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The Hatteras Move: A Century of Debate

By Cheryl Shelton-Roberts

For more than five centuries sailors had battled the wind and currents off Diamond Shoals to make the great turn at Hatteras. Chances had been taken and sometimes won but lives and fortunes were also lost over the centuries in this struggle between man and nature. At the beginning of the twentieth century another conflict appeared at Cape Hatteras. This struggle would also involve man against the sea, but from a different perspective. The sea was eroding the beach in front of the Hatteras Light, coming closer with each passing season. The U.S. Lighthouse Service became alarmed in the 1920s and for the first time, “abandonment” crossed the lips of Lighthouse Service administrators. In 1930 and again in 1933, to delay the advancing waves, the Lighthouse Service (then known as Bureau of Lighthouses) constructed “interlocking sheetpile groins”. However, back to back hurricanes overwhelmed the defenses and the sea poured past the tower and into the two keepers' quarters, causing them to flee the station forever. The Lighthouse Service, committed to providing a light at Cape Hatteras, erected a 150-foot tall skeletal tower about one mile to the northwest September 18, 1935.

The fickle ocean backed off for a while and returned part of what had been stolen. Efforts by the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Park Service helped to rebuild some of the disappearing beach. This allowed the Coast Guard to relight the venerable striped tower once again with the promise of future care by officials of the newly created Cape Hatteras National Seashore. To keep the light there would be a long fought battle till the end of the century. It would not be just man against the sea it would be environmentalist versus developer, It would be scientific opinions versus local opinions, The lighthouse had become a ideological lighting rod for those wanting to change government policies protecting the coast and for those local politicians who wanted to use it to get sand for their beaches

The Outer Banks are barrier islands moving southwestwardly towards the mainland of North Carolina, driven by prevailing water and wind currents. The battle of man versus nature has long been fought on this shore. The same currents that cause the dangerous shoaling of the sands of Diamond Shoals also drive the barrier island to the southwest as well as erode the shoreline. Man-made devices meant to hold the shoreface stable has encouraged the steepening of the headland upon which the lighthouse was positioned in 1870, yielding a vulnerable, shallow lighthouse foundation. The controversy over how to win the competition of ocean versus structures built in the way of nature has finally come to a conclusion, but not before a long history of clever attempts to foil the natural forces, inevitably the victor.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has long been a trophy waiting to be claimed. First contender has been the sea and its erosion, sometimes creeping, sometimes charging as if in a game of “Red Rover,” each time charging at the lighthouse a bit stronger, a bit closer, and with clear intent of breaking through any line of defense. Second contenders were the Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War when southern lights were the object of necessity for the Union Navy and the object of destruction for the Confederates. And the lighthouse has always been a trophy for Mother Nature in her muscular show during Nor'easters and tropical storms. Most recently the lighthouse became the desired trophy for two opposing views in a controversy over what method to use for long-term protection for the lighthouse. One team, comprised of county officials and private property owners near the lighthouse, wanted the tower to remain on its steepened headland, protected by a groin and sand replenishment to stabilize the beach. In opposition a second team, comprised of lighthouse preservationists, scientists, and environmentalists, advocated that the National Historic Landmark be moved away from the vulnerable edge of the Atlantic, in compliance with state and federal coastal laws that prohibit hardening of the coastline.

Those favoring relocation did not realize they were walking into a hotbed of controversy of developers versus environmentalists, private beachfront property owners versus pro-relocation enthusiasts.

Few visitors who come to admire this structure of stability know of the decades-old struggle for a foothold of its shallow foundation on the eroding Hatteras beach. As early as 1919 the word “abandonment” crossed the lips of lighthouse service personnel. But considering the significance of this light station, plans were laid out for erosion control: large sand hills seaward to buffer waves, interlocking steel piling, and groins. Some techniques worked, at least temporarily, because during an interview on living at the light station during the 1920s, a resident mentions the wide, smooth beach where locals played baseball on a field between the tower and the ocean.

By the 1930s the ocean had won new territory by overwashing the light station, pushing sea to sound. Family life at the light ended for keepers and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was darkened in 1936. It would be fifteen years before the ocean's game would temporarily halt and humans cautiously came back to the light station when National Park Service personnel began greeting visitors to the national seashore.

As predicted by coastal geologists, the respites were but temporary. During seven decades an estimated $17 million would be offered the sea's purse in attempts to hold back the Atlantic Ocean and salvage a beachfront at Cape Hatteras.

Nearly every device known to man has been used to curb loss of protective beach in front of the lighthouse. There was beach (sand) replenishment, as much as $1 million per mile, per fix; and rip rap, large boulders, placed around the lighthouse; huge sandbags; artificial seaweed; and three groins (over $1 million each) were built during the 1960s prior to state laws banning them to protect the Naval installation adjacent to the north of the tower.

David Fischetti suggested a new idea in 1987: move the lighthouse; appropriately his group was chartered as the “Move the Lighthouse Committee.” Colleagues joining him in support of relocation were executive council members David Bush, consulting geologist, Barrett Wilson, and Dr. Orrin Pilkey, Jr., Duke Professor of Geology.

