Bogue Banks Lighthouse
by Paul Branch, Fort Ranger/Historian
(published in the Fall '04 Ramparts)
During the last few issues of the
Ramparts a section entitled ‘Outside the Walls of Fort Macon’ has been
included. This section describes various exterior buildings and
structures that once existed as part of the ‘Fort Macon Military
Reservation.’ This article is a continuation of that series and
describes the Bogue Banks Lighthouse, which once stood outside the
walls of Fort Macon from 1855 to 1862.
Lighthouses seem to hold a special place in the hearts of
many people. These noble structures have a romance all their own,
standing tall and steadfast against wind and sea spray, shining a
beacon of light through the darkness to guide the mariner to
safety. Today, the various modern navigational aids and global
positioning devices make the thought of the seafarer standing at the
wheel of his ship intently searching through the gloom for the friendly
guiding flash of a lighthouse seem quaint and dated. Although
their usefulness has indeed faded with time, lighthouses are among the
most familiar of coastal icons. They are an integral part of
coastal history, especially for North Carolina.
Although many people today are familiar with the
lighthouses that dot the coast of North Carolina, few are aware that
one of them once stood outside the walls of Fort Macon at the eastern
end of Bogue Banks. Its existence was only a brief seven
years. Its end was untimely – a casualty of war.
Nevertheless, the story of the Bogue Banks Lighthouse remains an
interesting part of the history of coastal North Carolina.
During the first half of the 19th century, the U.S.
Government attempted to protect the country’s maritime commerce by
installing lighthouses, beacons and lightships at numerous points along
the coast to enable mariners to avoid navigational hazards. The
treacherous coast of North Carolina, world-famous as the “Graveyard of
the Atlantic,” was one of the problem areas. Navigational aids
were needed to mark great shoals extending far out to sea and tricky,
shifting channels leading into ports and inlets.
Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Inlet, Cape Lookout and Cape Fear
all received navigational aids in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries. However, Beaufort Harbor was neglected. Beaufort
became an official U.S. port of entry in 1803 and by the mid-19th
century had eclipsed Ocracoke Inlet in importance as the state’s second
major seaport. Still, up to that time no formal navigational aids
had been established to guide ships through the main channel of
Beaufort Inlet. Instead, period nautical charts provided only
depth soundings leading into the inlet. Later, Coast and Geodetic
Survey charts for the early 1850's provided a complicated set of
sailing directions to guide ships through the inlet. For
instance, a ship approaching the entrance of the main ship channel was
instructed to use Fort Macon, a large sand dune on the western end of
Shackleford Point and a white spire visible in Beaufort as a set of
ranging points to align in a certain order with compass bearings to
pass through the channel. There is little wonder that a number of
ships (the most famous of which was Blackbeard’s pirate ship Queen
Anne’s Revenge) grounded and were lost over the years in trying to
access Beaufort Harbor.
Finally, on August 31, 1852 Congress appropriated a sum of
$5000 to erect a small harbor lighthouse on the eastern point of Bogue
Banks to assist vessels entering Beaufort Inlet. Construction did
not start until almost two years later. The work was under the
superintendence of Captain Daniel P. Woodbury of the Army Corps of
Engineers, who was the engineer assigned to the coasts of North and
To build the Bogue Banks Lighthouse, Woodbury selected a
site back from the shifting beach on a large spit of stable, dry land
adjacent to the marsh about 200 yards northwest of Fort Macon.
Construction began in the summer of 1854 and continued throughout the
winter. Plans called for a brick lighthouse tower with a
two-story building attached to be used for storage of supplies.
The plans originally depicted the tower as being circular. When
constructed, however, the tower was built in an octagon. Also
included in the lighthouse plans was a small, two-story keepers
house, although it is unclear if this was ever built.
The Bogue Banks Lighthouse was given a fixed fourth order
Fresnel lens. Fresnel lenses were masterpieces of precision
optics invented by Frenchman Augustine Jean Fresnel (1788-1827).
Imported from France, they consisted of concentric rings of dozens of
glass prisms and lenses fitted into massive brass frames that magnified
the light of a lantern into a powerful beam like a magnifying
glass. They came in six sizes or orders. The fourth order
(medium sized) lens of the Bogue Banks Lighthouse stood fifty feet
above the sea. The light was visible 12-1/2 nautical miles out to
While the Bogue Banks Lighthouse was being built, Congress
appropriated an extra sum of $1000 on August 3, 1854, for the
construction of a separate beacon tower to supplement the
lighthouse. The beacon served as a ranging light when lined up
with the lighthouse to allow mariners to enter Beaufort Inlet at
night. The beacon had a sixth order (small) Fresnel lens fixed on
a heavy timber tower thirty feet above the water. Its light was
visible 10.6 nautical miles out to sea. The beacon was located
about fifty yards below the south angle of Fort Macon and about 1000
yards southeast of the lighthouse. To further assist mariners
entering Beaufor tInlet, a series of buoys was established along the
Captain Woodbury completed the lighthouse and beacon in
the spring of 1855. The two lights were put into operation for
the first time on May 20, 1855. With the two new lights and the
channel buoys in place, mariners finally had adequate navigational
assistance in entering Beaufort Inlet safely.
