The Hatteras area is home to Atlantic currents that make for excellent ship travel routes. These conditions are ideal as a result of the positioning of the Outer Banks barrier islands on the North Carolina coast that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the coastal sounds and inlets. One caveat to these waterways is an area known as the Diamond Shoals. The Diamond Shoals are a cluster of shifting, underwater sandbars. Hidden beneath the waves with constantly fluctuating formation and depth, the Diamond Shoals were granted the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic
" as a result of the approximate 600 shipwrecks they have caused along Hatteras Island and the shores of the Outer Banks.
As if the Diamond Shoals weren't dangerous enough, it was difficult for sailors to distinguish where the Atlantic waters ended and the shoreline began due to the barrier islands being low-lying and sparsely inhabited.
Coastal trade along the Eastern Seaboard boomed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Accompanying this commerce trend came a new deadly number of shipwrecks along the Cape Hatteras region. On July 10, 1794, after the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton almost crashed and sunk his ship on his way to The New World, Congress appropriated $44,000 to build the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to be constructed in 1802 and duly nicknamed it "Hamilton's Light".
The original light within the lighthouse consisted of 18 lamps with 14-inch reflectors and was 122 feet above sea level. It was visible in clear weather for a distance of 18 miles. About 40 years later, the reflectors were changed from 14 to 15 inches to increase the light. In 1854 seeking even more light, the old reflecting apparatus was replaced with a first-order Fresnel lens with flashing white light and the tower was raised 150 feet.
In 1860 the Lighthouse Board announced that Cape Hatteras Lighthouse required protection, due to the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1862 the Board reported "Cape Hatteras, Fresnel lens and lantern destroyed, light reexhibited."
As a request from mariners and U.S. Navy officers, Congress gave $80,000 to the United States Lighthouse Board to construct a new lighthouse at Cape Hatteras in 1868. This new tower was the tallest brick lighthouse tower in the world. It was 200 feet above the ground and the focal height of the light was 208 feet above the water.
Ever since the completion of the new tower in 1870, there had been a very gradual encroachment of the Atlantic upon the shoreline. This was not a serious threat until 1919 when the high water line had risen to about 120 feet from the base of the tower. By 1935, the surf had finally reached the base and despite the dikes and breakwaters created, the lighthouse had to be replaced. In 1935, therefore, the tower light was replaced by an Aerobeacon atop a four-legged steel skeleton tower, placed further back from the ocean on a sand dune 166 feet above the sea, visible for 19 miles. The abandoned brick tower was then put in the custody of the National Park Service. In 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration erected a series of wooden revetments which checked the wash that was carrying away the beach. As a result, the accretion of sand on the beach allowed the Coast Guard to resume control over the brick tower and manned it as a lookout station until 1945. The lighthouse was placed back in commission on January 23, 1950.
In 1999, the Atlantic began encroaching the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse once again and had to be moved to safer ground. The move was a total distance of 2,900 feet to the southwest, placing the lighthouse 1,500 feet from the current shoreline. The support buildings at the site were also moved at the same time. All the support buildings were placed back in positions that maintained their original compass orientations and distance/height relationship to the lighthouse.