Would you ever believe that a natural barrier island of the Atlantic Coast could influence a town eleven miles away? Beaufort is the third oldest town in the state of North Carolina, and its rich history has been preserved to this day. This preservation is largely in thanks to the island of Cape Lookout, and the tourism that it has brought to Beaufort and the Carteret county area. Cape Lookout has not only made an impact on Beaufort today, but also influenced Beaufort’s history, especially its development and population.

Beaufort was established in 1709 by John Lawson on the site of the Coree Indian Village called Cwarioc, which means “fish village.” The population was scare at the beginning of the town’s establishment, with only about thirty lots in the 1730s. Although the town was seen as being “small and thinly inhabited” (Wilson 53), settlers found Beaufort appealing, as it has easy access to sounds, rivers, creeks and the ocean for many seafood sources. The population was also positively impacted by the knowledge that settlers had of Cape Lookout. They saw the natural barrier island as a potential major Atlantic coast seaport. Thanks to the protection of Cape Lookout, there was substantial growth in the 1740s (Wilson).

In the 1740s, the coastal towns of North Carolina had to protect themselves from the Spanish privateers, who were taking ships coming into the port of the Ocracoke Inlet and stealing cattle from the colonists. The Spanish gained possession of Beaufort from August of 1747 to September of the same year and after they lost possession of it, they remained persistent and attacked the southern coast the following summer. This Spanish invasion led Governor Arthur Dobbs to build a fort on Cape Lookout in 1755. Pirates had used this island in the past to collect wood and replenish their water, meat and fish. It was also seen as a safe place during treacherous ocean storms. (Wilson 63).  The Governor decided that it would be a perfect place for guardships to be able to get to the ocean at rapid speed if necessary, and for them to rest and rejuvenate in the mean time. The excellent protection that the island gave Beaufort, allowed the town to gain around thirty more lots, thereby doubling its population.

In the 1800s, shipping was essential for commercial transportation, as there were few roads, and railroads did not come into the picture until the 1850’s. The vessels that ran along the east coast, came across hazardous shoals that stretched for over ten miles, and they were not able to sail close to the shore. In 1812, a lighthouse was built on Cape Lookout, the first of many lighthouses that would be built along the Outerbanks. The lighthouses along the Outerbanks would be built forty miles apart so that once a boat loses sight of one light another would be almost visible. The original Cape Lookout lighthouse was a ninety-six foot wooden structure, painted with a red and white striped design (Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore). It did not last very long, as the tower was too low and the light was only visible eleven miles away, when it should have been visible eighteen miles away. In 1856, the government attempted to enhance the light so that the mariners would have a safer journey along the waters of the Outerbanks. The government installed a “Fresnel lens utilizing a ‘wick and chimney’ lamp with five wicks” (Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore), which resolved the lighting issue, but the tower was not tall enough (Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore). One year later, Congress gave 45,000 dollars to build another lighthouse.  On November 1, 1859 a new lighthouse was built, one which shined much brighter than the other.  It was 163 feet tall, had a twenty-eight feet diameter, and had nine-foot thick walls. This new sturdy structure not only served the purpose of guiding ships throughout the ocean, but it also served to be an example for the other lighthouses of Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Currituck Beach along the Outerbanks (Lighthousefriends).  This was the same year that North Carolina joined the Confederacy and Cape Lookout became a battle ground for the Confederates and Union forces. Josiah Fisher Bell was the collector at Beaufort and a Confederate in Secret Service, and he learned that the Union forces were going to take over the lighthouses at Cape Lookout. He plotted a way for troops to blow up the federals, and in the end, the new lighthouse only suffered damage to its lens and lantern (Wilson 108). During this time, Cape Lookout was a place where North Carolinians could prove their power and freedom against the union forces. Soon after the battle, Congress gave 20,000 dollars, so that the lighthouse would be repaired.

In 1873, the lighthouse board decided that bold designs should be painted on four lighthouses along the Outerbanks so that they would be easily seen and distinguishable. The Cape Lookout lighthouse was given a black and white checkered diamond pattern in order to stand out. In 1950, the lighthouse had an electric light and had a “sun sensor” to turn the beacon off and on, and there was no need for lighthouse keeper. In 1886, Cape Lookout took on another role in the east coast waters. A lifesaving station was built in order for fisherman to find shelter during dangerous high tides and storms. In this station, there was a lifesaving crew that would attend to emergency situations, which would be joined by many fishermen during dangerous tides, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms. At one point in time, fifty fishermen took refuge in this station in order to ride out a storm. This station was successful in protecting men from danger, so that they would be able to provide for their families and remain economically stable. The lifesaving station was not the only advancement on the island during this time. In 1905 motor powered boats made for swift travel from the island, to Harker’s Island and Beaufort. Although there had been a few inhabitants on the island, that soon changed after they were able to travel to different towns and see the benefits of living in those areas (Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore). Although no one lives on Cape Lookout today, many tourists are able to take in its beauty that is rooted in history each day.

Today the lighthouse and the island have been preserved by the Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore. This organization has brought tourism to the Carteret county area, as millions people have been attracted to the dunes, marshes and beauty of the beach over the past thirty years. Each day, tourists enjoy fishing, watching wild horses roam the island, dolphin watching, surfing, boating, and the ability to take in the islands rich history.  Those tourists, who visit Beaufort, are able to not only tour the town, but can hop a ferry and cruise to the island (Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore).  To this day, Cape Lookout continues to positively influence the economic stability of Beaufort and the Carteret County area.

Cape Lookout has made an impact on Beaufort and the Carteret County area for over three hundred years. In the 1700s, the natural barrier island assisted the economic and population growth of Beaufort, as it brought more settlers to the area, through its easy access to seafood. The island was also a protective shield for fisherman and sailors who were important economic producers. The lighthouse provided safety for sailors, as the ships were able to sail smoothly down the East Coast, and the Lifesaving station provided shelter for fisherman in treacherous storms. Today, Cape Lookout has assisted economic and population growth in the Carteret County area through tourism. Cape Lookout will maintain its positive influence as long as tourists continue to appreciate the beauty and rich history of the island.


View of Cape Lookout from the South Core Banks by BrianDBell

“Cape Lookout, North Carolina.” Lighthousefriends.com. 2010. Web. 26 Feb. 2011 http://lighthousefriends.com/

“History.” Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore. 2008. Web. 16 March. 2011 http://www.friendsofcapelookout.com/

Paul, Charles L. “Beaufort as a Colonial Town.” The North Carolina Historical Review Oct. 1970: 370-387. Print.

Wilson, Mamre M. Beaufort, North Carolina. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2002. Print.


About the Author

Macon Cornick is a first year student at UNC Chapel Hill. She grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and has grown up going to the beach in the Carteret County area for most of her life. She has fond memories of eating at delicious restaurants and shopping in Beaufort and spending the whole day on the island of Cape Lookout in the summers. She has been able to enjoy the rich history of the area, and hopes you will visit the beautiful coast of North Carolina as well.


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