The Currituck Beach Light Station:
As it had reported in previous years, the U.S. Light-House Board in 1872 stated that ships, cargoes, and lives continued to be lost along the 40 miles of dark coastline that lay beyond the reaches of existing lighthouses. Southbound ships sailing closer to shore to avoid the Gulf Stream were especially in danger. In response, construction began on the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in 1873 with completion two years later.
On December 1, 1875 the beacon of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse filled the remaining “dark space” on the North Carolina coast between the Cape Henry light to the north and Bodie Island to the south. To distinguish the Currituck Beach Lighthouse from other regional lighthouses, its exterior was left unpainted and gives today’s visitor a sense of the multitude of bricks used to form the structure. The lighthouse was automated in 1939 when the United States Coast Guard assumed the duties of the Bureau of Lighthouses. From a height of 158 feet above sea level, the night beacon still flashes at 20-second intervals to warn ships hugging the chain of barrier islands along the coast.
The Buildings and Grounds:
The Lighthouse Keepers’ House, a Victorian “stick style” dwelling, was constructed from pre-cut and labeled materials which were shipped by the U.S. Lighthouse Board on a barge and then assembled on site. In 1876, when the Keepers’ House was completed, two keepers and their families shared the duplex in the isolated seaside setting. The keepers were removed after the Lighthouse was automated and attendants were no longer needed to clean the lenses, trim the wicks, fuel the lamp, and wind the clockwork mechanism which rotated the beacon.
By the late 1970s, the Lighthouse Keepers’ House stood open to the elements with no windows or doors; porches had decayed and vines invaded the north side. Much of the interior millwork had been vandalized. Concerned about the preservation of the historic property, Outer Banks Conservationists, Inc., a private non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the character of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, signed a lease with the State of North Carolina in 1980 to begin a phased restoration of the property. The lease charged the group with the responsibility of restoring the Keepers’ House and improving the historic compound.
Today, the grounds and walkways are rejuvenated and the exterior of the Keepers’ House is nearly complete, but the phased restoration of the interior remains a considerable undertaking. Although plaster walls and pine floors have been repaired, vandalized wainscoting replaced, and the mahogany balustrades replicated, reproduction doors and hardware must be made and installed and interior finishes applied.
OBC worked with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to restore the smaller dwelling on the north side of the complex. This house was moved to the site in 1920 as a residence for a third keeper and his family. The structure is now open from Easter through Thanksgiving as a Museum Shop offering models of Outer Banks lighthouses, books, clothing and other lighthouse related items.
Other historic structures located within the lighthouse compound include an outhouse and a storage building. The two-hole privy has been repaired and the storage building with its four sharp finials has been restored and now serves as the lighthouse staff office. The two louvered structures flanking the Keepers’ House are cisterns which store rain water.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is known as a first order lighthouse, which means it has the largest of seven Fresnel lens sizes. The original source of light was lard oil burned in a lamp consisting of four concentric wicks. By 1884 the lighthouse was using Mineral Oil as its fuel source and would until 1933 when the light was electrified.
Before the advent of electricity, a mechanical means was required to rotate the huge lenses that made the light appear to flash. A system of weights suspended from a line powered a clockwork mechanism beneath the lantern–much like the workings of a grandfather clock. The keeper cranked the weights up by hand every two and a half hours.