sky each day, and within a few months we will be looking for the first robins and the early signs of new growth.

All of us at Village Craftsmen join me in wishing you and yours the happiest of wintertime holidays and the very best in the coming new year.

Hoping to see you again soon,

Philip, Dallie, Jude, Amy, Mary and Leon