When it comes to landmarks along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, none are as well-known or frequently visited as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The iconic lighthouse—which stands 193 feet in height—is the tallest lighthouse in the United States and attracts approximately 200,000 visitors each year, making it one of the most popular attractions from Corolla to Ocracoke Island. Situated in the heart of Buxton on Hatteras Island, the famous black-and-white spiraled structure has stood watch over the Graveyard of the Atlantic for centuries, warning sailors of the treacherous sandbars and shifting shoals that lie just off the coast of barrier islands.
However, in 1999—nearly 200 years after the construction process was complete and the lighthouse was lit for the very first time—the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse found itself threatened by the ever-encroaching Atlantic Ocean. Decade after decade of converging currents, strong surf and storms ranging from minor nor’easters to massive hurricanes caused the ocean to slowly but surely swallow up stretches of the sandbar on which the lighthouse stood, leaving the tower increasingly vulnerable to the white-capped waves and the threat of imminent destruction.
In 1893, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was recorded as standing 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but less than a century later, in 1975, only 175 feet stood between the structure and the pounding surf. When cracks were found in the walls of the tower, the lighthouse was closed to the public. Five years later, when the lighthouse stood just 50 feet from the ocean, U.S. Senator Helms and North Carolina Gov. Hunt teamed up with others who feared the damaged structure would be lost to the sea if left in its current condition, and the Save the Lighthouse Committee was formed. The National Park Service requested an independent study of the lighthouse’s precarious position be performed, and the results included the recommendation that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse eventually be moved to a spot farther away from the sea.
Attempting to buy some time before the structure had to be relocated, the National Park Service called for restoration of the cracks in the tower that had forced the closure of this Outer Banks landmark. The restoration process began in 1990, and once the cracks were fixed and visitors could once again safely climb the 257 steps inside the lighthouse to reach the top, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse reopened to the public in 1993. In the years that followed, the erosion continued, and the epic waves that attract so many surfers to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore each year had stripped away all but a small sliver of sandbar that separated the base of the tower from the Atlantic Ocean.
In order to save the lighthouse from eventual devastation, the National Park Service had to pick one of three options for ultimately preventing the structure from falling into the sea: reinforcing the existing jetties that were designed to stretch into the surf and reduce the impact of wave action on the island; constructing a seawall around the lighthouse so that it would eventually end up sitting atop its own island in the ocean; or move it to a safer location a bit further inland. Although there was widespread support for all three options, in the end it was determined that the best option for protecting the tower was moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse farther away from the surf that constantly threatened it. In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed a relocation budget, and the plans to perform the so-called “move of the millennium” were officially prepared.
Although smaller lighthouses had been moved in other coastal states in years past, moving the tallest lighthouse in the United States was no small feat—and no structure of its scale had ever been relocated before. A New York-based company called International Chimney Corp. was contracted to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with the help of another contractor, Expert House Movers of Maryland. In order to move the structure from its perilous position by the sea, the lighthouse—which weighed 4,830 tons—would have to be lifted off its foundation and transferred to a transport system that would ultimately move it along a predetermined route to its new location, where it would be placed atop an all-new foundation.
The first step in the process of moving the lighthouse was to replace the original foundation with temporary supports and shoring beams. A series of cross beams and main beams were then set, allowing the temporary supports to be moved. The structure was then raised six feet off its foundation by hydraulic jacks that were built into the main beams. Once the structure was raised, rollers and roll beams were inserted. The jacks were shored with the use of oak cribbing, and the system was pressurized and lifted again by the jacks. As the structure was lifted off its foundation a little at a time, the jacks were retracted and shored up several times before it was once again lifted to six feet and ready to begin its journey down a pathway through the sand to its new location nearly 3,000 feet from the spot where it currently stood.
On June 17, 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse captured the attention of people across the country and around the world, as it started its slow and deliberate journey to the southwest. The support frame moved along its track to the new location with the assistance of roller dollies and steel track beams that served as rails. The lighthouse was kept carefully aligned by three zones of hydraulic jacks, which prevented the structure from swaying and potentially tipping over. The support frame was pulled forward toward the new lighthouse location just five feet at a time by a series of push jacks that were clamped to the track. Sixty automated sensors placed in various positions on the lighthouse constantly measured the load’s tilt and vibration, and a weather sensor attached to the top of the lighthouse kept tabs on the temperature and wind speed throughout the entire moving process.
Three weeks after the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began its 2,900-foot journey from its perilous perch on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean the move was complete, and the structure was placed on top of its new foundation. The lighthouse joined several other structures that had been relocated from the original lighthouse site earlier that year, including the principal keeper’s quarters, the double keeper’s quarters, an oil house and cisterns. Finally saved from years spent facing the risk of tumbling into the ocean that had continuously eroded the shoreline over which it stood watch for centuries, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse reopened to the public on November 13, 1999, and once again resumed its status as one of the most iconic landmarks on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.