The Graveyard of the Atlantic

On July 10, 1794 Congress financed $44,000 to be used in the construction of a lighthouse on Hatteras Island— one of the many barrier islands making up the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This area of the Atlantic Ocean happens to be where two very different currents converge, making storms, and rough seas more common. In fact, the waters surrounding the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has been nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” for centuries.

The Graveyard of the Atlantic
Image depicting all the shipwrecks around Hatteras Island in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

The two currents, the warm Gulf Stream, and the cool Labrador Current, constantly shift the sandbars, and it became increasingly common for ships to become grounded, especially at night.

Thus, the lighthouse was constructed in 1802.

Yet, despite its looming stature, sailors found the light to be quite lacking. It was often hard to see. The sea continued to be predictable, and treacherous. Some historians estimate that as many as 5,000 ships have either sank, or have been destroyed within the region. Many lives have been lost.

In 1862, the Hatteras Lighthouse became targeted as a result of the Civil War. Soldiers climbed up to the top of the tower, and proceeded to destroy the lens, and lanterns. The new lighthouse was constructed in 1870, and cost $167,000. The original lighthouse was destroyed in the winter of 1871. The last remnants of the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse washed into the sea during a storm over a century later.

The tower, along with the keeper’s modest quarters, were constructed entirely out of brick. 1,250,000 bricks were used to complete the 210 foot tower, making the new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse the tallest brick structure in the United States, to date.

By 1919, it became increasingly clear that the beautiful new lighthouse was in danger of being destroyed. Over time, the Atlantic had slowly begun to eat away at the beach. By 1919, the ocean was a mere 120 feet away from the base of the lighthouse.

In 1935 the ocean finally crept up to the tower. Several different attempts were made to control the incoming sea, but to no avail. A tower with a light beacon was therefore constructed, and built on top of a large sand dune, 166 feet above sea level. The lighthouse was officially out of commission.

In 1942, it served an entirely different purpose. German U-boats had begun to attack nearby ships, so the Coast Guard used the lighthouse as a lookout station for the next three years.

Gradually, sand was painstakingly added around the lighthouse, pushing the shoreline back somewhere between 500, and 900 feet. On January 23, 1950, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was once more used to safeguard passing ships.

By 1999, it became quite clear that the lighthouse was in danger of the encroaching sea once more. The waves were a mere fifteen feet away. A local company was hired to find a way to move the entire structure to safer ground. The lighthouse, which weighs 5,000 tons, was transported to the southwest, and is currently 1,500 feet away from the shore. 

The Mystery of the Deering

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Buxton, NC 1

The Carrol A. Deering is one ship that endured a mysterious tragedy, not far from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In early January 1921, the ship set sail from Barbados. Several ships reported that the schooner was acting strangely, and had somehow lost its anchors.

On the morning of January 31, a Cape Hatteras Coast Guard saw the ship grounded in the Atlantic Graveyard. Investigating the ship took several attempts, due to a storm passing through. When local officials were finally able to safely reach the boat, they left with more questions than answers.

There was no sign of any crew members. The anchors, navigational equipment, and the crews belongings were all missing, as were all of the schooner’s lifeboats. A large meal had been meticulously made, and set out on the table, but was left abandoned.

To this day, nobody is certain what happened onboard the Deering. Many suspect that the ship became overrun by pirates, who killed the entire crew to take what they wished. Others hope that the crew members were able to flee in the missing lifeboats, but the extreme weather during that time suggests the crew might have succumbed to drowning, even if they had been able to get away.

We will, sadly, likely never know. But many wonder if the souls of the Deering crew linger in the area, in the hopes that someday they will be put to rest.

The Grey Man

Since the early 1900s, locals have reported seeing a dead man, wandering around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. They have deemed him the Grey Man due to the grey tones he takes when he appears.

He always shows up near the shoreline, right along the first rain of an oncoming storm. Nearby residents have stated that he never lingers for long. He appears, and disappears as quickly as a wave crashes against the beach.

Related: North Carolina’s Haunted Hotels

While the sudden apparition is frightening to some, people who live on Hatteras Island have come to rely on the Grey Man as an impromptu meteorologist. He has a tendency of showing up whenever an oncoming storm is particularly severe. Locals believe he appears to forewarn the living.

The Ghost Cat

The other famous ghost on Cape Hatteras is not a human at all, but a dead cat.

The black, and white feline began appearing over a hundred years ago, sauntering near the lighthouse tower. Every year, hundreds of people flock to the Outer Banks to enjoy an array of beaches, and local attractions, including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Several tourists encountered a very friendly cat while visiting the grounds. Not remotely shy, the cat would walk up to the visitors, and intertwine its body between their legs, silently asking to be pet. Visitors would dote on that cat, but anybody who tried to pick the cat up would grab nothing but air.

Locals believe the cat once belonged to one of the lighthouse’s many keepers, several years ago. He has stuck around, post death, to protect, and enjoy the beautiful lighthouse.