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Bogue Banks Lighthouse

(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 South Carolina.

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 sea.

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 channel.

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.