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Ocracoke Island Lighthouse


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Quick Facts

  • Ocracoke lighthouse was built in 1823
  • It is the oldest North Carolina lighthouse still in continuous service
  • It is the second oldest lighthouse in the U.S. in continuous service, Boston Light on Little Brewster Island was the first lighthouse built in the United States in 1716
  • It is believed that an Indian village once existed at the site of the lighthouse
  • It cost $11,359 to build

The history of the Ocracoke Lighthouse

Ocracoke Island is a sixteen (16) mile long barrier island, located off North Carolina’s Outer Banks and was made famous by Blackbeard the Pirate, who used Ocracoke Island as a hideout and hangout. In 1715, an act was passed to establish Ocracoke Island as a port to help improve trade and navigation around the coast. By 1730, more people began arriving on the Island. With the increase in population, colonists decided they needed a lighthouse to help vessels maneuver the inlet. There was a huge debate about the building of a lighthouse on Ocracoke Island. Many of the mariners wanted to see a lighthouse built near Shell Castle Island instead. A petition was passed around urging people to request the beacon be placed on Shell Castle Island.

In the late 1700s, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an act to build Ocracoke Lighthouse. Construction was delayed in 1790 when the federal government took control of all navigational aids away from the state government. By this time, mariners had succeeded in putting a beacon at Shell Castle Island. Shell Castle Island Lighthouse was built by the same man who constructed the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The lighthouse was in the shape of a pyramid and was placed on a stone foundation and was made of wood. The lighthouse served it’s purpose well until 1818, when it was destroyed by lightning. It was not rebuilt, since the channel had shifted and became useless.

Powered By SmugWPBy the 1820s, Ocracoke Island had become a major shipping port. It was logical to once again consider putting a lighthouse on the island. Two acres near Silver Lake Harbor were purchased from Jacob Gaskill for $50. The lighthouse was approved for construction in 1822 and was built and lit by 1823. The new lighthouse only cost $11,359.35 to build, and this was including a three room keeper’s quarters. The lighthouse stands sixty-five (65) feet tall, and rises seventy-five (75) above sea level. It was made of brick and plaster. At the base, the walls are five feet thick. It was originally equipped with a 3rd-order Fresnel lens, which was replaced with a 4th-order lens in 1854. The current lighting apparatus has 8,000 candlepower and can be seen from fourteen miles out to sea. In 1946, the Ocracoke Lighthouse was automated and its keeper since 1926, “Cap’n” Joe Burrus, left its service. He was a keeper for 45 years and also served at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the Diamond Shoals Lightship.

In 1989, some minor repairs were made and painting was done. For safety reasons, the old wooden steps have been replaced with metal ones. The four windows from the lighthouse were removed an almost destroyed, but have since been restored by the Ocracoke Preservation Society. The U.S. Coast Guard owns and oversees the lighthouse, since it is a navigational aid, but the National Park Service maintains the lighthouse, grounds and keeper’s quarters. The funds that are used to maintain the lighthouse come from federal grants.


Visitor Information


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Take NC 12, south of Cape Hatteras/Buxton to the ferry terminal. A forty minute automobile/passenger ferry from Cape Hatteras brings visitors to the north end of the island. There is a 12 mile drive from the ferry landing to the heart of Ocracoke where the lighthouse stands. Ocracoke can also be reached from the south by way of the Cedar Island Ferry or Swan Quarter.  These ferry rides take around 2 hours and 30 minutes each. Visit the North Carolina Ferry System for ferry schedules.

The following link allows you to create a custom driving route to Ocracoke Lighthouse using Google Maps

Driving directions to Ocracoke Lighthouse


Visitors are welcome to walk around the grounds and see the tower and outbuildings, but they are not open to the public. There are many historic sites that you can visit while on Ocracoke Island. There are many gift shops near the lighthouse, seafood restaurants, and bed-and breakfasts inns. On the north end of the island, there is a reserve for wild ponies which used to roam freely. The National Park Service has fenced in a 20 acre area to prevent them from being hit by cars. Visitors can also take a day excursion by private ferry to 250 acre Portsmouth Island on the northern tip of the Core Banks. It was once a thriving whaling village, but is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Ocracoke Island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The entire island is owned by the US National Park Service, except for the village. There is a large Parking Area at the southern end of HWY 12 between the Ferry Office and the Ocracoke Preservation Museum. The National Park Service also has a Visitors Center with Public Rest Rooms in this area.

Handicapped Access

The lighthouse grounds are negotiable by handicapped travelers. There is a solid pathway leading up to the lighthouse.

Maps of Ocracoke Island Lighthouse

Map with location of lighthouse


Satellite view of Ocracoke Island


Lighthouse Resources and Points of Interest

Ocracoke Island Museum and Preservation Society At Silver Lake, east of Park Service Lot (252) 928-7375

Dare County Tourist Bureau P.O. Box 399 Manteo, NC 27954 1 (800) 446-6262 dctb-info@outer-banks.com

Ocracoke Island Visitors Center Near Cedar Island & Swan Quarter ferry slips (252) 928-4531

Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce PO Box 1757 101 Town Hall Drive Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948 (252) 441-8144 chamber@outer-banks.com