Digest>Archives> December 1997


By Cheryl Shelton-Roberts


On November 17, 1994, Charlie Snow drove up to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, took one look at the situation and knew he was in for a long night. The National Park Service Engineer had spent hours hurriedly ordering materials, finding dependable personnel to work overtime, and keeping one ear to the weather reports. Hurricane Gordon was still heading for the North Carolina coast and building strength, with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse dead center in its sight.

Like a well-trained military leader Charlie was on the battlefield to survey the conditions. As he turned to call in the troops, National Park Service colleagues on "Incident Command" because of the approaching storm, he heard loud crashes: the approaching enemy waves broke over the dunes. Wind ripped at his service khakis; sand and salt spray attacked his face. He saw that the massive sand bags and the southern most groin were failing, and with one call he knew he was without backup lines of defense. No heavy equipment would arrive tonight to help, because the road across Pea Island had closed due to sand overwash. If the Hatteras Lighthouse were saved tonight, it would be by Charlie, a few NPS people and equipment already on the cape.

Deep caverns were already being carved around the base of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse by heavy waves pushed by strong winds preceding the hurricane. Spiraling winds acting as the sharp teeth of a circular saw on the soft sand dunes and vulnerable sand bags imperiled the lighthouse. Engineer Snow squinted into the raging surf and stood alone between the lighthouse and the sea.

He set his jaw and turned to begin a job to keep the sea and its hungry waves from eating away the last 100 feet of land to which the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse clung for dear life. NPS staff members Dan McClarren, Assistant Chief of Management who directed the park trucks and front end loader, and Mary Collier, Management Assistant who becomes Operations Officer under "Incident Command," Bill Chamberlin and Doug Blackmon, equipment operators, hustled to the scene. Charlie mounted his trusty steed, an earthmover, and began to fill the hole with sand and any rubble that could befound-three hundred tons of it-a job that would last until two in the morning. Most of it came from an abandoned road at a LORAN site they had scavenged as a desperate attempt to find filler for the breach deepening with each wave's surge. Working against time, violent waves washed away the sand and rubble as fast as they dumped it into the hole being dug around the south and west sides of the lighthouse, threatening to become its coffin. Hour after hour passed, and the winds continued to push destructive waves further inland. Lapping sounds of the waves mocked their efforts, knowing even if the battle was won today, the war would continue to be lost tomorrow.

Today Cape Hatteras is only one storm away from destruction. Had Hurricane Gordon hit head-on as was predicted by the National Weather Service last November, or had the 1994 Christmas Nor-easter raged a few hours longer, America's most famous lighthouse would have either tumbled or have been so severely damaged it would now be mentioned in memorium. NPS staff members and contractors worked through the Christmas weekend as well as Thanksgiving weekend when a northeaster storm followed on the heels of the hurricane.

Two back-to-back storms such as these are what pose the most danger to Cape Hatteras. The waves in their "normal" state are turbulent due to the tug of war between in the cold Labrador current meeting the warm Gulf Stream. the tremendous forward energy of these same waves pushed by gale force winds is virtually unstoppable. This may be the one factor that nullifies many plans for Hatteras that saved other lighthouses in other locations. Over 1,400 feet of land have been lost since Hatteras was built in 1870 despite the valiant efforts of many to avoid moving the historic structure.

And the storm season for 1995 has just begun. The National Park Service has spent a million dollars to rebuild one of the steel groins that has been the mainstay of the lighthouse for many years. But this is just a temporary measure.

NPS Engineer Charlie Snow explains that there is no doubt now that the lighthouse must be moved or it will topple with a strong hurricane gale or will have to be destroyed because of the danger the lighthouse would pose due to a weakened structural state. And Mary Collier stated "We were on the brink of a very frightening situation," referring to the damage caused by the approaching Hurricane Gordon and the following northeaster storm.

In 1989 Congress appropriated money to fund a review committee comprised of the nation's most learned people on lighthouses to do an in-depth study. The group recommended measures to ensure Hatteras' safety in the short run and to advise whether the lighthouse should be moved, ensuring its safety ultimately. The decision of the committee was MOVE CAPE HATTERAS LIGHTHOUSE. At that time, Congress had appropriated seven (7) million dollars to build a revetment which promised to rebuild the beach to protect the adjacent Naval station and to help the situation at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as well.

After hearing the committee's advice, assembled by the National Academy of Sciences in 1989 to move Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as the only decisive long-run protective measure, Robert Baker, the NPS would then favor the move instead of the temporary measure of building a revetment. Congress decided to reappropriate much of the seven (7) million dollars to other national projects. What money was allowed to remain for the Cape Hatteras project has been used for interim defensive acts such as dune repair, hundreds of sand bags, and groin strengthening and/or rebuilding.

