Relocating the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Throwback Thursday: OBX Style

Relocating the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

This Throwback Thursday is Part II in a two-part series about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  In June, we learned about the mystery of the lighthouse lens that disappeared after the Civil War.  This month, we focus on the daring relocation of the lighthouse in 1999.

We hope you’ll join the Coastal Cottage Company again for next month’s Throwback Thursday!

For centuries, humans have struggled against the power of nature and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is no stranger to this never-ending battle.  In the late 19th century, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was positioned at a safe distance from the ocean.  However, that area of shoreline often fell victim to strong storms with crashing waves that eroded the sand around the lighthouse. By 1919, the lighthouse stood a mere 300 feet from the ocean!  In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps erected a variety of barriers, including sand dunes and sheet-pile groins (walls built perpendicular to the shore).  Despite this effort, ocean water encroached within 100 feet of the lighthouse and it became evident that more drastic measures would be necessary.

However, despite almost two million cubic yards of sand being moved to the beach surrounding the lighthouse and additional steel groins being erected by the Navy, Mother Nature would not cease her battering of the shoreline.  Massive storms, including a severe blizzard in March 1980, destroyed most of the groins and continued to erode the sand dunes, allowing the sea to come within 50 feet of the lighthouse.  In 1803, that same lighthouse had been one mile from the shore!1

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Move Path
Move path of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the shore to its new home. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

The National Park Service enlisted the help of the National Academy of Sciences to propose solutions to save the historic lighthouse teetering on the edge of the ocean.  Of the ten proposed options, relocating the lighthouse was deemed the best solution.  But many feared such a move would destroy the 118 year old lighthouse and heated debates ensued from 1988 to 1995.2

Finally, in 1998, after the National Academy of Science’s report was confirmed by North Carolina State University, a decision was made and Congressional funding appropriated for relocating the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  But that was only the first hurdle.  Figuring out how to move a 4,830 ton structure almost 3,000 feet without damage would be an engineering feat.

Moving Lighthouse
Moving the Keeper’s Quarters. Image courtesy of the National Park Service

Relocating the lighthouse required hydraulic jacks to lift it six feet so steel mats and roll beams could be introduced, allowing the lighthouse to move along a system of rails and roller dollies.  The lighthouse was monitored closely by 60 sensors that measured load, tilt, vibration, and wind speed.  Miraculously, in just under a month, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse safely reached its new home on July 9, 1999.3

Lighthouse Foundation
Lighthouse foundation, preparing for relocation. Image courtesy of the National Park Service

For more than two hundred years, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has guarded the Outer Banks coast.  Once a warning light protecting mariners from treacherous coastline, it now serves as beacon of hope, preservation, and innovation.  

The lighthouse is open seasonally, from the third Friday in April until Columbus Day, for self-guided climbs.  Still the tallest lighthouse in the United States, make sure to wear sneakers!

Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

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