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Oak Island - NC

Lighthouse History

Built: 1958

Type: Round Tower

Height: 158 feet

Status: Active

Location: Oak Island, Cape Fear River

Lens: four 1000-watt aerobeam lights - Airport Beacon

Keepers: 1930's the US Coast Guard 

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 existence.
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.

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