Why Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Was Moved

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Outer Banks NC Buxton

If you plan on moving something that was constructed in 1870, is 200-feet-tall, and weighs more than 4,400 tons, then you had better have a good reason for doing so.

In June of 1999, a team of workers completed a historic engineering feat. The iconic black and white striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved some 2,900 feet to the southwest.

But why? Who would fund this expensive, never-been-done-before project?

Why Did They Move the Lighthouse?

If you know anything about the history of the Outer Banks, or if you’ve been visiting the chain of barrier islands for years, then you’re probably already aware of how volatile the shoreline is to erosion.

Every nor’easter and hurricane erodes our sandbar, making the island narrower and narrower each year. This process of natural erosion on the Outer Banks has been occurring since… pretty much forever.

When construction on Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was completed in 1870, the structure was a safe distance of about 1,500 feet from the Atlantic Ocean. Fast forward a hundred years to 1970, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was no longer a safe distance from the saltwater, and the structure was in serious danger of falling into the ocean.

The iconic structure was a mere 120 feet from the ocean’s edge, and it wasn’t a question of whether or not the lighthouse would fall into the ocean, it was a question of when.

Efforts had been made to protect the lighthouse before the National Park Service decided to move it in the 1990s. After all, the NPS has been aware of the issue for decades… How could they not be?

In the 1930s, the United States Coast Guard installed sheet pile groins (walls built perpendicular to the shore) to help stabilize and replenish the disappearing shoreline. This preventive measure wasn’t enough to stop the erosion.

So, what could be done to save the lighthouse?

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Park Service began planning for the long-term protection of the lighthouse in 1980. This three-year process included many public meetings and a number of ideas on how to save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse were discussed. Of course, the idea of moving the lighthouse was brought up, but was quickly shot down and considered “impractical.”

So instead of moving the lighthouse inland, the planning committee decided to build a concrete and steel seawall revetment to protect the structure. A budget was approved for the proposed project, but construction on the seawall never happened as this was deemed a short-term fix that wouldn’t prevent the area around the lighthouse from eroding, it would simply create a new island around the seawall as it collected stray sediment.

Fast forward to 1987, the NPS asked for and received some guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, which is a group of scientists and engineers (ultra-intelligent individuals) who are known for advising the federal government on special technical issues that require a scientists or engineers expertise.

After some intense research, a report, Saving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea: Options and Policy Implications was released by the Academy in 1988. Within the report, they considered ten options and recommended relocation as the most cost-effective method of protection.

So it was settled, the lighthouse was going to be moved inland… Not so fast!

Hordes of people were afraid Cape Hatteras Lighthouse would crumble if moved, and federal budgets continued to shrink year-after-year, so finding the money for the project wasn’t easy. The relocation project was at a standstill up until 1996 when North Carolina State University reviewed the National Academy of Sciences’ report and released its own report in January of 1997 titled Saving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea.

The independent report not only endorsed the findings of the Academy, but it also recommended that “the National Park Service proceed as soon as possible with its present plans to obtain the financial resources necessary to preserve the lighthouse by moving it.” Shortly after the release of this new report, funding was finally appropriated by Congress for use starting in 1998.

Yay, money!

How Did They Move Cape Hatteras Lighthouse?

After funding was finally approved and the project was officially backed by the US Government, The International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, NY was awarded the contract to move the lighthouse, assisted, among other contractors, by Expert House Movers of Maryland.

So, how exactly did they move it? There were five basic steps:

  1. The 4,830-ton structure was lifted off of its foundation
  2. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved onto a transport system
  3. A route from the old location to the new location was prepared
  4. Very carefully, and very slowly, the team of engineers moved the structure
  5. Once it was moved, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was installed onto its new foundation

Once Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was lifted, the structure was moved to its new location 2,900 feet to the southwest on steel mats. This process started on June 17, 1999, and was completed shortly thereafter on July 9, 1999. Pretty quick if you ask us!

The lighthouse wasn’t the only thing moved inland, the Principal Keeper’s Quarters, Double Keepers’ Quarters, oil house, cisterns, and sidewalks were all moved as well during February through April of 1999.

Will Cape Hatteras Lighthouse be moved yet again within our lifetime? Who knows, maybe.

Want to learn more about how Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved? Here’s a cool video from 1999 that explains a lot of what was described above.