“oldest operating light station in North Carolina”
Ocracoke Inlet was first placed on the map when English explorers wrecked a sailing ship there in 1585. Two centuries later, this was one of the busiest inlets on the East Coast. Ocracoke Inlet was the only reasonably navigable waterway for ships accessing inland ports such as Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Edenton. Ocracoke Village, then known as Pilot Town, developed as a result of the inlet’s use. Pilots, hired to steer ships safely through the shifting channels to mainland ports, settled the village in the 1730s. The U.S. Lighthouse Service recognized that a lighthouse was needed to assist mariners through Ocracoke Inlet. In 1794, construction began on Shell Castle Island, a 25 acre, shell-covered island located between Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island to the south. This site was adjacent to the deepest inlet channel between shallow Pamlico Sound and the ocean. A wooden, pyramid-shaped tower was completed four years later. In addition to the light, a small lightkeeper’s house was built along with several cargo wharves, gristmills, houses, and other facilities. Unfortunately, the lighthouse, a great blessing to mariners, was obsolete in less than 20 years due to the migration of the main channel. By 1818, the channel had shifted nearly a mile away. That same year, both the lighthouse and keeper’s house were destroyed by lightning.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse is a short, funky-looking little thing. The history of this lighthouse makes it well-worth a quick stop. As North Carolina’s oldest and America’s second oldest lighthouse in operation, it’s not open for climbers and it doesn’t really have a gift shop or visitors center, but reading up on it and then visiting will give you an appreciation for the early mariners who relied on it for guidance.
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