In 1837, the U.S. government commissioned an expedition to locate a site for the construction of a new
lighthouse north of the existing one at Cape Hatteras. The light was to be a beacon to mariners traveling
south along the Outer Banks as they approached the treacherous waters around the shifting sands of
Diamond Shoals. Lieutenant Napoleon L. Coste, who led the expedition, wrote that "more vessels are
lost there than on any other part of our coast.” In fact, up to 600 vessels have been claimed by the
waters around Diamond Shoals and 2,000 along the entirety of the Outer Banks in what is known as the
Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The first lighthouse was a failure. Coste decided on a location near the ocean on Pea Island, but due to
complications around the acquisition of land, construction did not begin until 1847. A capable engineer
from Baltimore, Francis Gibbons, was chosen to build the lighthouse, but rather than being allowed to
design the structure he was given plans for a fifty-four foot tower of questionable design. To make
matters worse, his supervisor was an ex-customs inspector who knew nothing of construction. Gibbons
was prevented from driving piles to secure a foundation and instead was forced to lay bricks over the
sand. Once completed, it did not take long for the lighthouse to begin to lean. Nevertheless, the
lighthouse was used (and regularly repaired at great cost to the government) until 1859, when it was
A second lighthouse, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, didn’t fare any better. It was packed with
explosives and blown up by retreating Confederate troops in 1861.
The third lighthouse (and the one that stands today) was built on a 15-acre site on Bodie Island
purchased from John Etheredge for $150.00. Construction of the 164-foot tower was completed in
under a year by Dexter Stetson and his crew who had just finished building the new light at Cape
Hatteras. Bodie Island Lighthouse was first lighted on October 1, 1872. The tower’s lantern was focused
by a first-order Fresnel lens, fabricated by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris, that cast a beam visible up to
nineteen miles out to sea.
The lantern was fueled by kerosene that had to be carried up the 214 steps by the lightkeeper daily. In
1932, the light was electrified and an on-site keeper was no longer necessary. The lighthouse underwent
a recent renovation that was completed in 2013 and is now open for public tours.
New Inlets and Shifting Sands
Folklore attributes the name Bodie Island to the bodies of drowned sailors that washed up along the
shore of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In reality, the name comes from the Bodie family (variously
written “Body,” “Boddy,” “Boddye,” or “Boddie”) that settled in the area. Bodie Island (though no longer
technically an island) once extended from Roanoke Inlet, which flowed through what is now Nags Head,
to New Inlet, which was cut by a strong hurricane in 1738 north of Rodanthe. When Roanoke Inlet
closed in 1811, Bodie Island was joined with the Currituck Banks and they now form one contiguous
In 1846, another powerful hurricane cut Oregon Inlet. The inlet was named by the ship Oregon that first
saw the new opening to the ocean after having survived the storm in the Pamlico Sound. The newly
formed Island between Oregon Inlet and New inlet 11 miles to the south became known as Pea Island.
See Bodie Island Lighthouse and Oregon Inlet from The Sky
OBX Airplanes offers an Inlet Air Tour in a Cessna aircraft that will give you an amazing aerial view of
both Bodie Island Lighthouse and the shifting sands of Oregon Inlet. You will also fly over the Wright
Brothers National Memorial, Nags Head Pier, Jockey’s Ridge, Jennette’s Pier, Bonner Bridge, and
multiple shipwrecks along this stretch of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. This Air Tour is truly a
photographer’s dream come true.