The first lighthouse I ever remember seeing was on Lake Erie, probably near Cleveland. I was 10, maybe 11. It was windy, like it often is when you’re walking around a giant lake, and late enough in the fall that most of the leaves had fallen from the trees. I was wearing a jean jacket over an orange sweater and my bangs were cut too short.
There were probably other light houses before this light house, but this is the one that I remember. This is the one I was first captivated by.
I can’t explain it, really, the lighthouse thing, why I find them so delightful, fascinating and intriguing. There’s just something about them, something special.
Maybe it’s the scene they set, the pop of interest they add to an already stunning shoreline. Maybe it’s the drama, the tales of pirates and shipwrecks, a fascination evoked early in me with countless playings of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Maybe it’s just their association with the shore and the sea, an association that makes them feel exotic no matter where they are, Ohio or some godforsaken craggy coast in a faraway land. Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue they invoke, this power they have to make me wrinkle my brow and wonder about them, wonder about the people who manned the station, who sailed past it, who built it.
I can’t look at a lighthouse without wondering about its story.
The northernmost lighthouse along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is the Bodie Island Light Station. Legend will tell you that Bodie, pronounced like “body,” is named after the bodies that washed ashore after shipwrecks. The waters off Cape Hatteras have claimed more than 5,000 ships since record keeping began in 1526 and the area is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
By 1837, the Cape Hatteras Light Station, now the tallest brick lighthouse in the country, was already built to the south of where the Bodie Island Light Station would eventually sit.
By order of the federal government, Lt. Napoleon L. Coste searched for potential sites for an additional lighthouse along the cape. Of Bodie Island, he claimed, “more vessels are lost there than on any other part of our coast,” and determined that ships heading south needed a beacon on or near the island to help them navigate.
Congress provided the funds for a lighthouse the same year, in 1837, but land purchase complications delayed construction by a decade. An unsupported brick foundation was laid at the behest of the project overseer, who had no lighthouse experience, and within two years the tower started to lean. By 1859, after several attempts to fix the tilted lighthouse, it was abandoned.
A second lighthouse was constructed nearby in 1859. Then the Civil War started. Confederate troops feared it would be used by the Union, so, in 1861, they blew it up.
Bodie Island remained dark until 1871, when construction began on the third Bodie Island Lighthouse, this time on a new 15-acre site purchased for just $150.
On Oct. 1, 1872, the Bodie Island Light Station exhibited its light for the first time.
Sixty years later the light was electrified, in 1932, and then, in 1953, the majority of the site was transferred to the National Park Service. Historic renovations have been completed on both the keeper’s duplex, which now serves as a visitor center, and the lighthouse, which still serves as a functioning navigational aid and is open for public tours.
As I drove past the entrance sign for Cape Hatteras National Seashore I tried to remember if I’d ever been inside of a lighthouse, if I’d ever had the opportunity to actually climb one. There are plenty of tight-spaced stair climbs in my memory, but none that I could positively identify as lighthouse related.
So this one, Bodie Island, would be my first.
I arrived early, like usual, purchased my ticket for the first lighthouse climb of the day and at 9:10 a.m., I followed six other visitors up the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse.
There are nine landings on the way up, only one person is allowed on each flight of stairs at a time and only eight visitors are allowed entry per climb. It’s slow-going as you stop and wait for the person in front of you to make their way to the next landing, but there’s plenty to admire on the way up.
“Hold on to your hat,” the ranger at the top said. “It can get pretty windy up here.”
And it was.
“You can stay as long as you like,” she added.
So I walked around the gallery deck maybe five times taking in the view from all angles, listening to the other visitors talk about what they could see, the places they were going or had already visited and could spot from the air. I listened as the ranger answered questions about the lighthouse, about the amount of visitors it gets, about how busy it gets up top, about where else she’d worked and how she was enjoying her time at Cape Hatteras.
I watched as an older woman tucked herself just inside the lighthouse and peered out onto the gallery platform, hand firmly placed on the door frame. She said she appreciated the view very much, just not the heights and was fine looking out from within, thank you very much.
The ranger pointed out the line where the the National Seashore begins. It’s easy to see from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It’s where the giant beach houses stop, where the coast goes wild. There’s some 70 miles of wild coast after that, all protected by the National Park Service.
“It just goes on and on,” I said to the ranger. “That’s great.”
I made my down slowly, pausing at each landing, peering around the twist of the stairs to see if anyone was heading up, careful to follow the rules, like always.
I stood outside and looked at the lighthouse for a while, leaning into my car trying to imagine all that happened before I showed up and climbed the 214 stairs to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
What was it like, I wondered. What was it like to live in this place, in the duplex below a lighthouse that helped stop ships from wrecking?