The NPS continues its request for funds to move the lighthouse; meanwhile, repair work continues to stabilize the lighthouse. But, there are no hard plans to move it.

"The cost of moving the lighthouse is now between 10 and 15 million dollars," Charlie Snow began. "After all, it wouldn't be just the lighthouse that would be moved, because it would be important to replicate the site, including the keeper's and assistant keeper's house as well."

Not everyone agrees to move the light. High Morton, who saved the Battleship North Carolina and heads the Committee to Save the Hatteras Light has another plan. Back in the 1980's Hugh's committee raised a million dollars to save the light by building up the beach in front of the light. they did this with artificial seaweed and at the end of the test period measured the results.

"Governor Hunt and I took a tape measure; one of us stood at the base of the light and the other took the tape to the water's edge-and it was not low tide either. The tape showed it was 310 feet from the water to the tower-quite an improvement over the less than 100 feet when the project started," said Morton. The seaweed had trapped the sand moving south and built up the land under the water as well as the beach itself. But the Park Service never gave the seaweed the credit. They wanted to move the light from the start," he added.

Cullen Chambers is the site manager and historian at Tybee Island Lighthouse in Georgia. He is one of the most knowledgeable people in the United States on the restoration of lighthouses, having refurbished Key West and St. Augustine Lighthouses. He is now in charge of historical restoration work at Tybee Island Lighthouse in Georgia. Cullen becomes exasperated with apathy about moving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or the suggestion that we let nature take its course, or build an island around the structure. "You've GOT to move it," Cullen raises his voice. "Once you've gone past a certain point of erosion, there is NO turning back. This is what the island theory will mean." Cullen is referring to one of the alternative plans the committee of the National Academy of Sciences offered during the 1989 conference held to determine the fate of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. "Once you've crossed that threshold of allowing too much erosion and the lighthouse becomes isolated as on an island, the surrounding area will no longer support the heavy equipment required to move the lighthouse to definite safety. And for those who want nature to take its course, they are ensuring the doom of the magnificent, historic building. Imagine if every community held their architectural heritage in such low regards."

The United States Lighthouse Service built many lighthouses to be mobile and set several precedents by moving lighthouses dating back to 1840. Cullen cited seventeen (17) different examples where the United States Lighthouse Service moved lighthouses out of harm's way when technology permitted. A few examples are: Three Sisters, MA, in 1911; Portsmouth, MA, in 1851; Cape Canaveral, FL, in 1894; Chicago Harbor, IL, in 1919.

It is the writer's opinion that if the U.S. Lighthouse Service were in existence today, there would be no delay in repositioning the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Reading the Lighthouse Service bulletins from 1912 to 1939, it is obvious history was revered. The old Lighthouse Service consistently recognized a job well done, took great care to economize, but most importantly, kept each lighthouse in top condition, preparing for the weathering elements, even moving aids to navigation when endangered by the elements. In May 1936, Cape Hatteras had to be abandoned due to the imminent danger of toppling as a result of relentless erosion. The technology was not available to move the tall lighthouse at that time.

It has been stated that "locals" object to the moving of the lighthouse. And indeed, some of them signed a petition to that effect several years ago. There is fear the tall lighthouse will be damaged or will fall during the move.

"Today the moving of the lighthouse is not that big of a deal," says engineer Charlie Snow. "Yes, it is heavy, and, yes, it is tall. But we have the technology and it can be done."

Cape Hatteras is America's lighthouse, perhaps the only lighthouse known from coast to coast. When Harbour Lights started its famous lighthouse models it was Hatteras that sold out first. It was Hatteras everyone wanted-and Harbour Lights is on the West Coast. When Cheryl Spencer Collin started making her famous lighthouse models, it was Hatteras that sold out first. She is in New England.

On an average summer day, over 1,700 people climb Cape Hatteras's cast iron steps. Approaching the lighthouse, the people on the captain's walk appeared as a celebratory wreath, dressed in their bright summer clothes. Some used binoculars, some kissed, some just stared at the endless energy of the waves, renewing their own energy worn down by everyday responsibilities.

It would be difficult to imagine Cape Hatteras without the lighthouse, but that is exactly what will happen if we do not make a commitment soon. Nature will decide unless we make and execute a plan to build up the beach or to move the lighthouse. Relocating Hatteras back 1,500 feet would return it to its original relative position with the sea.

"I want my grandchildren to be able to come here and enjoy this lighthouse and the history," Charlie Snow quietly reflected. "I just cannot imagine looking upon this place and not seeing it."

This story appeared in the December 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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