The History of the Oak Island Lighthouse

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Historical Oak Island Lighthouse
The Oak Island Lighthouse under construction in 1958. (Courtesy of FOIL)

OAK ISLAND — The automated Oak Island Lighthouse was completed in 1958 at a total cost of $110,000.00, to replace the manned lighthouse at nearby Bald Head Island. The lights are 169 feet above the water and can be seen from 16 miles, although the actual structure is actually only 153 feet tall.

The lighthouse stands on a slight rise. Therefore, the height of the light above the water is 169 feet, and it is so reported on nautical charts. The tower itself is designed not to sway at all in 100 mph winds. There is no spiral staircase as found in most older lighthouses, but instead a series of ships ladders with a total of 131 steps to the lantern gallery level.

There is no spiral staircase as found in most older lighthouses, but instead a series of ships ladders with a total of 131 steps to the lantern gallery level. (PCD file photo by Cory Mannion)
There is no spiral staircase as found in most older lighthouses, but instead a series of ships ladders with a total of 131 steps to the lantern gallery level. (File photo by Cory Mannion)

The base is set upon 24 concrete-filled steel pilings 10 and 3/4 inches in diameter and 67 feet deep. The pilings are capped by a 30 foot wide, by 3 foot deep octagonal concrete base upon which the tower structure was built.

Oak Island Lighthouse blueprint
A diagram of the Oak Island Lighthouse. (Courtesy: Foil)

The main tower is 128 feet tall, built of monolithic reinforced concrete. It was poured continuously into a movable form that was raised by jacks at the rate of one foot per hour.

To accomplish this task a concrete mixing plant was set up on the site to allow for the continuous 24 hour a day operation for 7 days. The tower has a uniform inside diameter of 16 feet 4 3/4 inches. The wall is 8 inches thick, and the three stripe color pattern is permanently cast into the concrete.

To establish a color for each section the first 40 feet is the natural gray of Portland cement.

The next 50 feet was poured with white Portland cement and white quartz aggregate for the white color. The top 52 feet is a gray Portland cement with black coloring.

The smaller diameter concrete section at the top was formed with stationary metal forms after the top floor was poured. Windows in the tower were constructed of stainless steel but sashes have been replace with vinyl. The 11 foot tall aluminum lantern housing was installed by Marine Corps helicopters. Total height of the structure above the foundation slab is 153 feet.

Helicopters lowering in the top section of lighthouse
Marine Corps helicopters lowering the aluminum lantern housing in 1958. (Courtesy of FOIL)

The characteristic flashing pattern for the light is four, one-second flashes every 10 seconds. The lighting apparatus in the Oak Island Lighthouse is made up of eight aero beacon lighting fixtures, four on top and four on the bottom.

The original Oak Island Light
The original lighting apparatus. (Courtesy: FOIL)

When first activated in 1958, the lower bank used carbon-arc mercury lamps in 36-inch reflectors. These reflectors with their housings were adapted from aircraft spotlights used in World War II.

When these lamps were in use, the Oak Island light was the brightest in the U.S. and second brightest in the world.

Today, the brightest light along this part of the Atlantic coast is Sullivan’s Island Light near Charleston, SC, which was erected in 1962. When the upper bank of lights, using 24 inch reflectors and 1000 watt incandescent bulbs became the primary beacon in 1962, the 36 inch bottom lights were decommissioned and the lighthouse lost that distinction.

In April of 2010, all of the electrical supply lines, conduit, boxes, plugs and wiring were updated to conform to current codes and new 1000 watt halogen bulbs replaced the 1000 watt incandescent bulbs.

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The Oak Island Lighthouse as it stands today. (File photo by Cory Mannion)

The Oak Island light is located on property that has been in use as a U.S. Coast Guard station since the 1930s, and prior to that it was a U.S. Lifesaving Station. In 1888 the U.S. Congress authorized the transfer of a small parcel of land at the entrance to Fort Caswell from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Life Saving Service, for the first Oak Island Life Saving Station.

The original 1889 life saving station has been moved across the street from the current Coast Guard Station, and is now a private residence. In 1889, there was one station keeper, six surfman, and one rowed life boat. The original building was used until a larger, 10,000 sq. ft. Coast Guard facility was built in 1992.

The current Coast Guard station was recently reconstructed after a fire completely destroyed the 10-year-old building in 2002. The new station house is built over the footprint of the lost station, and closely resembles the older station.

Oak Island Coast Guard Station Fire
The current Coast Guard station was recently reconstructed after a fire completely destroyed the ten-year-old building in 2002. (Courtesy: FOIL)

In 2004 the lighthouse and the surrounding property were deeded to the Town of Caswell Beach along with adjacent beachfront property. While the Coast Guard has retained responsibility for the upkeep of the lights, Caswell Beach now has responsibility for maintenance of the lighthouse and the grounds.

The town has made provisions for additional parking as well as providing access to the lighthouse grounds and a boardwalk access to the beach with an observation deck.

During the summer of 2006, the Friends of Oak Island Lighthouse began assembling volunteers and providing visitors the opportunity to tour the tower.

For more information about the Oak Island Lighthouse visit their website at oakislandlighthouse.org. For tours, contact the Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse at oakislandlighthouse@gmail.com.

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The view overlooking Fort Caswell from the top. (File photo by Cory Mannion)

-Content provided by Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse

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