150 years ago this week: The beginnings of the Currituck Beach Light Station

Published 1:19 pm Thursday, June 20, 2024

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By Meghan Agresto, Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Site Manager and Historian

One hundred and fifty years ago, on June 19, 1874, at the Currituck Beach Light Station “the driving of the piles for the foundation was commenced.” More than 200 piles would eventually be driven for the foundation of the 162’ tall, 6.4-million-pound lighthouse. Though it was a near twin architecturally to the 1872 Body’s (now Bodie) Island Lighthouse, the plans called for a tower “an altitude greater than that of any light-house in the fifth district except the one on Cape Hatteras.” (Baltimore Sun June 21, 1875 p. 4)

The sesquicentennial anniversary of the start of the construction of North Carolina’s last brick and mortar lighthouse seems a fine time to share some early details for those curious about the northernmost coastal aid to navigation on the Outer Banks.

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Though completion of the tower, the hiring of the keepers, and the “illuming” of the coast by a lard-oil burning lamp inside the French-made 1st-Order Fresnel lens would not all be complete until December 1,1875, “the establishment of this light [supplied] a want long felt by the commerce of the country, as will be attested by the numbers of wrecks that have struck this beach.” (1875 Annual Report of the Light-House Board to the Sec’y of the Treasury)

In the months leading up to the pile-driving, a test piling was driven in January 1874. A copy of the record of the test pile, its edges burned from a disastrous fire in the Department of Commerce in 1921, tells us, “The borings were made with an Artesian apparatus at several points in close proximity to the site. The depth to which they were made was thirty (30) feet…The test pile that was driven penetrated this mud nearly a foot with a blow from a sixteen-hundred-pound hammer, falling eighteen (18) feet…”

The hammer was raised and pounded into the sand at least 63 times; every inch of its power was recorded. “The results of our boring agree with the information received from old residents in the vicinity, viz: that there is a stratum of mud several feet in thickness underlying the sand at a depth of from six to ten feet in all around that portion of the country. The kind of foundation required for this light-house is obvious. It will not be safe to rest grillage or concrete on the sand stratum above the mud. It may be very expensive to lay it below the mud. The best foundation is doubtlessly one on piles similar to that recommended for Morris Island Light-house tower, S.C….Type of wood:Yellow pine; length of pile: 20 feet.” (RG 26, NC 31, E 24, Letters Rec’d by Lighthouse Board, Vol. 341C, Box 177, Jan 1 – July 1, 1874. National Archives, Washington, DC.  January 9, 1874 Engineer Hain’s Letter)

Additionally, that spring, “the temporary quarters and kitchen at Body’s Island (left standing after the completion of the station) were taken down and transported to Currituck Beach…The grounds near the site of the tower have been leveled for carpenter’s shop, blacksmith’s shop, cement shed, etc, and the work of clearing for the foundation of the tower [had] been commenced.” (RG 26, NC 31, E 24, Letters Rec’d by Lighthouse Board, Vol. 341C, Box 177, Jan 1 – July 1, 1874. National Archives, Washington, DC.  1874 March report for February work)

So, 150 years ago in June in what is now called Corolla (but wasn’t then), construction of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was officially begun: “The laborers were engaged the first half of the month in removing railroad iron from old stringers, hauling lumber and piles from wharf to site, and stowing the old iron in blacksmith’s shop the other part of the month they were at work about the pile-driver, taking bark off piles and preparing them for driving, sawing wood and splitting logs (tops off piles) for fuel for the engine. The chartered sloop “Virginia” has made one trip to Tull’s Creek Mill after lumber and four trips to Church’s Island and Coinjock after mule, provisions, blacksmith’s coal, etc… New runners, braces, bolts, rollers, etc. have been prepared for the piledriver, it was set up, and the engine put in readiness for the operations on the 19th on which day the work, of driving the tower piles was commenced…Thirty-five (35) piles were driving during the month…” (RG 26, NC 31, E 24, Letters Rec’d by Lighthouse Board, Vol. 341C, Box 177, Jan 1 – July 1, 1874. National Archives, Washington, DC. 1874 July report for June work)

The district Lighthouse Engineer at the time, Major Peter C. Hains, had indicated with regards to the pile foundation, “The piles should be driven to a depth of about twenty-two to twenty-four feet… driven at distances apart of two (2) feet ten (10) inches. They will then be sawed off at a depth of three and a half (3 ½) feet below the level of the water, then capped by 12”x12” timbers, which will be treenailed to the tops of the piles. At right angles to these pieces, another set of 12”x12” timbers will be laid – each set of timbers being nailed into the other 3 inches. The grillage will then be eighteen inches thick. The open spaces are to be filled in with concrete to the level of the top of the grillage on which the masonry of the tower will rest.

“Meanwhile the temporary quarters for the work-men, the carpenter’s shop, blacksmith’s shop, cement-shed, &c, have been put up, the wharf connecting the shore with the landing in Currituck Sound (about 500 yards in length) built, and a railway extending from its outer end to near the site of the tower laid. A pier has also been constructed near Church’s Island, distant about twelve miles, in 6 feet water, to enable vessels to land material for the light house. From this pier the material is lightered to the wharf, whence it is conveyed to the site by cars.” (1874 Annual Report of the Light-House Board to the Sec’y of the Treasury)

A drawing in the National Archives in Philadelphia tells us that 216 pilings were meant to be driven in order to support the tower which would “show a light of the first order, which can be seen at sea a distance of eighteen nautical miles. The base of the tower is an octagonal pyramid, surmounted by a conical shaft. (1874 Annual Report of the Light-House Board to the Sec’y of the Treasury)

Outer Banks Conservationists, the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that owns the tower (donated by the United States of America for historic preservation, cultural and educational use through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act), hopes to share more history as we get closer to celebrating 150 years of this still-active public aid to navigation.

And if you were thinking of the upcoming 2025 anniversary, “But wait, doesn’t the front entrance of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse say 1873?” Indeed, it does – that’s the year Congress appropriated money for the station and the U.S. purchased two parcels of land totaling a little over 30 acres, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Stay tuned for more 150th celebration news and information!