The Atlantic Ocean's northward-flowing Gulf Stream meets the southward-flowing Labrador Current at a point marked approximately by North Carolina's Outer Banks. Since the earliest days of United States commerce, shifting tides, inclement weather, treacherous shoals, and a low-lying shoreline there contributed to what soon became known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Warning sailors of this danger quickly became a top priority in the integrated system of navigational aids provided by the federal government to promote safe passage along the Atlantic Coast.
The first lighthouse on the Outer Banks at Cape Hatteras was built in 1802 and measured 95 feet in height. It was replaced in 1851 by a 150-foot structure fitted with a Fresnel lens. In 1868, responding to complaints that low-lying fog often obscured the beam, Congress authorized funds for the present structure. Boldly striped and rising to a height of 208 feet, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse remains the tallest lighthouse in the U.S. and an enduring symbol of America's close relationship with the sea.
- The lighthouse tower, of double-wall construction, was built from approximately 1.25 million bricks manufactured at a kiln on the James River near Richmond, Virginia.
- The spiral bands of alternating black and white -- two black and two white, each circling the tower one-and-a-half times -- were applied in 1873 to better distinguish the tower as a "daymark."
- A thorough restoration of the lighthouse -- carried out at a cost of nearly $1 million -- was completed in 1992.
- In 1999, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved a half-mile inland to protect it from encroaching shoreline erosion; the complex project, carried out by the National Park Service, relied on experts from 22 disciplines and was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement of the year.
- Anne Elizabeth Powell, "Back from the Brink"; Civil Engineering, October 1999, pp.52-57.
- F. Ross Holland, Great American Lighthouses; New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994, ISBN 0-471-14387-1
- Kenneth G. Kochel, America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses: A Traveler's Guide; Clearwater, FL: Kenneth Kochel Publishing, Third Edition, 1998, ISBN 0-9640765-3-5