Cheryl Shelton-Roberts: The Geography of Hope: Restoring North Carolina’s Lighthouses

North Carolina Lighthouses, Revised and Expanded EditionToday we welcome a guest post from Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, co-author with Bruce Roberts, of the revised and expanded edition of North Carolina Lighthouses:  The Stories Behind the Beacons from Cape Fear to Currituck Beach, just published by UNC Press.

Of the over four dozen lighthouses that once marked the jagged shoreline of North Carolina, only nine still stand, watching over 300 miles of coast. These beacons are cherished monuments of North Carolina history. In addition to warning ships to safer waters, they now draw thousands of visitors each year. With this book, co-founders of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts provide a well-researched, human-centered, and beautifully illustrated history of these towering structures. The authors offer stories—including the misadventures of Civil War spies and the threat of looming German U-boats off the North Carolina coast—that provide important context and meaning to the history of North Carolina’s lighthouses. From Cape Fear to Currituck Beach, every still-standing lighthouse is lovingly described alongside their architects, builders, and keepers and the sailors who depended on the lighthouses to keep them from harm.

North Carolina Lighthouses is available now in both print and ebook editions.


The Geography of Hope: Restoring North Carolina’s Lighthouses

Wallace Stegner, explorer of the American West and committed conservationist, remarked that national parks were a necessity in his far-reaching 1960 Coda: Wilderness Letter, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures a part of the geography of hope…. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it….”

The same type of experience as Stegner advocated can be had by visiting a North Carolina lighthouse while experiencing its ability to season our good humor with salty air; in fact, five of North Carolina’s nine lighthouses reside within national seashores while the others are also surrounded by water and abundant nature.

We might not be able to climb a tower, but we can stand in its imposing shadow and study its graceful details, explore its history, learn about our ties to its maritime past.

During recent decades, America has gone into the business of restoring historic buildings. Not surprisingly, lighthouses are among the country’s most loved, photographed, and visited historic sites. North Carolina has the distinction of being home to: the oldest lighthouse in the state at Bald Head Island (and one of the oldest in the United States); the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the Southeast at Ocracoke Island; the original, successful tall-coastal lighthouse design at Cape Lookout; two coastal lights that retain their irreplaceable, rare first-order Fresnel lenses at Currituck Beach in Corolla and Bodie Island in Nags Head; the sans pareil Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that pierces the sky at 198 feet tall in Buxton; the only intact river light at the Roanoke River Light Station in Edenton; the only river light still at its original site at Price’s Creek near Southport; and, one of the last two “official” lighthouses built in America at Oak Island. This impressive list of superlatives has brought millions of visitors to our 300-plus-miles of shoal-laced shores who include visiting one or all of them on their travel bucket list. Lighthouses enrich the area surrounding them while generating income and supporting local businesses.

The United States Lighthouse Establishment kicked things off in 1789 when the new government deemed the need for guiding lights commensurate with the need for government itself. During the service’s reorganization in 1852, primarily due to the use of superior Fresnel lenses, there was a dawn of building taller, brighter, more resilient lighthouses that gave off improved guiding lights.

Then, in 1939, the world changed, and with it, the way lighthouses were used and maintained. As America prepared for war, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) took command of lighthouses. Shortage of funds prevented the USCG from doing complete repairs on aged, failing mortar and ironwork. Without the watchful eye and caring hand of a keeper and his family in residence, they fell into disrepair. Eventually, outmoded by Global Positioning Satellites, our historic lighthouses were orphaned, mainly due to economic restraints.

Conditions spiraled into sheer failure at several of our light stations until nonprofit organizations stepped forward. In North Carolina, the Outer Banks Conservationists, Inc. took the helm at Currituck Beach Light Station and the Old Baldy Foundation gained possession of that light. Later, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 created a mandate that provided a means to transfer lighthouses eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places to new owners. But it isn’t a simple process of filling out a form. Eligibility is determined by following strict guidelines in cooperation with the Secretary of the Interior and a state’s State Historic Preservation Office. The National Park Service oversees decisions to whom these surplus properties are awarded.

The bottom line for the health of our lighthouses is money. Funds are, more often than not, difficult to obtain. Additionally, many do not realize that once a structure is restored, be it a home or lighthouse, the cost of maintenance thereafter is perpetual.

Setting the stage for addressing an elephant in the room, otherwise known as climate change and rising sea levels, the relocation of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is perhaps the grandest example of recognizing the historic value of lighthouses and the worthiness of restoring them. Following intense debates of “move it or lose it,” the park service committed to the move, public officials favored it, environmentalists advocated it, the lighthouse community applauded it, the budget supported it, and the ocean demanded it. The world watched while the tall guardian was carefully moved away from ocean’s edge in 1999 and cheered its preservation.

When visiting a light station, notice any ongoing work. Painting, removal of corrosion and resurfacing of ironwork, care of the lighting system, interpretation of its history, and if its doors are open to climbers exploring its height and panoramic views. All of this, each component, takes work by staff and/or volunteers, and––yes––money. Each lighthouse requires a lot of hustle to gain monies, whether it is from grants or federal funding or private donations.

Highlighting the expansive restoration projects at our lighthouses, a chapter in the new edition of North Carolina Lighthouses: The Stories Behind the Beacons from Cape Fear to Currituck Beach  is devoted to restoration projects in the state, including another phase of ironwork renewal expected at Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras. A challenging component of restoration is the extensive ironwork from the lantern room all-the-way-down hundreds of cast-iron steps. Cast iron varies from steel in that it is composed of more carbon; therefore, it is less resistant to the very elements it is exposed to every day: salt-laden air and wind-driven sand. At one time, only corrosion held the Bodie Island Lighthouse’s ironwork together.

Fortunately, whereas our lighthouses lingered in dilapidated, abandoned conditions for decades, there is optimism. Public awareness has created caring and is the major reason that, at this time, six of nine North Carolina lighthouses are sporting some of the finest facelifts in America and several have been opened to an enthusiastic public.

This is hope, mapped in detail, showing the necessary road ahead to maintain and honor these historic structures.


Cheryl Shelton-Roberts is a historian, author, and former teacher. Bruce Roberts is a photographer and the author of Plantation Homes of the James River. Together, they have authored several books on lighthouses in North Carolina.  You can read her previous UNC Press Blog post here.