See coast in a different light

Although painted gray, white and black, the Oak Island Lighthouse in some respects can be described as the “red-headed stepchild” of N.C. beacons. It is one of seven beacons along the coast – but Oak Island differs from the others in several ways. The others were built in the 19th century, but the Oak Island sentinel was built in 1958 – it's a newcomer. It's made of concrete, rather than brick, and it looks noticeably different than its sister beacons: It does not taper as it goes up. In spite of all these differences, or perhaps because of them, a trip to the top of the Oak Island Lighthouse is a fun pastime on a visit to the Brunswick County islands or the greater Wilmington area.


Oak Island is approximately 225 miles from Charlotte. Plan on a 41/4-hour drive, one way.

Getting there

Take U.S. 74 East to Belville (just west of Wilmington), then N.C. 133 South to Oak Island. Follow the signs to the lighthouse.

To see and do

A “Climb to the Top” tour is offered year-round, by appointment only. Several restrictions apply for good reason. Unlike the beacons at Hatteras, Currituck and Cape Lookout, the Oak Island Lighthouse does not have a spiral staircase that winds around its interior walls. Instead, nine ship's ladders, with a total of 131 steps, provide access to the gallery level at the top. That's why – among other restrictions – visitors are required to have both hands free to hold on to the ladder and must also wear closed-toe footwear.

The structure itself is quite interesting. The actual height of the tower is 153 feet. Since it stands on a slight rise, however, the beacon is 169 feet above sea level.

The light can be seen for 24 nautical miles. Oak Island's distinctive flashing pattern is four one-second flashes every 10 seconds.

Incredibly, the tower was built over a period of only seven days, with concrete being poured around the clock the entire time. The lighthouse never needs repainting, as the coloring was added to the concrete as it was being mixed. The bottom 40 feet of the tower are the natural gray of Portland cement; the 50-foot mid-section is white; and the top 52 feet are charcoal black. When the tower was finished, the 11-foot-tall aluminum lantern housing was lifted into position by Marine Corps helicopters. When the lighthouse was first activated in 1958, carbon-arc mercury lamps were used in 36-inch reflectors, and the Oak Island light was the second-brightest in the world.

The lighthouse, surrounding property and adjacent beachfront property were deeded to the Town of Caswell Beach in 2004. Although the Coast Guard still maintains responsibility for the operation of the light, Caswell Beach is responsible for maintenance of the tower and grounds. A boardwalk across the street from the lighthouse provides access to the beach.

At the eastern tip of Oak Island, only a couple of miles from the lighthouse, stands Fort Caswell, a masonry fort built between 1827 and 1838. Occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War, it was abandoned after the fall of nearby Fort Fisher in January 1865. The fort is on property owned by the N.C. Baptist Assembly and is open to visitors in the off season (mid-September through mid-April). Trivia: Fort Caswell was taken by N.C. militia three months prior to the firing on Fort Sumter. Two cannons taken from the fort by Union troops in 1865 were later returned to the state – but not to the fort. Today they flank the Confederate Monument on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh. Gary McCullough