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Cape Lookout Lighthouse, located on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast, has an interesting history. Congress authorized a lighthouse at Cape Lookout in 1804 but it was not completed until 1812. A brick inner tower with a wooden exterior and painted around 1832 in red and white horizontal stripes, mariners complained of almost running aground because they couldn’t see the light. This was because the light consisted of thirteen lamps, the wicks of which were difficult to keep trimmed. The wicks often smoked up the lantern room while burning, dimming the visibility of the light from the sea. That problem was finally remedied in 1856, when a Fresnel lens replaced the lamps. The Fresnel lens grouped hundreds of prisms that reflected and refracted the light into a more intense beam.

Though the light was brighter, the tower still needed to be a little taller for optimum visibility for the mariners, so in 1857 the government approved a new, taller tower. Completed in 1859 at an impressive 150 feet tall, it became the prototype for the tall, conical brick coastal lights to be built all along the southeastern coast. The present Cape Lookout Lighthouse has guarded ships from the dangerous Cape Lookout Shoals since 1859. The red and white-banded 1812 tower it replaced remained its companion and a distinct daymark until almost 1870.

During the Civil War Confederate soldiers damaged the light, as they did most lighthouses were during that time. Repairs were accomplished after the war and received its distinguished black and white checkers in 1873, the same year the 1870 Cape Hatteras tower and the brand new Bodie Island received their similar markings. These lighthouses would be recorded in history as the nation's leading examples of maritime daymarks as well as coastal lights.

Cape Lookout may be reached from Harkers Island by boat or ferry. The ferry carries only passengers (no cars) and leaves Harkers Island twice a day. Maintained by the Coast Guard, the lighthouse is not open to the public. The beaches and island are part of the National Seashore and are kept in their natural state.