The lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was first lit on Dec. 16, 1870. A century and a half later, the iconic structure – the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States – is still standing and is an active aid to navigation. It has survived heavy storms, a decommissioning, years of erosion, service during World War II, and a 23-day move in 1999.
With its 150th anniversary approaching, a celebration is in order for the lighthouse. But, because it's 2020 and the world is still dealing with the pandemic, the party is being done a bit differently.
At 4:50 p.m. on Wednesday, the lighthouse will be celebrated by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society and Outer Banks Forever with a special 25-minute video being aired on the Seashore’s Facebook page and Dare County’s CURRENTtv. The presentation will begin with a livestream of the lighting of the lighthouse and then transition into the video.
Scott Babinowich is the chief of interpretation, education and visitors services at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Wright Brothers National Memorial – a position he started just before the pandemic escalated in March. He says that preparation for this celebration and production of the video began over the summer.
"It's been a lot of fun to put together because it really allowed us to collaborate with folks all across the country," Babinowich said. "Talking with historians about lighthouses, the U.S. Coast Guard, other Park Service sites that interpret lighthouses, it's been a lot of fun to help take this story and spread it virtually to be a wider story than just Cape Hatteras."
This year is also the 150th anniversary of the founding of Dare County, so the Seashore partnered with the county’s digital team to create the video, which will feature a variety of speeches. Captain Matt Baer, the Sector North Carolina Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, historian Kevin Duffus and Augustin Fresnel – inventor of the lighthouse lantern – are expected to speak, among others.
"We're very fortunate to have a very strong partnership with Dare County, who has a very professional and just high functioning audio and visual team that was able to help us with a lot of the behind the scenes of filming, editing and things like that," Babinowich said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Had there not been a pandemic, the celebration would’ve likely been much different and a bit more like the one the Seashore held for the lighthouse’s 100th anniversary in 1970.
"It was a grand celebration; there were parades, there were balls, there were banquets, there were dune buggy races on the beach,” Babinowich said. “So, if we weren't in the COVID-19 world, what we would probably see is more of a traditional kind of in-person commemoration event. And what we tried to do with the virtual event is pretty much mimic that… The other part about seeing on the computers, we can add in photos and maps and make it a little bit more engaging, too."
In addition to the video, there will be a few other lighthouse-related events for folks to enjoy. Beginning Dec. 14, a temporary exhibit – "150 Years of Light, a Photographic Tribute" – will be available at the Eastern National Bookstore on Hatteras Island. The exhibit will run through the spring of 2021 and feature unique historical photos of the lighthouse.
Also, the Dare County Arts Council will have an online exhibit, "The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Virtual Art Show," highlighting the role the lighthouse plays in inspiring artists. Its awesome black and white swirl paint design – also known as a day marker – is recognizable anywhere and has been the subject of countless postcards, books and works of art.
"Day markers are a way that mariners or people on boats can identify the lighthouses. So, lighthouses will have distinct patterns to them," Babinowich said. "The neat thing too, is at night, the lighthouses have different light patterns on them. So, you can then look that up in your manual and figure out which lighthouse you're near. Just innovative ways for mariners to keep track of where they are."
The 150th anniversary of the lighthouse and the founding of Dare County also coincides with the 117th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic first flight. On that day, Dec. 17, entrance fees to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills will be waived.
Climbing tours for the lighthouse remain suspended. Tours for the lighthouse typically run between April and October, but they’ll likely be closed in 2021 too so the lighthouse can undergo some much-needed renovations.
"We're working to restore certain historical aspects of it," Babinowich said. "Repainting the inside, the outside, restoring some of the trim on the windows and putting the historic fence-line back up. A lot of exciting things for the lighthouse."