For the next several years the lights operated
successfully, guiding mariners through Beaufort Harbor. The 1860
census lists Thomas Delemar as the Lighthouse Keeper. One year
later, the War Between the States began in April, 1861.
On April 14, 1861, two days after the beginning of the
war, Fort Macon was seized by local secessionist militia forces.
These forces were soon relieved by state troops sent by Governor John
W. Ellis. On April 17 Governor Ellis ordered Captain M.D. Craton,
commanding the state troops at Fort Macon, to “take the most active
measures for the defense of the post under your command, and hold it
against all comers. Remove all buoys, extinguish all harbor and
other lights, and take every precautionary measure to strengthen and
guard the approaches to your position.”
Accordingly, the lights in the Cape Lookout and Bogue
Banks Lighhouses and the Bogue Banks beacon were all extinguished for
wartime security. There was no reason to maintain the lights to
aid Union warships patrolling offshore. By June, 1861, it was
decided the very valuable Fresnel lenses should be removed from these
lighthouses and the beacon in order to safeguard them from any war
danger. Beaufort Collector of Customs, Josiah F. Bell, who was
appointed Superintendent of Lights for the Beaufort District of the
Confederate Lighthouse Bureau, had the lenses carefully taken down and
placed in storage in a warehouse in Beaufort at a cost of $5 per
month. He also spent $19.25 for the purchase of blanket in which
to wrap the lenses.
For the remainder of the year the lighthouse lenses
remained in storage. The empty Bogue Banks Lighthouse made a good
vantage point from which to watch the movements of Union warships
blockading the entrance to Beaufort Inlet.
Early in 1862, the expedition of Union Brigadier General
Ambrose E. Burnside arrived in North Carolina coastal waters.
During February, 1862, Burnside’s forces were able to capture and
secure much of the northeastern sound region of the North Carolina
coast. In view of this powerful threat, it was probably at this
time that the lighthouse lenses and apparatus were sent to Raleigh for
safekeeping. A short time later, Burnside’s forces captured New
Bern on March 14. Burnside then turned attention toward the
capture of Fort Macon and Beaufort Harbor.
A portion of Burnside’s forces commanded by Brigadier
General John G. Parke advanced from New Bern to capture Fort
Macon. Morehead City was occupied on March 23 while Beaufort was
taken on March 26. A demand to surrender sent to Colonel Moses J.
White, commanding the Confederate garrison of Fort Macon, was
refused. Parke’s Union forces prepared to besiege the fort.
Knowng that some manner of attack was only a matter of
time, Colonel White and his men made what preparations they could to
defend the fort. One of the key considerations for defense, of
course, was that the fort’s cannons must have a clear field of fire in
all directions. Tall structures outside the fort that in any way
masked the guns, such as the Bogue Banks Lighthouse and beacon, had to
go. On the evening of March 27, the fort garrison toppled the
lighthouse over onto the ground. It broke apart into sections and
lay in a crumpled heap in the sand. On the following morning the
beacon was also pulled down.
General Parke’s Union forces besieged Fort Macon on April
12 and subsequently bombarded it with siege guns on April 25. The
fort surrendered the following day. For the remainder of the war,
Union forces occupied the fort. During their occupation, at least
two Union soldiers drew sketches of the ruins of the Bogue Banks
Lighthouse lying on the ground. In the final days of the war,
Union General William T. Sherman’s army captured Raleigh, where the
lenses for the Cape Lookout and Bogue Banks Lighthouses, and the Bogue
Banks beacon were found still carefully bundled and stored. These
were subsequently returned to U.S. Lighthouse Board. The Cape
Lookout lens was reestablished in 1867.
At the end of the War Between the States, Beaufort Inlet
once again was without adequate navigational aids. In 1867,
estimates were submitted by the Lighthouse Board to Congress to
reestablish the Bogue Banks Lighthouse and beacon. Congress
declined to reestablish them, however, and in 1869 they were dropped
from the list of lights. For the remainder of the century only a
line of unlighted buoys marked the channel passing over the bar into
Beaufort Inlet. It was not until after the turn of the 20th
century that three lighted beacons were erected to improve navigation
into Beaufort Harbor.
Such was the brief existence of the Bogue Banks
Lighthouse. Although the foundations of the lighthouse were
mentioned as still being present in 1871, no artifacts or remains have
ever been found of it. The site is now occupied by the United
States Coast Guard base adjacent to Fort Macon. There is a good
chance the remains may have been removed and used for fill to stop
erosion on the north side of Bogue Point. However, there is
little doubt the Fresnel lens from the lighthouse was reused by the
Lighthouse Board in another lighthouse. It probably still exists
today in one of the many lighthouses that still remain guarding the
coast of the United States.
Paul Branch Sources:
Annual Reports of the U.S. Lighthouse Board; National Archives; Record
Group 365, Treasury Department Collection of Confederate Records,
Records of the Lighthouse Bureau; National Archives, Record Group 24,
Bureau of Naval Personnel, Deck Log of U.S.S. Gemsbok, March 27-28,
1862; David Stick, North Carolina Lighthouses (Raleigh, 1986); Kevin P.
Duffus, The Lost Light, The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras
Fresnel Lens (Raleigh, 2003); Noble J. Tolbert (ed.), The Papers of
John Willis Ellis (Raleigh, 1964); Copies of Engineer and Post Letters,
Fort Macon State Park.