In 1837, the federal government sent Lieutenant Napoleon L. Coste of the revenue cutter Campbell to examine the coastline for potential lighthouse sites that would supplement the existing one at Cape Hatteras. Coste determined that southbound ships were in great need of a beacon on or near Bodie Island by which they could fix their position for navigating the dangerous cape. He punctuated his recommendation with the statement that “more vessels are lost there than on any other part of our coast.”
Congress responded with an appropriation for a lighthouse that same year, but complications over purchasing the necessary land delayed construction until 1847. This was but the first of many problems. Though the skillful Francis Gibbons was contracted as engineer, the project’s overseer was a former Customs official named Thomas Blount, who unfortunately, had no lighthouse experience at all. This proved disastrous when Blount ordered an unsupported brick foundation laid, despite Gibbons’ recommendations to the contrary. As a result, the 54-foot tower began to lean within two years after completion. Numerous expensive repairs failed to rectify the problem and the lighthouse had to be abandoned in 1859.
The second lighthouse fared little better than its wobbly predecessor. Though funded, contracted, and completed in prompt fashion at a nearby site in 1859, it soon succumbed to an unforeseen danger – the Civil War. Fearing that the 80-foot tower would be used by Union forces, retreating Confederate troops blew it up in 1861.
After the war, the coast near Bodie Island remained dark for several years while a replacement tower was considered by the Lighthouse Board. Though the Board was disposed against the idea, numerous petitions came in from concerned ship captains and, finally, it decided in favor of a third Bodie Island Lighthouse. Still, it was not until 1871 that construction began. The first two Bodie Island Lights had been located south of Oregon Inlet, actually on Pea Island.
The new 15-acre site, purchased by the government for $150.00 from John Etheridge, was north of the inlet. Work crews, equipment, and materials from the recent lighthouse project at Cape Hatteras were used to build necessary loading docks, dwellings, and facilities. Government contracts brought bricks and stone from Baltimore firms and ironwork from a New York foundry. Construction of the tower proceeded smoothly and it first exhibited its light, magnified by a powerful first-order Fresnel lens, on October 1, 1872. The keepers’ quarters duplex was completed soon thereafter.
Early problems with flocks of geese crashing into the lens and improper grounding for electrical storms were quickly rectified with screening for the lantern and a lightning rod for the tower. There have been few other difficulties with the lighthouse itself since its completion. From the keeper’s perspective, however, there remained the problem of isolation. Bodie Island was completely undeveloped and the closest school was in Manteo on neighboring Roanoke Island (accessible only by boat). This meant that the keeper’s wife and children lived away from the lighthouse except during the summer months, which made for a lonely and trying family life most of the year. Such situations, of course, were quite common in the Lighthouse Service. Eventually, progress enabled school buses to reach the island and the families were able to live with the keepers.
The light was electrified in 1932, phasing out the need for on-site keepers. Finally, all of the light station’s property, except the tower, was transferred to the National Park Service in 1953. The keepers’ duplex has since undergone two historic restorations, the last having been completed in May 1992. The building now serves as a ranger office and visitor center for Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The most recent restoration of the lighthouse itself was completed in 2013. Still a functioning navigational aid, the tower is open for public tours.
Tucked away between tall pine trees and freshwater marshland, the Bodie Island Light presents anything but a typical lighthouse setting. Though not as well-known as its neighbors, it remains an important part of local history and a favorite spot for visitors. And still every evening, amidst the water towers and blinking radio antennae of modern development, its powerful light beams out across the darkening waves, keeping silent watch over the treacherous waters known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Underwent Restoration in 2012. Restoration work included documentation of existing windows that need repair, installation of a system to eliminate any airborne particles that could be a health threat, design and creation of metal patterns for parts in need of replacement, design and emplacement of interior scaffolding that would allow workers to reach all inside parts of the tower for repointing of brick and painting but that would not harm any of the historic fabric. A myriad of other procedures followed to execute the tedious project and attempt to cover all needs including a temporary interior floor protection, mortar samples for analysis, a security fence around the construction site, interior paint removal, and two coats of primer on repaired interior iron stairs.
However, restoration work that began January 2010 was halted in August because the initial amount of $3.09 million was not enough to complete all needed repairs. Further damage was found at the lantern room level.
The park stated, ” All but one of the ornate struts [brackets] that support the balcony were found to have significant structural cracks. We brought in a NPS engineer to assess the cracks and determined that they would have to be addressed, or we would not be able to open the lighthouse up again for public climbing.”
The lighthouse sat patiently waiting for more workers to arrive and repairs to begin again. A storm ripped up the N. C. coast just prior to Labor Day 2011 and tore the protective covering off the lantern room and flooded the keepers’ quarters. The tower remained quiet with the tatters flapping in the wind 165 feet in the air. The park searched for more money.
“We knew that the restoration work would only be able to resume when we obtained the additional funding,” said Cyndy Holda, Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s Public Affairs Specialist. “So we asked for help from our Congressional representatives. Recently, with the support of Senator Burr, Senator Hagan, and Congressman Jones, the funding request was approved and Congress appropriated the funds we needed to start phase two of the project.”
The exact amount for “Phase two” was not revealed, but it is in excess of $1 million, a third of the original amount already spent. Work is beginning and is predicted to be complete in October 2012, but there are many variables that could affect the timing of this. Meanwhile, the Bodie Island Visitor Center, which contains an Eastern National bookstore within the repaired double keepers’ quarters has reopened. It is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nature trail and boardwalk near the lighthouse are also open; this is a beautiful perspective of the entire light station that is not to be missed.
The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society had a homecoming for Bodie Island Lighthouse keepers’ direct descendants in spring 2013 in partnership with the NPS and other organizations.