When the Bodie Island Lighthouse was completed in 1871 there was only one stretch of the eastern US coastline that remained dark—a condition the US Lighthouse Board noted in its 1871 report.
“With the completion of the light house at Body’s Island (Bodie Island) there will remain only one important interval of unlighted coast on the Atlantic from . . . Maine to . . . Florida. That dark space will be embraced between Cape Henry and Body’s Island, a distance of eighty miles and an unlighted space of forty miles, at the center of which there should be a first-order (Fresnel) Light . . . It is now believed that the construction of this tower should be no longer delayed.” Congress agreed, and in 1873 appropriated $50,000 to begin construction. When completed two years later, the new Currituck Beach Lighthouse cost $178,000, approximately $3.9 million in modern dollars.
Built by Dexter Stetston, the same builder who had constructed the Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island Lighthouses, the focal plane was 158’ high with a beam that could be seen 19 miles out to sea. The lighthouse was originally staffed by a keeper and two assistants.
Currituck Beach was a desolate place when the lighthouse was completed, and had none of the verdant landscaping now seen on the grounds. The Atlantic Local Coast Pilot, a 19th century trade magazine, wrote in 1885 that the coast “presents… an almost unbroken beach of hard white sand, with frequent ranges and clusters of sand hills, varying in height from ten to eighty feet…” The lighthouse team was not always a happy place. In 1878 the assistant keeper, Horatio Heath, was accused of poisoning another keeper’s dog.
One of the most famous shipwrecks along the Outer Banks was the Metropolis that sank in 1878 off the Currituck Banks beach, about five miles south of the lighthouse. A number of factors led to the incident, and a total of 102 lives were lost. However, Head Keeper Nathaniel Burris did what he could to aid in the situation, although there were criticisms of his performance. Nonetheless, he did house some 76 survivors in the Keeper’s House.
Initially a an oil burning lamp lit the warning beacon, and being a lighthouse keeper was a job that entailed constant work trimming wicks and keeping oil in the lamp at the top of the tower. Technology improved, and in 1939 the light was automated, eliminating the need of a lighthouse keeper. An interesting historic footnote—the last lighthouse keeper was William Tate, who wrote to the Wright Brothers in 1900 extolling the virtues of the Outer Banks.
By the 1970’s there was nobody on-site to care for the property, and vandals had damaged the keeper’s quarters and lighthouse. In 1980 the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) was formed to restore the lighthouse, keeper’s buildings, and grounds. The OBC is the owner of the property and staffs the lighthouse with a lighthouse keeper (Meghan Agresto). Employees operating the gift store and lighthouse.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse can be climbed, and the trek up 220 stairs to the top is absolutely worth it. The view is spectacular. Looking east, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean roll to shore in parallel lines of white. On a clear day the view to the south extends almost to Duck. The Currituck Sound lies to the west, the waters dotted with small islands. Slightly to the northwest, the deteriorating buildings of Monkey Island—once one of the most spectacular of the Currituck hunt clubs—can just barely be made out.
The lighthouse does close for climbing during the winter, shutting down after Thanksgiving Weekend.