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Moving Cape Hatteras lighthouse.

The sands of time are literally running out at Cape Hatteras, where one of the most famous lighthouses in the country may be a storm away from tumbling into the sea. The Park Service wants to move the cultural icon 1,600 feet inland.

To appreciate the size of North Carolina's Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, first you must climb its steps. All 255 of them. Then, while you stand some 200 feet above the sea catching your breath, look to the dolphins dancing in the waves below, to the Atlantic breaking on Diamond Shoals, to the clouds riding the warm breath of the Gulf Stream just a few miles east. All the world seems to move around you and this lighthouse, so immutable and enduring.

All the world is moving around the lighthouse: the water, the clouds, and most significantly, the sand on which it sits--and that is the problem. When the light was built at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 1870, it stood 1,500 feet from the ocean. Now it is about 120 feet. The beach erodes roughly ten feet a year, according to recent studies. And the National Park Service (NPS), North Carolina's governor and General Assembly, and the National Academy of Sciences say that is too close. They want to move the lighthouse and its associated buildings 1,600 feet inland and 2,500 feet southwest.

"Emotionally, when you look at something that big and you think about moving it, yeah, it does give people pause," says Sean Callinicos, general counsel for Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.). "But most folks think this is a good idea."

The NPS proposal to move the light, says Don Barger, NPCA's Southeast regional director, "recognizes the essential nature of a barrier island." Because those islands move, Barger explains, "anything constructed on them is almost by definition temporary unless you're willing to move with the island. The effort to try to fight the natural movement of the island by continuing to just berm up the lighthouse would result in its loss."

The magnitude of the task required, however, has fueled a debate over its advisability. "It's a high risk that shouldn't be taken unless you've got to," says Hugh Morton, president of Save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Committee, "and we don't think they've got to."

Opponents argue that moving the lighthouse will cost a fortune (about $12 million, to be exact), endanger a national historic monument, and ruin the character of the historic site and North Carolina's hottest tourist draw. Instead, they propose spending about $1.7 million to build a groin into the sea in front of the lighthouse. Such a structure off the beach, they say, will help sand to accrete and protect the light for at least a few more decades.

"Out here, we deal in short-term responses to Mother Nature," adds Danny Couch, who has lived on Hatteras Island all his life. "We just feel that to propose a 100-year solution on a barrier island that is forever changing is somewhat far-fetched. For a lot less money you can do a 25- to 30-year solution with a minimum of disruption."

The debate over whether to move the lighthouse likely will continue much of this year. Experts say the optimum window to move it is spring 1999, after nor'easter season and before hurricane season. Congress last fall appropriated $2 million for the Park Service to develop a plan and solicit bids. Project manager Dave Laux expects NPS to choose a contractor by June. The rest of the contract--$9.8 million for the actual move--is on hold until Congress passes the fiscal 1999 budget and appropriates the money, potentially riot until the end of the year. Meanwhile, Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.) held a public meeting in April to air the pros and cons, and opponents still hope to convince Congress to hold up the money and stop the move.

Everyone agrees on one thing at least: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse deserves protection. The tallest in the country and with a candy-striped tower, the light is perhaps the most compelling single symbol of our nation's maritime history, drawing more than 250,000 visitors annually Built to warn mariners away from Diamond Shoals, the 2,800-ton brick lighthouse stands on a bed of red granite. The foundation rests no more than eight feet beneath the sand on a pine timber mat under the freshwater table. Near the lighthouse are an 1892 brick oil house used to store kerosene to fuel the light, as well as two keeper's houses, one built in 1854 and the other in 1871. All are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Though it has withstood the wildest weather on the East Coast, the lighthouse's weakness is the very island on which it stands. Efforts to slow the sand's inevitable movement began as early as the 1930s and have included building artificial dunes and steel or concrete groins; replenishing the beach with sand; and planting real and artificial seagrass to hold the sand in place. In 1936, the Coast Guard so doubted the lighthouse's future that it built a steel light tower at Buxton to assume its duties. But by 1950, the lighthouse was still standing, and the Coast Guard resumed operations there under an NPS permit. It remains a working aid to navigation.

