To the Lighthouse: Currituck Beach Light, NC

The Currituck Lighthouse

My mom completed our tour of the historic village of Corolla at the Currituck Lighthouse, an icon of North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast.  Instantly I found myself caught up in the charm of quaint grounds.  Seeing the immaculate Victorian Keeper’s quarters, and the bungalow Queen Anne style Keeper’s House in the shadow of Currituck’s red fortress, I am lost in my imagination – it is a fairy tale of sorts.  I can feel the energy of this place.

Legends say that ghost ships still pass these treacherous crystal waters in the night, the ships of those lost in the wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic in the maze of hidden shoals and tempestuous waters.

The sea is a place of intense hardship and insurmountable peace.  I don’t think anyone has ever looked at the ocean and stood disappointed by the view – the disappointment if any is the daunting ebbs and flows of shore – the ocean can sparkle like diamonds in the morning and crash furiously in the night.

Lighthouses serve as guardians of sea and land, able to lead seafarers into safe waters.  Before GPS and sonar – a lighthouse was the only thing standing between life and shipwreck.  North Carolina is known for its deceptive waters and hidden shoals.  Lighthouses like Currituck Beach facilitated industry and safe passage.  Lighthouses across the world continue to remain lit as beacons guiding the way in darkness – because for all our technology and fearlessness – we all need a guiding hand in a storm.  That is why lighthouses penetrate human folklore and tradition beyond their physical purpose, every lighthouse is an emblem of being able to have hope in dark foggy places.  They have an atmospheric quality to them – both peaceful and haunting.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse rises 162 feet above sea level amid a forest of longleaf pine and dune shrubbery.  Currituck was commissioned in 1873 to bring light to the forty miles of dark coastline that lay beyond the reaches of existing lighthouses, where ships, cargoes and lives continued to be lost as they sailed closer to shore to avoid the Gulf Stream.  Completed in 1875, The Currituck Beach Light is built with 1 million bricks!  That is a lot of labor and cost for a lighthouse on a lonely shore – imparting the importance of a guiding light in hazardous shipping waters.  The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was the last major brick lighthouse built on the Outer Banks.

What I find striking about The Currituck Lighthouse is the fact that it remains unpainted…displaying the red clay brick grandeur of its craftsmanship – it might appear in this light as humble in the shadow of Hatteras but it is that ruddy rawness that makes this lighthouse so appealing.  *The decision to leave the lighthouse unpainted was to distinguish it from Cape Henry Light to the north in Virginia and Bodie Island Light and Hatteras to the south.*

The Lighthouse Keeper’s House is a Victorian stick style dwelling.  The US Light House Board shipped pre-cut and labeled materials on a barge then assembled the house on site.  The home was completed in 1876 to house three keepers and their families in a shared duplex.

Keepers were expected to fuel and light the lamp, stand watch with the light at night, clean the lens and lantern, trim the wicks and wind the clockwork mechanism that rotated three ruby red bull’s eye flash panels on the lens.  The lighthouse is equipped with an original  first-order Fresnel lens (dating back to 1875 and is one of only a few still in use in the US – the US Coast Guard owns the lens and oversees its operation).  The lighthouse was electrified in 1933.  Keepers remained on site until 1937 when the light was automated.  In 1939, the USCG assumed responsibility of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse from the US Bureau of Lighthouses.

During the WWII, the Outer Banks was a battleground of espionage as the Nazi subs and ships did covert operations in NC’s waters – leading to a fight and fortitude to stop Nazis off the coast.  I am still learning more about this often overlooked part of WWII and North Carolina history.  No doubt the light was of strategic importance, in securing the waters. History link.

By the 1970s the Lighthouse Keepers’ quarters were all but abandoned to the elements: salt, sea air, water…with no windows or doors; porches had decayed and this once grand structure seemed waste to vines.  Much of the structure’s interior mill-work had also been vandalized.

The Outer Banks Conservationists, Inc, a private non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and character of the Outer Banks, signed a lease with the State in 1980 and started phased restoration on the property.  In 2003, the Department of Interior deeded the Tower to OBC.

My mom and I missed the last tour, having to forgo scaling the 220 steps to the top of the lighthouse.  We were content to meander along the well maintained walkways, were free-range chickens cluck and flowers and local foliage create a peaceful setting – with every step I felt as if we are walking back in time.

We explored the cozy restored Keeper’s Cottage.  As a fan of cozy mysteries and cozy novels – this is the epitome of perfection.  This funky, eclectic historic home is drenched in history and atmosphere.  The Outer Banks Conservationists run the Keeper’s house as a seasonal gift shop…and oh what a gift shop it is!

The shop is chock full of North Carolina memorabilia, decorative and artisan pieces, books, art, postcards and cool funky beach arts souvenirs perfect for any castaway.

As I was exploring the upstairs part of the shop, I felt an otherworldly presence of a man, perhaps a former keeper.  I shrugged off the ghostly feeling…

My mom and I purchased several awesome souvenirs including sweet, decadent delicious NC Salt Water taffy as well as a vintage photo piece of cardboard with a picture of a lighthouse and the inspiring quote: “There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle.”

While checking out, I broached the question of ‘ghosts’ with a gulp.  For the record I knew nothing about the lore of ghost stories about the property so I literally went in ‘blind.’ The friendly employees said “without a doubt this place is haunted.” The went on to tell me that the site is haunted by a former lighthouse keeper and also a young girl, Sadie, who sadly drowned.  Most of the hauntings occur in the North Room of the Keeper’s house – right where I got the ghostly shiver.  (I will say this won’t be my last ghostly encounter in the OBX…stay tuned to my next blog post for the ‘Murder at the Black Pelican’)  I got the impression this man, who is said to carry a can of fuel is just watching the coast and protecting the lighthouse.

One thing is for certain my mom and I are both haunted by the wild dunes of the Currituck Banks – we hope to return soon…

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