National Park Mystery Spot 7 Revealed: It’s Not on the Beach Anymore

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved a quarter-mile back from the beach to protect it from shoreline erosion. National Park Service photo.

Did you identify the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, symbol of Cape Hatteras National Seashore? You were given six clues:

National Park Mystery Spot 7 is ….

Not hard to see

Not wood or stone

Not smaller than the rest

Not red, white, and blue like the real barber pole

Not like Nevil Shute’s ’57 masterpiece anymore

Not as much fun after Columbus Day

Clue number one, “not hard to see,” could refer to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an appropriate descriptor for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, proud symbol of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks region. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is visible for miles along the coast and is equipped with a light so powerful that it can be seen up to 20 miles out to sea as it flashes every 7.5 seconds. It has to be visible that far, since the purpose of this venerable lighthouse (completed 1870) is to help mariners avoid the treacherous Diamond Shoals, shifting sandbars that extend as far as 14 miles offshore.

“Not wood or stone” refers to the fact that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was constructed with bricks – about 1.25 million bricks, to be more specific. This second clue helps to narrow the search a bit, but you don’t have enough yet to pin it down.

“Not smaller than the rest” relates to the fact that the 208-foot high Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse ever built in the United States and one of the tallest lighthouses in the world. Though the realm of possibilities has shrunk further, this is still not enough clues.

“Not red, white, and blue like the real barber pole” is a very helpful clue. Because it is painted in spiral stripes, this structure is nicknamed “the Big Barber Pole.” However, unlike the red, white, and blues stripes of the traditional barber pole, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has been painted with black and white spiral stripes. At this point, you may have enough clues to make an educated guess.

The fifth clue, “not like Nevil Shute’s ’57 masterpiece anymore,” nails it down. Nevil Shute (1899-1960) published his post-nuclear holocaust novel “On the Beach” in 1957, and the ensuing (1959) Hollywood production of the same name became one of the 20th century’s most memorable movies. In 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was picked up moved a quarter-mile inland to prevent it from being toppled by shoreline erosion. It is therefore not “on the beach” anymore.

The final clue, “not as much fun after Columbus Day,” was tossed in just for fun. Each year from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, ticketed visitors (no advance sales) can climb to the top of the lighthouse and enjoy the tremendous view from up there Don’t try this if you’re acrophobic or in poor physical condition. Climbing the 248-step spiral staircase, which has a handrail on only one side, is like getting to the 12th floor of a high-rise building by using the stairs instead of the elevator. It can be hot, humid, and noisy too, and even though there’s a landing every 31 steps, two-way traffic can be bothersome on the narrow stairs.

Postscript: Because the big lighthouses of the Outer Banks were similar in design and spaced no more than about 40 miles apart, they had to be painted differently so mariners could more easily tell them apart. As the story goes, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was supposed to have been painted in a diamond pattern, but that couldn’t be done because the Cape Lookout Lighthouse had already been painted in a diamond pattern by mistake.

Comments

I learned this summer, and of course taught, on my Marquette Harbor Lighthouse tours, that every single lighthouse (in America? the world?) also has a completely unique light pattern, so that you can tell which light you are seeing at night. Here, on Lake Superior, the lighthouses are usually many miles apart, so this wasn't hugely important. In a case like Cape Hatteras, though, you can see how it would help. So in this case, Hatteras apparently was a single white blink every 7.5 seconds; Cape Lookout might have been a revolving light, revolving every fifteen seconds, etc. Color also can differ. Interesting to learn here that the paint jobs were also unique, to assist with figuring out just where in the heck you were, during the daytime, too!

Not having made it to Cape Hatteras yet, I know this lighthouse from a totally irrelevant source: my mom had me sell her Franklin Mint America's Lighthouse Collection on eBay. This one didn't sell because the upper railing was broken. :-P

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com