Natural erosion and moving sand have always threatened the light, but human intervention. has complicated matters. In 1969, three steel groins were built from the beach. Two of them were built just north of the lighthouse in front of a former naval facility. The third is built about 100 feet south of the lighthouse. The groins work to build up sand. But they also erode the beach just south of the groins. In 1988, when the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) studied the lighthouse and options to save it, 160 feet of beach separated the lighthouse from the sea. By 1995, it had shrunk to 135 feet, and as of October 1997, the distance had shrunk to about 120 feet.

The NAS report studied a variety of options for saving the lighthouse, including moving it all at once, moving it a little now and a little later, and building artificial reefs, a seawall, and offshore breakwaters. The National Park Service followed up with studies of specific options and concluded that moving it is the best choice for long-term preservation. An ad hoc committee at North Carolina State University last year reached the same conclusion: "If Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is to be preserved for enjoyment by future generations, it must be moved. Since 1988, additional information about the structure geology of the Hatteras shore, the rate of shoreline retreat, the rate of sea-level rise, and coastal storms indicates that unless the lighthouse is moved, it will be destroyed by the Atlantic Ocean."

"We feel the research and the data substantiate the direction in which we're going," says project manager Laux. "Until the light moves there's always going to be concern about whether or not it can be done. That's the nature of the project. It's a very emotional issue for folks [but] we think it's doable and our confidence level is pretty high."

So, how crazy is it to move a lighthouse?

Not very, using history as a guide, says Wayne Wheeler, president of the San Francisco-based US. Lighthouse Society. The Lighthouse Service, he says, has "actually constructed structures that could be moved. The cast iron lighthouse at Cape Canaveral was moved twice, and the lighthouse at Hunting Island, S.C., was moved twice.".

Sharps Island lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay at one time was a house literally built on wheels and constantly moved to outrun erosion. The north tower at Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was moved in 1923 to replace three lights--called the three sisters--at Nauset, says Eileen Woodford, NPCA's Northeast regional director.

OK, but how scary is it to move a 2,800-ton lighthouse?

"Not at all," says Joe Jacubik, project manager for the Buffalo-based industrial smokestack firm, International Chimney Company, which has been moving tall masonry structures for some time.

In 1993, International Chimney and the Sharptown, Maryland-based Expert House Movers, relocated the 120-year-old, 2,000-ton Southeast lighthouse on Block Island, Rhode Island, with its priceless Fresnel lens. Using a system of tracks and hydraulic jacks, die companies built a grid of beams through the lighthouse's foundation, lifted it, and inched it 360 feet. The operation also included the attached keeper's quarters. The move earned the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 1994 International Preservation Honor Award.

Last year, the same companies moved the 3,000-ton Gem Theater in Detroit, sliding the 1920s vaudeville house eight blocks to a new home. They also moved a 135-foot, 350-ton brick smokestack in State College, Pennsylvania. And in 1996, they moved two historic lighthouses at Cape Cod National Seashore, the Nauset and Cave Cod (also known as Highland) lights.

Cape Cod Light, which is about 140 years old and 66 feet tall, weighs 450 tons. International Chimney and Expert House Movers moved it 450 feet back from an eroding bluff The move cost $1.7 million and took a month and a half. At 15 0 tons and 48 feet tall, the 120-year-old Nauset Light was a little easier, moving 150 feet for about $300,000.

"Granted, none of these is as heavy as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse," says Jacubik. "But the frailty of the structures is all very similar. The problems you're going to have with one, you're going to have with the next."

Opponents remained unconvinced that the lighthouse can be moved unscathed. Those opposed--who include a majority of Hatteras Island locals and the Dare County commissioners--argue that moving the light so far inland will diminish its draw for tourists and its status as a regional and state symbol. And more fundamentally, they say moving it threatens to destroy something priceless to the community.

