More than 500 visitors attended Ocracoke Light Station’s 200th-anniversary event on Thursday, May 18, which featured representatives and speakers from the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, and more.
During the event, the grounds surrounding the Ocracoke Lighthouse were open for the public to explore, with the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society (OBLS) setting up a station to provide more information on North Carolina’s lighthouses, and the non-profit organization Outer Banks Forever handing out slices of birthday cake after an afternoon presentation.
“I’m really happy with the turnout, and it’s incredible to see everyone walking around the landscape itself and enjoying the Light Station,” said David Hallac, National Parks of Eastern N.C. Superintendent. “We’ve had a community planning committee that has really helped to contribute to this event, including descendants of lighthouse keepers, so it’s really nice to see it all come together.”
In 1822, the federal government purchased two acres at the south end of Ocracoke Island for $50 as the site for a new lighthouse and support structures.
Constructed by Massachusetts builder Noah Porter, the 75-foot-tall Ocracoke Lighthouse and surrounding buildings were completed in 1823, with the lighthouse first lit in 1824. The National Seashore protects and preserves the lighthouse, double keepers’ quarters, oil house, and the other support structures that make up the Ocracoke Light Station, while the light continues to serve as an active aid-to-navigation due to support from the United States Coast Guard.
The history of the lighthouse, from first-person accounts to updates on an upcoming renovation that will transform the currently-closed keepers’ quarters into a visitors’ center. was outlined by a range of speakers in a roughly one-hour presentation.
The speakers included David Hallac, Hyde County Commissioner Randal Mathews, Lt. Cory Woods of the U.S. Coast Guard, OBLS President Bett Padgett, Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s Deputy Chief of Cultural Reouces Jami Lanier, Ocracoke community member Philip Howard, and John Simpson, great-grandson of Keeper Captain Joseph M. Burrus.
Howard and Simpson engaged the crowd with anecdotes of their own ties to the Ocracoke Lighthouse, with Howard sharing the story of how he broke into the lighthouse one night with several friends in 1982. “This is a story I have never shared with anybody except my immediate family,” said Howard. “So, before this afternoon, I did a little research about the statute of limitations for criminal trespassing on federal property, and discovered it was only five years, so I figured it was safe to share this story with you.”
The midnight adventure did not go as planned, with Howard and his friends encountering an angry barn owl when they reached the top, which surprised them with an ear-shattering shriek. “We all just stood there with our hearts pounding, not knowing what to do. I don’t think we even discussed it. We all ran down just as fast as we could, and out the door… we had escaped.”
Simpson shared stories from his father and grandparents about growing up on the lighthouse grounds. “My dad kind of grew up here at the lighthouse under the watchful eye of [lighthouse keeper] Captain Joe,” said Simpson. “As a child, he had responsibilities that Captain Joe – pops – gave him to do, and one of them was to whitewash the oak trees that are overtop of us here – that was one of his jobs.”
Simpson also noted that on the back of the property was a secret burial ground of mason jars, where birds that hit the lighthouse on a regular basis were buried by his lighthouse keeper grandfather.
So if the Park Service finds glass jars buried out here, it’s not treasure, it’s not Blackbeard’s [gold], it’s not anything like that – it’s just the birds that hit the lighthouse.”
Padgett relayed the history of the OBLS, which was launched to address the damage occurring at two of the Outer Banks’ most famous landmarks. “The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society was organized in the fall of 1994, primarily to bring attention to the Bodie Island Lighthouse, which was in a state of disrepair, and also to bring awareness to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was nearing its end by being swept away by the ocean,” said Padgett. “When we began nearly 30 years ago, many of North Carolina’s lighthouses were still the property of the U.S. Coast Guard, and thanks to the Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, they have been transferred to national parks, townships and nonprofits, and entities who can prove their stewardship.”
“Our list of accomplishments is long and impressive,” she added. “In addition to preservation, we provide educational resources for teachers and kids, and a grant to enable kids to visit lighthouses… [because] being inside a lighthouse, and climbing the lighthouse, is much more impressive than just reading a book.”
Hallac used the event as an opportunity to share details about the upcoming renovation project, with the final plans expected to be announced in the immediate future.
“The Light Station will adapt and change,” said Hallac. “Our team, with exceptional input from the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, the Ocracoke Preservation Society, the Coast Guard, and many others will start to raise the double keepers’ quarters behind you over the coming months.”
“This will both keep the Light Station the same, and tastefully change it,” said Hallac. “With a few pilings – maybe more than a few – that double keepers’ quarters over the next year and a half will rise above its current elevation and be protected from floodwaters and storms for many years to come.”
“We hope to see you again soon once the project is complete, and we open the original 1823 keepers’ quarters to the public as a visitors’ center for everyone to enjoy.”
After the speakers, the names of Ocracoke Lighthouse’s 11 principal keepers from 1824 to 1954 were read aloud by Trudy Austin, descendent of Keeper Wesley, and Bett Padgett shared an original song written just for the occasion called “200 years of light.”
Though rain invaded Ocracoke later on in the day, the afternoon celebration was sunny and breezy throughout, with hundreds of attendees enjoying the chance to explore the grounds, learn more about the station’s history, and celebrate a monumental anniversary for an iconic landmark.
For more information and to continue the celebration:
Educational programs will be conducted this spring and summer at the Ocracoke Light Station and on social media. Upcoming program information and details will be added to the National Seashore’s special Ocracoke Light Station 200th anniversary webpage at http://go.nps.gov/ocracoke.
The Ocracoke Light Station’s 200th-anniversary planning committee included Cape Hatteras National Seashore staff, Outer Banks Forever, Hyde County, Ocracoke Preservation Society, Ocracoke Township Tourism Development Authority, Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, and members of the local community.