Lighthouse moved 20 years ago to save structure

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Lori Meads


By Lori Meads
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, June 9, 2019

We always talk about how time flies, especially the older you get. Do you realize this year, 2019, marks the 20th Anniversary of the move of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse? Yes, time does fly.

The move did not come without much debate for the welfare of the lighthouse. Talks to move the lighthouse began in 1980. In 1870, the lighthouse sat 1,500 feet from the ocean sending out a signal that would warn ships traveling the Graveyard of the Atlantic, where the cold water of the Labrador Current and the warm water of the Gulf Stream current meet. In 1970, the ocean was 120 feet from the lighthouse.

The National Park Service began to investigate options to protect the lighthouse from the ocean during a three-year process that included public meetings. One option was to relocate the lighthouse which many people thought was not practical. Second option a concrete and steel seawall that was accepted. However, with advancement in technology, the relocation of the lighthouse was becoming more favorable over the seawall.

In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences provided a report to the National Park Service with ten options to save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The best and most cost-effective option was to relocate the lighthouse. The relocation option came with much debate, for people feared the lighthouse would collapse, not to mention the cost of the move with no current funding or fundraising efforts. Between the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers they would construct a fourth groin south of the lighthouse. A short-term fix until funding was secured. However, the North Carolina Coastal Resource Commission would not recommend the permit due to placing hardened structures on the North Carolina coast is prohibited by state statutes.

In 1996, North Carolina State University reviewed the recommendation of the report of the National Academy of Sciences. It was concluded that funds should be secured to relocate the lighthouse. Funds were appropriated in 1998 by the Clinton Administration for the move.

On June 17, 1999, the move began for the 4,830-ton structure after much planning and preparation. International Chimney Corp. of New York and Expert House Movers of Maryland had all eyes on them. The lighthouse was lifted by jacks to a transport system that would move along tracks on a well-prepared path. The move happened at five feet intervals before having to reset the tracks. During this time computers, sensors, and weather readings were being monitored for any issues that needed to be addressed during the move. The move was completed on July 9, 1999, 23 days later.

Today, the lighthouse sits approximately 1,600 feet from the ocean with all the buildings that would support a lighthouse, lighthouse keeper quarters, oil room, cisterns, and sidewalk. The buildings are in the same relative location to where they were before the move.

Would the lighthouse be in the ocean if it had not been moved? Mark Price, from The Charlotte Observer, asked this very question in September of 2018. He was told “no” but that is misleading. The lighthouse would experience the pounding waves from tropical storms and hurricanes.

Lori Meads in an educator at Museum of the Albemarle.