Digest>Archives> May 2000

Attempt to Build a Lighthouse on Diamond Shoals

By Bruce Roberts and Cheryl Shelton-Roberts


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Artist depiction of the completed Diamond Shoals ...

Attempt to Build a Lighthouse on Diamond Shoals

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Artist depiction of the pumping, dredging, ...

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This earlier artist depiction of the Diamond ...

Everyone knows the most famous lighthouse in America is in North Carolina- that historic light standing in the ocean, the greatest achievement in American lighthouse building established in 1891, known the world over as the Diamond Shoals Lighthouse. Standing with its first-order Fresnel lens 150 feet above the storm-tossed waves, nine miles seaward from the great striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the Diamond Shoals Lighthouse gives warning of the ever-shifting shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. With attractive amenities, the interior offers all the comforts of home. Come visit the lighthouse Keepers and see the raw beauty of the Atlantic as well as the emerald waters of the Gulf Stream. Tour the pride of the Light-House Service, the Diamond Shoals Lighthouse.

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This artist depiction from the March 24th, 1906 ...

This is how tourist brochures of the Hatteras area on the Outer Banks should read today. In 1891 the stage was set for the successful building of the grandest American lighthouse yet. Unfortunately, the script was not yet written and no one had any inkling of the fate that lay ahead.

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The Diamond Shoals Texas Tower was built in 1966, ...

In 1899, Congress voted nearly a half million dollars (equal to approximately ten million dollars today) to build an iron-plated, brick-lined lighthouse similar to the famous French icon La Jument. The U.S. Lighthouse Service picked the most experienced contractor, and by July 4, 1891, the caisson section of the foundation was in place nine miles out to sea from Hatteras on Diamond Shoals in twenty-five feet of water. Like a marquis, the tower would illuminate the dark and dangerous waters of Outer Diamond Shoals.

For as long as this barrier island has existed, a play has been continuously staged. A miserly sea has rushed upon the beach, grabbing vast amounts of sand, and with tenacious undertow, it then carries the treasure tucked beneath its rolling breakers to a favorite hiding place, creating the amorphous sand ridges of Diamond Shoals. While mariners have searched for this hidden bounty in attempts to avoid grounding, strong undersea currents camouflage undulating streams of sand, always moving, drifting, transforming, dispersing, and regrouping at shallow depths. Mariners coming too close to these hoards have been punished for their trespass, losing ship and life.

In 1890, interested bidders were supplied with a coastal survey chart of the notorious shoals. Anderson & Barr, experienced marine contractors of New Jersey, were chosen to act out this bold construction effort. Judged best from five bids received by the Light-House Board in 1890, their winning plans anchored the lighthouse foundation 100 feet within the seabed. Meeting the standards of the Light-House Board, the contractors agreed to build a tower "...to be an enclosed structure, solid and massive to withstand the waves and its base; the site all around the structure is to be protected by a riprap packing of granite blocks weighing not less than two tons each...." (Light-House Board 1890 Annual Report)

The spacious first floor, placed thirty feet above high tide, accommodated exterior hoists and machinery to power-lift supplies and three lifeboats, 25 feet, 20 feet, and 18 feet in length. Remarkable innovations, high-tech for the day, included telephones to connect the lantern and watch rooms with the Keeper's Quarters five flights below. A fresh-air duct system throughout the entire structure ventilated every room without opening windows or doors. Fresh drinking water was piped from storage tanks. A central brick chimney eliminated smoke from the furnaces on the second floor, the kitchen stove, and heating stoves in all rooms. The interior may have appeared as something from a decorator's magazine, but the exterior witnessed its reality as a solitary fortress in an endless battle scene with the elements.

From research found at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri, reports of the day exclaimed zeal for the project. The Engineering News and American Railway Journal followed the event for years. The confidence of the Light-House Board was borne of previous success including the titan lights of the Florida reefs and the second Minot Ledge tower off the rocky Massachusetts coast. The U.S. Lighthouse Service had realized great lighthouse engineering and construction success and expected an encore.

The shoal area in which the lighthouse was to be built reached a depth of approximately twenty-two feet and according to the coastal chart, there was a barrier shoal on "outer Outer Diamond Shoals" with 8-12 foot-deep water at its seaward edge. To confirm this, Captain Anderson, supervisor of marine construction for the contractors, wrote that he had "secured a set of charts bearing the dates 1862, 1885, 1887, and 1890, marked 'Corrected up to date for navigation,' with none indicating any significant change in position of the shoals." He believed that a suitable caisson could be floated out and sunk firmly into place during the summer season.

