Digest>Archives> May 2005

Historic Hatteras Lens Now on Exhibit


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Working on assembling the outer casing of the ...

The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina, has announced that the historic 6,000-pound bronze and crystal lens from the 1803 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is now conserved and exhibited at the museum.

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Dunlap, Fosberg and Woodward inside the casing ...

The apparatus is on loan to the museum from the National

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Conserving and restoring the original Cape ...

Park Service.

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Lauren and Paula Liebrecht with Jim Dunlap ...

Nationally recognized lighthouse lampists James Woodward of Cleveland, Ohio, and Jim Dunlap of Staten Island, New York, joined by metals expert Kurt Fosberg of Marquette, Michigan, completed the stabilization and reconstruction of the artifact in the entrance hall of the museum. Woodward has called the lens “a national treasure.” Volunteers from lighthouse organizations from North Carolina to New England assisted the project team.

Built in 1853 by the French lens manufacturer Henry-Lepaute & Co. of Paris, the lens was one of the first purchased by the U.S. and was hoped to reduce the number of shipwrecks off Cape Hatteras, which was described by the 32nd Congress as the most deadly place for shipping along the eastern seaboard. During its 152-year history, the artifact has served in two lighthouses, crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, survived storms, lightning strikes, and an earthquake, but was severely damaged by souvenir hunters in the 1940s. What remained of the valuable lens was later stored in various government warehouses and it was eventually neglected and forgotten.

On the eve of the Civil War, the first-order apparatus, comprised of more than 1,000 crown-crystal prisms, was removed from the top of the first Hatteras tower in a desperate act to prevent the beacon from aiding the Union Navy's blockade. Nine months later, the lens was hidden in “a good storehouse” in an obscure farming community in Granville County, North Carolina, 200 miles from Cape Hatteras. Throughout the war, the lens had been sought by Union soldiers, sailors, spies, and two cabinet secretaries in the administration of President Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, 28,000 men of General Sherman's army passed within yards of its hiding place but failed to find it. Throughout the pursuit of the lens, careers were lost, towns were ransacked and burned, and lives were threatened. On its journey, the prized optic was transported by horse-drawn carts, pole-propelled rafts, steamboats, the rickety rails of the Confederate railroad, and, finally, by wagon to a hiding place so secretive that it was thought to be still lost 140 years later. As years passed, the magnificent first-order lens seemed to have vanished into the mists of time – a mystery born of myths, urban legends and a sea of faded and fire damaged documents. In 2001, Tim Harrison, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation wrote, “The whereabouts of the first-order Fresnel lens taken from Cape Hatteras remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of American lighthouse history.”

In 2002, the mystery was solved by Raleigh researcher, filmmaker and author Kevin Duffus. Duffus found the lens, and discovered the amazing story of its odyssey, during a three-year search at National Archives, the Library of Congress, and North Carolina Archives. Documents revealed that the lens had been recovered five months after the Civil War's conclusion and was returned to the U.S. Lighthouse Service Staten Island, New York depot. There it remained until 1867 when it was sent to Paris to be repaired before being transferred to the new lighthouse under construction at Cape Hatteras. At the time, the U.S. Lighthouse Service did not consider the lens' ironic destination to be remarkable and no mention was made of its origins.

In 1936, the modern Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was abandoned by the U.S. Coast Guard and the property was transferred to the National Park Service. During World War II, the unlighted lighthouse served as a lookout tower to spot German U-boats operating off the Outer Banks. Sometime after 1942, the lighthouse was repeatedly entered by souvenir hunters, and by 1949, more than half of the crown-glass prisms were taken. The bronze frame and the remaining glass were removed by the Coast Guard in 1949 so that a modern rotating aero-type beacon could be installed and the lighthouse reactivated. The historic lens was initially stored by the National Park Service at the Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills and later at the abandoned Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station near Avon. In 1987, parts of the lens were stolen from the NPS storage facility but were recovered a year later in the marsh five miles south of the station by Dare County Sheriff's detectives following an anonymous tip. In 2002, following Duffus's discovery of the historic origins of the lens and its amazing odyssey, the Park Service agreed to loan the lens to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum where there is adequate space to exhibit the 12-foot-tall artifact.

The museum does not plan to restore the lens to its original appearance and missing prisms have not been replaced with glass or acrylic facsimiles. Many of the bronze frame members have been damaged or warped and were reshaped and realigned. All of the extant glass was removed, cleaned, remounted and reglazed. “With a significant amount of attention and skilled labor, the lens is reconstructed in such a way that the public will still be able to appreciate its size and artfulness,” said James Woodward. “They will also be able to appreciate how greed and a lack of consideration for history and heritage can almost destroy a fascinating machine crafted at the pinnacle of the industrial age.”

Kevin Duffus, president of the museum's board of directors said, “We hope this remarkable symbol of our nation's lighthouse history, having served seafarers and saved countless lives over two centuries, will serve a new purpose by guiding future generations on a voyage of discovery and understanding of our rich maritime past.”

Museum executive director, Joseph Schwarzer hopes that as the public becomes aware of the effort to conserve the lens, people who may be in possession of prisms or the original oil lamps and other lighthouse artifacts, will return them for the exhibit.

The $75,000 lens exhibit has been partially funded by grants from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society.

The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the public was able to observe the lens conservation and reconstruction through April 1.

Additional information about the museum can be found at:


Additional information about the Hatteras lens can be found at:


Additional information about the lens project team can

be found at:


This story appeared in the May 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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