The message was like a beacon, flashing an irresistible invitation to solve a 140-year-old Civil War mystery and to find the “holy grail” of American lighthouses. The message—
“I have had the apparatus removed to a good storehouse in the county and safely stored”—had been sent to Richmond by 36-year-old Washington, North Carolina, physician David T. Tayloe. It was Easter weekend in 1862 and Tayloe was in possession of 44 pine crates containing bronze frames and crown-glass prisms that once had been the illuminating apparatus from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
A year earlier, Confederate officials ordered the optic removed from the original Hatteras tower to prevent it from aiding the enemy. In its wake, the lens left a trail of destruction, defiance and recrimination—careers were lost, towns were threatened, and the steamboat that transported the apparatus was captured and sunk.
By horse-drawn carts, pole-propelled flats, steamboats and the rickety rails of the Confederate railroad, the lens vanished into obscurity, a mystery born of myths, urban legends and a sea of faded and fire-ravaged documents. According to Lighthouse Digest, the whereabouts of the Cape Hatteras lens had long remained “one of the great-unsolved mysteries of American lighthouse history.”
It is a mystery no longer. In 2002, the original Cape Hatteras Henry-Lepaute lens was found by author, filmmaker and historian, Kevin P. Duffus. But the story did not end with the discovery of the lost light. In 2006, the lens and its elegant, Victorian-era cast iron pedestal were reunited at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at Hatteras, North Carolina. Considered one of the most historic lighthouse treasures in the U.S., the exhibit reveals the artifact’s size and artfulness, and teaches how greed and disrespect for our heritage can destroy an exquisite machine crafted at the pinnacle of the industrial age. It is miraculous that this once-lost “diamond in the sky,” having served seafarers in two lighthouses and saved countless lives over two centuries, will continue to enlighten future generations as a symbol of genius, dedication, compassion and perseverance of the human spirit.
Book details: Softcover, 256 pages, maps, dozens of photographs, end notes, bibliography.