It was at this time a panel of the finest scientific minds met to consider ten alternatives for saving the paragon. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) made a final report, “Saving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Sea: Options and Policy Implications” urging relocation. However, in 1989 the “Save Cape Hatteras Committee,” backed by Gov. Hunt and Senator Helms of North Carolina, advocated plans to build a revetment, a tall, multisided seawall that would eventually encompass the National Historic Landmark, cause a break from the mainland, and drift slowly seaward to make the lighthouse an island. There was enough risk of depleting the island's fresh water supply to make the necessary cement for the revetment that the idea was ended.

Again faced with no other alternative, the Park Service appropriated nearly a million dollars in 1990 to inspect and repair the lighthouse in preparation for a move. Scientists and environmentalists have always favored relocation as the best long-term protection plan. International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo (ICC), New York, was chosen for expertise in the field of restoration of brick structures. After all, a lighthouse is much like a chimney when it is a tall, conical brick edifice and it exhibits much the same qualities when moved. The restoration contractors studied every aspect of the lighthouse's construction, completed repairs in 1992, and declared the lighthouse fit for the move.

And the sea kept coming. There were unwelcome reports of summer seasons hosting hurricanes of more frequency and intensity along with predicted global warming and rising sea levels.

Public outcry for relocation, supported by a growing lighthouse community all over America, brought the issue to the forefront in 1994. The following year, the National Park Service created a three step preservation plan: first, protective sandbags were approved by state officials as an interim protection measure; next, a fourth, southernmost groin was requested with plans to remove it after the third step was accomplished: relocation of the lighthouse. But state coastal management officials halted the plan at step two. It was then clear that the Park Service had to follow the advice of the scientific community and the demands of Mother Nature

In the summer of 1996 because the ocean was creeping closer to the base of the tower, the Park Service asked the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management for permission to build a fourth protective groin as an added level of protection until funding for a move could be secured. The only exception that would allow state and federal permission a variance in hardening the coastline was in a case like that of the erosion-threatened Fort Fisher, an earthen historic site. These North Carolina state environmental laws strictly disciplined the search for alternatives to relocation. Nevertheless, local county officials, private property owners immediately near the light station and a western North Carolina developer sponsored an aggressive campaign advocating sand replenishment and a groin or similar device.

When the ocean had reached an average distance of less than 150 feet from the base of the lighthouse in 1997, Chancellor Larry Monteith appointed a North Carolina State University Ad Hoc committee at the request of North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight. The committee reviewed the 1988 NAS report and announced the 1988 findings still valid. State Senator Basnight played another key role towards accomplishing relocation when he asked for President Clinton's endorsement for Congressional funds supporting the move during a Presidential visit to North Carolina in spring 1997.

Chief Legal Aide for Sen. Faircloth, Sean Callinicos, kept Senator Faircloth apprised of the situation, yielding strong support for the relocation project. Faircloth sought and received $2 million by approval of his influential Senate Appropriations Committee on July 22, 1997 to be available in the 1998 federal budget, thus allowing the Park Service to plan and prepare for the move. Once again, work began to move the lighthouse away from the breakers, now less than 130 feet away.

The National Park Service selected International Chimney Corporation Incorporated (ICC) of Buffalo, New York from a field of applicants to complete the design phase of the move. Intense debate continued in the community and several public meetings were held with strong opinions expressed on both sides of the issue.

Enough local resistance to the move prompted U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth (R-NC), and House Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) to host a public hearing April 9, 1998. One of the most important voices heard that day was that of Joan Weld who represented the support of North Carolina's Governor James Hunt for relocation. The tide had turned in favor of the move.

One-time supporter of the move, Rep. Jones reconsidered his support of relocation and aligned with his constituency of the Buxton area to speak out against the move. Compensation for this setback for relocation came in the form of a senator's advisor, Sean Calinicos.

“The lighthouse has become an ideological lightning rod,” Senator Faircloth's Chief Legal Aid Sean Callinicos remarked. “By the time they [debates] are over, the lighthouse could be a pile of bricks. Then, wouldn't we look foolish? Everybody is concerned that if this topples, North Carolina will look idiotic, a state that can't protect its heritage…” (Tursi, Winston-Salem Journal March 28, 1998)

On October 16, 1998 Senator Lauch Faircloth announced that he had been successful in Congress to secure the money to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse ($9.8 million). The stage was now set to move the nation's tallest brick lighthouse 2,900 feet to safety.

For the first time in its history, things were falling into place in favor of relocation of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Park Service committed to the move, public officials favored it, environmentalists advocated it, the lighthouse community applauded it, the budget supported it, and the ocean demanded it.

International Chimney Incorporated, chosen contractors to complete the job, drew up relocation plans and began preparation work in January 1999. Expert House Movers, comprised of three generations of move experts in the Matyiko family, worked with ICC to accomplish the relocation.

And, as the old saying goes, “the rest is history.”