BOOM! – Looking Back at When the Bodie Island Lighthouse Went Dark in May of 1863

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a 200-mile-long string of barrier islands located on the eastern coast of the United States, in the mid-Atlantic region. This tiny strip of land forms a barrier between the Pamilico Sound, the Albemarle Sound, and the Carrituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Now a major tourist destination, the Outer Banks is also home to the site of the vanished English colony of Roanoke, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and is the location of Edward Teach’s (more famously known as Blackbeard) last stand. Visible at the extreme left edge of the map below, it is easy to see how the island chain became known as “The Outer Banks”!

One of the main draws for tourists to the area are the lighthouses. Located in the 5th lighthouse district of the United States, the Outer Banks is home to no less than five lighthouses – Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and the Okracoke Island Lighthouse. It may seem a bit like overkill to have that many lights in such a small space, but with over 2,000 shipwrecks resting off of the barrier islands, it has truly earned the nickname “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” and the reason for the lights becomes clear. To provide some idea of how the lights are situated on the landscape, take a look at the map below. This map is particularly interesting because it shows what type and color of light you would have seen around 1876. If you look closely, you will be able to see that the Bodie Island Lighthouse is within the circle of the fourth sphere up from the bottom.

RG 77 Civil Works Map File. US- 326 Fifth Light House District Extending from Matomkin Inlet, Virginia, to New River Inlet, North Carolina Including Chesapeake Bay, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, 1876. NAID 100305980. Click on the link to access the Image via the National Archives Catalog.

You may also notice an alternative spelling of the word “Bodie” in reference to the lighthouse. Throughout this post, the images reference this light as the “Body Island Lighthouse”. Popular legend is that the location acquired it’s name originally due to the dozens of bodies that washed up there due to shipwrecks off the coast. However, it is more likely due to the fact that the family name of the original landowner’s was the Body family. 1Though the accepted designation for the location is given as “Bodie”, it is still pronounced “Body”.

While all of the lighthouses have a fascinating history, the lighthouse at Bodie Island can likely lay claim to most turbulent history of them all. You see, in May of 1863, this light was completely flattened by explosives!


And, just like that, the light was gone, and a very dangerous section of the coast went dark!

But, I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up a few years to the very first light at Bodie Island. Early on, Bodie Island was recognized as a location that was in dire need of a lighthouse to guide vessels. During the 1820s and 1830s, a local resident noted that 41 vessels had been lost within 6 miles of the island and around that same time it was reported to the Navy Board that this stretch of coast was among the most treacherous in the United States2. So, in March of 1837 Congress approved funding to build a lighthouse at Bodie Island, but it was poorly constructed and, by 1858, had been demolished. Unfortunately, the Cartographic Branch does not have a rendering of the original Bodie Island Lighthouse in its holdings.

The second lighthouse was built by the Army Corps of Engineers at Bodie Island and was first lit July 1st, 1859. Standing 80′ tall, this light was built more solidly than its predecessor. Rather than being built on a shifting foundation of stone and sand, the second lighthouse was built atop a stone foundation resting on wooden piles driven deep into the earth. The drawing below, entitled, “Lighthouse at Body’s Island, N. Carolina” show clearly the foundational structure of the lighthouse as it was built in 1859. Additionally, the cutaway view and the many measurements allow us to visualize what the lighthouse would have looked like when it was new, down to the grillwork on the wrought iron steps.

RG 26 Lighthouse Maps and Plans, 1793-1939. Elevation/Section/Plan of LH. NAID 86454550 Click on the link to access the Image via the National Archives Catalog.

Along with a better foundation, the second lighthouse got a lighting upgrade. This one sported a third-order Fresnel lamp that was visible for 15 miles out to sea, flashing every minute and a half3. The diagram below illustrates a Third Order Catadioptic Fresnel Lens of the type that was installed in this lighthouse. While this drawing gives an excellent idea of what one of these lenses looks like, it does not do justice to the real thing. Each lens is made up of hundreds of pieces of layered glass surrounding a lamp that focus the light and allow it to either be fixed or rotational. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of one of the lights accessible to the public, either in situ in a lighthouse or on display elsewhere, make time to go and have a look. In addition to lighting up the dark, the lens apparatus is a work of art!

There are various places around the nation to see Fresnel lenses including the Bodie Island Lighthouse on the East Coast, the San Francisco Maritime Museum on the West Coast, and the Little Sable Lighthouse in Michigan. For a complete list of lighthouses with operational Fresnel Lenses in the United States, head on over to the United States Lighthouse Society’s webpage, where the lights are listed by state and lens order.

Sadly, the 54-foot lighthouse would not survive the Civil War.

Both the Union and the Confederacy realized the strategic importance of the Outer Banks and, specifically, the area surrounding Oregon Inlet and the Bodie Island Lighthouse. A number of Confederate forts had been set up in the area, including Fort Hatteras and Fort Oregon, in an effort to secure and protect the waterways. Following a major loss to Union forces at Fort Hatteras, the Confederacy decided to pull out of Fort Oregon without a fight. Fearing that the lighthouse would fall into enemy hands, Confederate troops dismantled the very expensive Fresnel Lens apparatus, packed the lighthouse with explosives, and leveled it in May of 1861. This was also in keeping with an order issued in April of 1861 by North Carolina governor John Ellis to extinguish the state’s lighthouses so as not to aid Union warships4. For the rest of the war, the treacherous 120 mile stretch of coast between Cape Henry, Virginia and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina remained without a navigational aid.

In April of 1865, Union forces marching into Raleigh, North Carolina, discovered a huge cache of Fresnel lenses from a number of North Carolina lighthouses on the second floor of the rotunda in the capital building. The third order lens that had once graced the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse was among the lenses found that day.

Of course, a third Bodie Island Lighthouse was constructed and that is the one that we are familiar with today. Standing a stately 156 feet tall with its iconic stripes, the lighthouse can be seen up to 19 miles away and is clearly visible from Highway 12 as you head south towards Hatteras5. The light, a completely restored, first order Fresnel lens, makes one full rotation every 27.5 seconds. Below are two images showing the Body’s Island Lighthouse as it appeared at its completion in 1872 and as it is now.

RG 26: Light Station Tracings and Drawings, 1827-1968. Architectural Drawing of the First Order Lighthouse for Body’s Island, N.C. NAID 594800. Click on the link to access the Image via the National Archives Catalog.

RG 48: Photographs Documenting the Secretary’s Activities, and Agency Officials, Events, Programs, and Managed Sites, 2001 – 2006. Bodie Island Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina, viewed during visit of Secretary Gale Norton to the area for events marking the centennial of the first powered flight, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, 12/15/2003. NAID 5618569. Click on the link to access the Image via the National Archives Catalog.

For more information or to see more drawings or photographs of this, or any other lighthouse in the Archives holdings, please follow the links below:

RG 26: Lighthouse Plans and Maps, 1793-1939

RG 26: Light Station Tracings and Drawings, 1827-1968 (in the holdings of the Archives in Philadelphia, PA)

RG 26: Standard Plans for Lighthouse Station Structures and Equipment, 1967-1988

1 Nation Register of Historic Places. Bodie Island Light Station, Dare County, North Carolina.

2, 3“Bodie Island Lighthouse”.

4 The Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the Civil War.

5“The Bodie Island Lighthouse”.

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