For 148 years, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has kept ships clear of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In all that time the iconic striped structure has weathered untold storms, eroding beaches and a half-mile move inland.
But it’s never gone dark for as long as it has this winter.
The light atop the 198-foot lighthouse has been turned off for about a month now, the Outer Banks Voice reported, after January storms caused damage. With its vintage mechanism, parts have to be custom made.
“It’s almost like replacing a part on one of the most rare cars in the world,” Coast Guard spokesman Nathan Cox told the Virginian-Pilot. “They’re not available off the shelf.”
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Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials say the light itself still works, but an electrical problem keeps it from rotating. A similar problem occurred two years ago, when the light got stuck with its beam shining into nearby homes.
The lighthouse protects one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic coast, according to the National Park Service. Off Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream collides with the Virginia Drift, a branch of the Labrador Current from Canada. That pushes southbound ships onto a 12-mile sandbar, Diamond Shoals, where hundreds or thousands of ships have wrecked over the centuries.
The first lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was lit in 1803, but at 90 feet high was too short to warn sailors of the shoals. The structure was heightened, to 150 feet, in 1853. When that lighthouse needed repairs, Congress authorized money for the present one in the 1860s. It opened in 1870.
As waves gnawed at the beach where it stands, engineers carefully hoisted the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. onto rails in 1999 and moved it 2,900 feet inland.
The distinctive black and white striping belongs only to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Fresnel lens first installed in it was lit by kerosene, but was electrified in 1934. The 800,000-candlepower beacon now in place was installed in 1972.
Mariners these days have GPS. But while the light is out, the Coast Guard is sending a radio message two times a day to alert mariners that it is off, Cox told the Virginian-Pilot.
“That lighthouse,” he said, “is very unique.”