Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
    in 1973.
Why Was Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Moved?

There is indeed something awe inspiring and mystical about this lighthouse, more so than any other. It is not unusual in the height of tourist season for 1000-2000 people per day to climb the lighthouse, with many hundreds of thousands visiting the park each year. Its magic is apparent in this photo as the pinks and violets of a fading sunset wash over the lighthouse. A rising moon behind wispy clouds competes with the lighthouse beacon in the evening sky.

But this wasn't the first Hatteras light. Its predecessor was built in 1803 just 600 feet southwest of where the current light stood for 130 years. The original light was insufficient for the job, as was its foundation. In the winter of 1868 construction began on the current structure, supervised by a reputable builder named Dexter Stetson. It was completed in 1870. (Stetson also constructed the Bodie Island Lighthouse in 1872.)

The remains of the 1803 lighthouse foundation, captured in this 1973 photo, ( below left ) is now gone; washed away in 1980 by a severe storm.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in1973.

The location for the 1870 construction, mandated from Washington, was a major mistake. In 1850 the beach was 2500 feet east of the lighthouse. But by the time construction started on the 1870 structure, the ocean had already moved 1000 feet closer. By 1919, a half century later, the beach front had eroded to within 300 feet of the light. Luckily, the erosion rate slowed drastically, and though the shape of the beach shifted, it remained essentially the same distance from the light for several more decades.
From 1930 to 1968 several ideas were tried to hold back the advancing ocean, even after the U.S. Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse and gave it to the National Park Service. A barrier sand dune system was built, steel pile groins were installed, sandbags were put in place and thousands of tons of sand was brought in.
Then in 1968-69 the Navy built two concrete seawalls to protect the small Navy installation next to the lighthouse, and as an afterthought, one more to protect the lighthouse itself ( see photo at left ). But still the battle continued against the encroaching ocean. The steel pile groins were extended, more sand was brought in ( 1.5 million cubic yards ), and even artificial seaweed was "planted" to hold the sand in place. But none of it worked for long.

Bold Action For A Grave Situation

The National Park Service considered many proposals to solve the erosion problem. Then in 1989 they announced their desire to pursue the option of moving the lighthouse.

In the older black and white photo from NASA ( above ), compare the area in front of the lighthouse marked by the large red arrow with the same area in the color aerial photo ( right ), taken by the N.C. Dept. of Transportation in April, 1997. It is quite easy to see why the situation was grave.

Click image for larger view.

With the lighthouse on the brink of disaster, the idea of moving this historical and aesthetic treasure was hotly debated. But in the end, the move as recommended by the National Academy of Science's, and later endorsed by a team of NC State University engineers and coastal geologists, was approved and funded.

The North Carolina Lighthouse Society article on the history of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse offers more in-depth information.

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Beautiful Photos of
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the Lighthouse Gallery

Copyright © 2003 Fred Hurteau           * Copyright information and image use policy *

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