Monday, January 05, 2015

Lighthouse Question

Just the other day I received this comment on our last post for 2014:

" the 1950's the original steps in the Ocracoke Lighthouse were removed because of rotting. The present steps are also bad from what I gather because you can not climb the light. It seems that the Hatteras, Bodie, Oak island lights are always having something done to them. Why hasn't the Ocracoke light been given the same attention?...."

The condition of the spiral staircase is not the reason the general public is not allowed to climb the Ocracoke lighthouse.  However, there are several good reasons for very limited access to the lighthouse.
  • The metal spiral staircase, although sturdy and sound, is supported, not only by a central pillar, but also by horizontal steel rods anchored into the almost-two-century-old brick walls. Vibrations from hundreds of people climbing the stairs would surely weaken the connections and hasten damage to the historic structure.
Photo by E. Howard
  • Even if a new free-standing staircase were to be installed, because of the interior design of the lighthouse the final 8 feet of the climb can only be accomplished by means of a narrow, steep ladder that will accommodate only one person at a time. 
Photo by E. Howard
  • Access to the lantern room is simply a hole in the floor, just wide enough for one person to crawl through. The metal hatch, when closed, prevents anyone from falling through and plummeting to their death, but also prevents anyone else from entering the lantern room.
Photo by E. Howard
  • The fourth order Fresnel lens takes up most of the space in the lantern room, leaving only enough room for maybe six people to squeeze between the lens and the outside glass window panes. In such close quarters, damage could easily be done to the historic 1890 prisms surrounding the light.
  • The door opening onto the balcony is only about three feet high. To get outside it is necessary to get down on hands and knees and crawl through the narrow opening.

Photo by P. Howard
  • The railing around the balcony was not designed to hinder an adult crawling on all fours, or to keep toddlers or small children from slipping off the edge, and tumbling 75 feet to the ground. 
In a few words, the 1823 Ocracoke lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina, was designed for access by only one person, the lighthouse keeper, not a steady stream of the curious.

To address the second concern...why hasn't the Ocracoke lighthouse been given the same attention as other NC beacons? has. Extensive rehabilitation work was done in late 2009 and early 2010. Below are links to our posts about that.

I hope this clarifies questions any of our readers have about access to the Ocracoke Lighthouse. And I hope you enjoyed the photos of the interior of this historic structure. Be sure to check at the National Park Service Visitors Center when you are on the island. Even though climbing is not permitted, Lou Ann and other volunteers periodically open the ground floor of the lighthouse for visitors.


  1. Anonymous7:22 AM

    Oh the things you learn from this blog.
    You were missed.
    Hope you thoroughly enjoyed your holiday.

  2. Don Specht8:34 AM

    Bathrooms for the morning walkers and the daily stream of picture takers would be cool. :-)

    Thanks for the info. I have seen that light over a period of thirty-five years from the ground. Now I know ...

  3. Anonymous8:44 AM

    Thanks for sharing. We have to respect the lighthouse not just our desires.

  4. Anonymous9:00 AM

    This reader had the opportunity to climb stairs of two lighthouses on the eastern seaboard. Tybee Island and St Augustine had /have lighthouses open to the public. Remember, a great deal of stair climbing is involved, some people do not climb as quickly as you do, there are people climbing down the stairs as you climb up, it is rather narrow space and it seem more narrow when crowded with your fellow man, woman and child. it can get hot inside there. The view is usually the ocean ,rooftops and cars parked in parking lots. There can be a nice breeze however once one reaches the top, one usually questions their judgement for climbing up there for a few minutes to view the landscape, now one has to walk down the stairs. Now if one climbs ladders to clean gutters on a routine basis-- hoisting your body mass vertically for a considerable amount of time then you will probably enjoy the opportunity with less residual aftermath of sore muscles. Indeed , PH your post was most educational. Happy new Year.

  5. Happy New Year, Philip!
    Maybe someone could video their climb to the top, the lens, and the view from the balcony. I would be happy to experience this via YouTube.

    1. If I can locate a video, I will share it.

  6. Anonymous4:54 PM

    Philip, OK, Thanks for answering my question. I knew I just had to ask the right person. I did not know that the door was that small. If this light was NEW I don't like the idea of anyone, especially me, crawling out onto a narrow balcony 75' up head first....Now I know. AND I am glad you are back. Happy New Year. NS.

  7. Anonymous5:07 PM

    Philip, I just visited the links to your back articles on this subject. The extra pictures were a added attraction. From time to time I try to link onto your back entries. Good Stuff. Once again, thanks for answering my question on this subject. NS

  8. Anonymous11:45 PM

    We were lucky enough to get to go into the ground floor on a visit there in 2011, I think. Fascinating! Thank you for these wonderful photos, and for the additional explanation about the structure and access and safety.