Cape Lookout Lighthouse (1859) at the Cape Lookout National Seashore; historic keepers’ quarters (1872), and old summer kitchen.

Text and photos by Ann Ehringhaus

Each morning I say hello to North Carolina’s Cape Lookout diamond lighthouse as I walk nearby.

I’m watching a black and yellow garden “writing” spider hanging over the path. Somehow today it’s moved to another tree, still high above the path. 

I’m watching full moon tide swing up and down the small shoreline along Core Sound at the Lightkeeper’s Quarters where I’m lodging for my Park Service job. This is a place for noticing small things, but each day as I learn more history I’m amazed at how many big things have happened here. 

Cape Lookout lighthouse, 1812, was first a wooden, red and white-striped lighthouse, but was determined not to be tall enough, or bright enough, to give mariners ample warning before reaching shoals which surround this point.

In 1859 the current lighthouse was completed at 163 feet and is painted with the distinctive black and white diamond pattern.

I’ve learned the center of the black diamonds points north-south, and the white centers point east-west. This helped ships from afar to navigate more safely in the daytime. Through the decades the light has been operated by whale oil, fuel oil, electrical cable from Harkers Island, and today by solar panels just out of sight. Cape Lookout lighthouse is one of the five tallest lighthouses on the East coast (Cape Hatteras is the tallest). I’ve met many people this week on journeys to see all six N.C. lighthouses. 

The lighthouse sits near the southern tip of South Core Banks while historic Portsmouth Village sits at the top of North Core banks.

These two stretches of Cape Lookout National Park are separated by one or two inlets which open and close with hurricane waters seeking outlets to the Atlantic Ocean. Together North and South Core banks are approximately 56 miles long, all wilderness beach.

As I sweep the downstairs rooms of this keeper’s house, I wonder how many people have done the same since 1872.

When I looked up the names of lightkeepers through the years, I was surprised to find Joseph Merritt Burrus served here in 1912 for about a month. 

Capt. Joe was a lighthouse keeper at Ocracoke for approximately 16 years, including World War II, and built an island home for his family in retirement. I bought his house in 1982 and named it Oscar’s House for Captain Joe’s son. Perhaps Capt. Joe helped at Cape Lookout Light for someone who became sick or died in 1912.

The centers of the black diamonds point north-south, and the white centers point east-west to help ships from afar to navigate more safely in the daytime.

Today the beautiful sturdy keeper’s quarters offers a small museum on the first floor, open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with exhibits about the shoals, the keepers’ lives, and displays of whale and sea turtle bones, pelican beaks, shells and more. Near the museum is uninhabited Cape Village historic district with a few old houses, a Life Saving station, and a Coast Guard station.

Cape Lookout was also active during the 1860s. After Union troops captured Fort Macon near Morehead City, confederates raided the Lookout lighthouse in 1864, taking the lens so it couldn’t be used by Union troops.

In 1865 the lens was returned to Raleigh, and in 1867 the Civil War damage was repaired. In 1933 the light was electrified, and the Lighthouse Service was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939.

In 2003 the lighthouse was transferred to the National Park Service, and it remains under their care today.

Migrating monarch butterflies, mating dragonflies and anoles can be found all over Cape Lookout.

Before and after work I enjoy slipping into Core Sound, just behind the Keeper’s Quarters.

As I float in Cape waters, I love seeing the diamond lighthouse and old keeper’s house watching over this watery opening, cut by the 1933 hurricane.

I love being part of the history and the present of this beautiful place. After swimming, I sit on the keeper’s porch to catch a cooling breeze, feeling very content and happy to be alive.

Reference: “Cape Lookout Lighthouse Historic Structure Report,” by Joseph K. Oppermann, architect, Winston-Salem, NC, 2009.

If you travel to Harkers Island, be sure to visit Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, with tributes to island traditions of hunting, carving and other interesting seasonal exhibits.

Ann Ehringhaus

Ann Ehringhaus is a photographer and author of Ocracoke Portrait (1988) and Ten Thousand Breakfasts (2013), both about life on Ocracoke. For 33 years. she operated Oscar’s House Bed and Breakfast, the subject of her 2013 book.

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