"The lighthouse to local people is not about science and feats of engineering," says Couch. "It's about history." Local groups, for instance, helped fund both lighthouse moves on Cape Cod and agreed to take on future maintenance. Superintendent Maria Burks credits community initiative and long-term community commitment for saving those landmarks. "These are small towns here," she says, "and these lights are icons. People just weren't willing to give that up."

On Cape Hatteras, most local residents feel strongly about the lighthouse; however, the same options are not available. Couch, the county commissioners, and others say the best option is a proven one: building a groin off the beach in front of the lighthouse.

Couch points out that, if they had constructed a fourth groin when the other three were built, the lighthouse would not be in the predicament it is now. His solution: repair the third groin and install a fourth one south of the light. "It has a proven track record," he contends.

There is a major stumbling block, though. In 1984, the state Coastal Resources Commission passed regulations prohibiting any such structures for the very reason that they interfere with the barrier island's natural movement. The commission did make an exception in the late 1980s, allowing a groin to be built at Fort Fisher in Wilmington, a historic stone and earthen fort threatened by erosion. Couch and others say it should make a similar exception at Hatteras.

But NPCA's Barger says in this case, the artifact can be moved and the beach left alone, and that's the best of both worlds. "If you try to berm up the lighthouse, you're going to be eroding the seashore, so trying to save the cultural resource in place damages the natural resource," he argues. "This is not a case where the two things are in competition with one another. There is in fact a solution that preserves both, and they [the Park Service] have found it."

No matter what happens, it's safe to say that the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras--just as lighthouses all around the country--will continue to impress and challenge the Park Service and people who love them.

"Lighthouses, even though they may not be used as aids to navigation, symbolize a lot about our nation's maritime history," says NPCA's Northeast Regional Director Eileen Woodford. "And they're beautiful. You hate to see them tumble into the ocean, and they're never going to be built again."

RELATED ARTICLE: The Dynamics of Sand

The beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore may seem like solid ground, but the footprints you leave--soon washed away by the Atlantic Ocean--tell the real story.

"Barrier islands are probably one of the most dynamic systems geologically that we have," says Dr. Suzette Kimball, the National Park Service's southeast associate regional director of natural resource stewardship and science, who was acting superintendent at Hatteras from September 1996 through January 1997. "They are influenced by wind, waves, tidal regimes, and by the amount of sediments available."

Mid-Atlantic barrier islands constantly reshape themselves. In winter, nor'easters--storms coming from the north--drive sand north to south. In summer, the Bermuda high pressure system that dominates the Atlantic pushes swells--and sand--northward. At Hatteras Island, Kimball says, nor'easters pack a bigger punch, so the beach is generally heading south.

The sand's movement also is cyclical she says. The shoreline may build in years when sand moves offshore, either pushed by a stronger wave pattern or when fewer storms arrive to push it back out.

Robert Dolan, a University of Virginia environmental sciences professor who specializes in coastal erosion and storms, says Hatteras Island erodes about four to five feet per year on average. But that number is higher in some areas, such as just south of the lighthouse, where the sand disappears at a rate of about ten to 12 feet each year.

The movement is caused by two groins built in 1969 just north of the lighthouse and a third to the south, Both hero and villain, the groins have slowed the erosion rate north and seaward of the light but have hastened it immediately south.

"It's really within one or two big storms of breaching [the sand and passing behind] the lighthouse," Kimball says. "Once it cuts off the lighthouse there will be some really rapid undercutting and the lighthouse will be in grave danger That's why taking a wait-and-see approach is not in the best interest of preserving that structure."

WENDY MITMAN CLARKE of Stevensville, Maryland, last wrote for National Parks about looting park treasures.
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Author:Clarke, Wendy Mitman
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1998
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