Leaving The Light On
Oak Island Lighthouse, the newest of the Cape Fear lighthouses, is a landmark with a presence and a purpose.
During a recent visit to the Oak Island Lighthouse, I asked one of the friendly volunteers if someone could tell me more about the history of this prominent landmark. Her reply was quick and decisive, “You need to talk to Bob!”
Robert (Bob) Ahlers has been chairman of the board for Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse (FOIL) for the past 10 years. His fascination with the lighthouse began shortly after retiring from a career in computer programming and moving to Caswell Beach in 2000.
“The lighthouse was owned by the government, and they wanted to sell it as surplus property,” Ahlers says. “My wife, Deborah, was on town council at the time, and the council voted to buy the lighthouse and open it up to the public as a historic site.” In 2004 the federal government deeded the lighthouse and surrounding property to the Town of Caswell Beach as part of the Federal Land to Parks Program.
Built in 1958, Oak Island Lighthouse is an impressive structure.
It was the fourth lighthouse built in the region. The other three were built on Smith Island, better known today as Bald Head Island. Their purpose was to safely guide ships to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, ultimately leading them to the Port of Wilmington.
The lights used in the Oak Island Lighthouse are the heart of the structure and can be seen for 24 nautical miles. Over the years, the lamps used in the lighthouse have changed as technology has improved. Mercury, incandescent and halogen bulbs were all used until recently.
“We were the first rotating LED light in a lighthouse in 2020,” Ahlers says. “To date it is the only rotating LED light in a U.S. lighthouse that we know about. Every 10 seconds the light does a 360-degree rotation. The new light is brighter than the previous one, has the same 24-mile nautical visibility and a pencil point beam.”
Every lighthouse has a unique flashing pattern, so that navigators can easily identify and distinguish one lighthouse from another. The lighthouse at Oak Island has the distinct pattern of four one-second flashes followed by one six-second pause. The light never gets turned off; it runs 24/7.
Much like ship captains would have done hundreds of years ago from the water, Ahlers uses the light from the lighthouse as a point of reference on land.
“Whenever I drive off the island and then come back, I can clearly see the light from the lighthouse as I come over the bridge on the east end. I see the light welcoming me home. I’m home, the lights are on!” Ahlers says.
The light is not the only unique aspect of the lighthouse. While other lighthouses feature a spiral staircase inside that leads to the top, Oak Island Lighthouse has a series of vertical metal steps from the ground to the top. Fashioned much like ship ladders, the 131 steps are at a steep 65-degree angle. While intimidating to some, this configuration is quicker to climb than a spiral ladder.
Ahlers works alongside more than 30 volunteers to offer tours to the top of the lighthouse, educate the public about its history and preserve the lighthouse and surrounding grounds. FOIL does not charge admission for tours. “We raise approximately $20,000 in funds annually through donations and the sale of merchandise, which covers repairs and improvements to the site,” Ahlers says.
Right next door is the active U.S. Coast Guard Station at Caswell Beach. The Coast Guard is currently responsible for providing the power and maintaining the lights at the lighthouse. The Oak Island Life Saving Station, in use until 1938, sits across the street. It has since been sold and is now a private residence.
Over the past 18 years, FOIL has made many significant improvements to the property, most notably the large visitor parking lot, observation deck and boardwalk that provides access to the beach. The placards along the way educate visitors about the marine creatures and birds found near the coast as well as the history of President James Monroe’s travels through the area in the early 1800s.
While many lighthouses are strictly used for educational purposes, Oak Island Lighthouse still serves as a navigational beacon for watercraft.
“Local boaters tell us it is comforting to see the lighthouse before they can see the land and they know they are getting close to the entrance to the Cape Fear,” Ahlers says.
Families are welcome and encouraged to visit. However, children younger than the age of 9 can only explore the first floor for safety reasons. If you are interested in climbing the 131 steps to the top level located just below the lantern, reservations can be made online. The view from the top is spectacular. About 5,600 visitors made the climb to the top last year.
“We want visitors to have a fun experience,” Ahlers says. “People can walk up and take pictures, whether they make it to the top or not. We want them to understand why the lighthouse was built, how technology has changed and what function it provides today.”
Want to Shine a Light?
Get involved with the Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse
1100 Caswell Beach Road, Caswell Beach
Tours are currently free. Climbing to the top is available from October 1 to April 30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.