Type: Round Tower
Height: 158 feet
Location: Oak Island, Cape
Lens: four 1000-watt aerobeam
lights - Airport Beacon
Keepers: 1930's the US Coast
Notes: In 1761 a hurricane
carved out an inlet near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which soon became
the most popular route to Wilmington, North Carolina's largest port. Because
of the increased traffic in this aptly named "New Inlet," two range lights
were built on Oak Island, located on the west side of the river mouth.
First lit on September 7, 1849, these lights were often referred to as
the "Caswell Lights" because of their nearness to Fort Caswell.
The Caswell Lights were
free-standing brick towers, with a separate 1 ½ story cottage for
the keeper. The original brick beacons were in use only a few years before
the Civil War extinguished all the lights on the Carolina coast. Both range
lights were destroyed by retreating Confederate troops, who preferred to
blow up the structures rather than see them fall into Union hands. Of course
interested parties had no intention of allowing New Inlet to remain dark
for long, and in 1865, plans for new Oak Island range lights were drawn
to include a front beacon, standing twenty-seven feet above sea level,
and a rear beacon, a sophisticated four-level structure with living quarters.
These plans were abandoned,
as the lights that finally were rebuilt in 1879 were quite different. The
front range light was a wooden tower attached to a sixteen-foot high brick
foundation, which still stands today, and the rear light was a simple structure
mounted on skids so it could be moved with the shifting channel. The keeper's
dwelling was a separate, two-story house.
These range lights survived
less than 20 years. Another hurricane in 1893 damaged the front beacon
and keeper's house beyond repair. This time, because changes in shipping
routes had decreased the number of vessels along that part of the Cape
Fear River, the damaged range lights were decommissioned with no plans
to repair them.
Although there was less
traffic through New Inlet, ships trying to navigate the dangerous Frying
Pan Shoals still needed a strong coastal light. The Lighthouse Board petitioned
for funds to equip Bald Head Lighthouse as a coastal light, but when Congress
finally did appropriate funds, they were for a new Cape Fear Lighthouse,
a 150-foot tower built on Bald Head Island. Outfitted with a first-order
Fresnel lens, this lighthouse was completed in 1903, and functioned until
the current lighthouse was built on Oak Island in 1958.
The structure is 158 feet
tall and built on a small rise in the ground. The height of the light above
sea level is actually 169 feet, as reported on nautical charts. The three
bands of color distinguishing the lighthouse also speak of modern innovation
and durability. For the first forty feet of the tower, workers poured natural
gray cement; the next fifty feet they used a mixture of white Portland
cement and white quartz aggregate, and for the final fifty feet they mixed
black paint with the cement. The result is a monolithic tower with three
distinctive bands that never need repainting.
Oak Island Lighthouse has
no spiral staircase; instead the keeper must climb a series of ships ladders
with a total of 134 steps. Tools are hauled to the top in a metal box attached
to a long pulley. The aluminum lantern room houses four 1000-watt aerobeam
lights that had to be installed by two Marine Corps helicopters. With its
2.5 million candlepower lights flashing intermittently and visible 24 miles
out to sea, Oak Island Light is one of the most powerful lighthouses in
On May 15, 1958, eighty-five-year-old
Captain Charles N. Swan, who was born at the Amelia Island Lighthouse,
served aboard the Frying Pan Shoals Lightship, and was keeper of the Cape
Fear Lighthouse on Bald Head Island from 1903 to 1933, threw the switch
to activate the 14 million candlepower Oak Island Lighthouse. Twenty minutes
after its activation, the light went out, but a fuse was quickly replaced,
and the light was back in operation before darkness fell.
The town of Caswell Beach
was recently given ownership of the lighthouse and adjacent oceanfront
property by the Federal Government in return for its agreement to maintain
the property for parks and recreation purposes. The public is able
to climb the lighthouse through tours arranged through Friends of Oak Island
Lighthouse. The town has constructed a boardwalk and an observation deck
just across the street that provide a great view of the lighthouse.