Afterall, it was his firm, Anderson and Barr, that had successfully sunk a caisson in Delaware Bay for the Fourteen-Foot Bank Lighthouse in 1887. Anderson had gained invaluable knowledge from dealing with the trouble encountered there when the caisson settled unevenly on the floor of the Chesapeake Bay. Furthermore, study of the unsuccessful 1881 attempt to build an offshore tower at Rothersand, Germany, warned him that a storm could prove the real threat to the construction, for a strong one had ripped out the caisson at Rothersand, and the ocean swallowed it completely. A storm was a potential threat since it greatly increases current along the ocean floor as well as turbulence on the ocean's surface.

Having faith in his lighthouse design, workers, materials, and endurance, Captain Anderson proceeded with the project. He was confident that the ten-foot water depth along "outer Outer Diamond Shoals," clearly denoted on all the charts, would protect his entourage and construction site from rough seas.

As a first step, Anderson took a tour of the construction site on Diamond Shoals. He states his first surprise was that he "...understood that a good place for a base of operations could be found near the Cape." Upon visiting the area, this hope was dashed because nearby Hatteras Inlet was not suitable to support the operations needed for building and loading of the caisson, an integral part of the structure's foundation. Norfolk was the closest port meeting the contractor's needs.

As reported in the Engineering News and American Railway Journal July 30, 1894, "The light-house [sic] which Anderson & Barr proposed to erect on the shoals was to have a foundation carried down by dredging to hard material, or in case only sand was found, it was to be sunk 100 feet below the bed of the shoal...[it] embodied all the points which their wide experience in such works [including a caisson off Cuba] suggested as desirable. It was to be built of cast-iron plates with a steel bottom. The latter as designed was to be a cylinder 54 feet in diameter and 50 feet high...On top of this was bolted a cast-iron conical section 20 feet high, 54 feet in diameter at the lower base and 45 feet at the upper base, which diameter was continued up for the remainder of the foundation."

The caisson's critical height of fifty feet allowed it to be towed to the construction site without overturning, and afforded enough height to rise above the waterline at Diamond Shoals. As the caisson was sunk with ballast of water and concrete, workers would continue adding six-foot iron plates to complete its 150-foot height above the water while workers dredged below, continuing the sinking up to 100 feet.

One important factor in all this engineering detail is that the foundation, also referred to as a caisson, was gently sloped upward and not a completely vertical structure, as had been believed and had previously shouldered the blame for the unsuccessful Diamond Shoals Lighthouse. While this is an important piece of the puzzle, there is much more to this story. In a personal interview in 1894, Captain Anderson narrates just where things went wrong.

According to Anderson, a sea-going tug was dispatched to do borings in order to determine the amount of materials to be ordered based on the depth of the sand at Diamond Shoals. The tug was greeted by a persistent storm not far out of port at Norfolk, fought its way to the Cape, and finally was forced to wait out the storm in the lee of Hatteras Inlet.

After a few days, the winds calmed down, and the tug once again braved the construction site. But as fate would have it, as Anderson relates, "About 2 o'clock in the morning, a strong wind blew up from the northeast and all attempts to take borings at the time were abandoned. It was not considered of very great importance whether the borings were taken then or not as they would only determine the amount of material to be ordered, for there was no doubt about the presence of sand to a considerable depth."

The Light-House Board then sent the Blake and a coast survey team in an attempt to take soundings and add a buoy to mark the exact spot where the lighthouse would stand. Captain Anderson set out at the same time on the Jupiter. On arriving off Hatteras, the captain of the Blake sent two of his officers and a quartermaster aboard the Jupiter with instructions to run down the ranges, use the sounding lead, and locate the outer Outer Diamond Shoal, which was said to be marked with a buoy." The Blake would then place the second buoy to mark the exact construction site.

The Jupiter drew 13 feet of water and crossed and recrossed the area, unable to find anything but 22-25 feet of water. There should have been a large area of shoals at only 8-10 feet of water, but where? Neither Captain Anderson nor the coast survey team could locate the outer shoals. At first they were so flabbergasted, that it was assumed that the Jupiter's compasses were "out of adjustment." And Capt. Anderson commented that he could assure the men that the buoy marking the shoals had only been seen on government charts for years. Months of work and planning began as a search for a missing buoy and phantom shoals.

So here lies the key to the foundation's demise, or so thought Capt. Anderson. There was no hope that the submitted plan would work, "...for there was shown no barrier shoal to break up the waves and protect the working party from the heavy seas."

The charts given Anderson by the Light-House Board were antiquated. The Blake's captain told Anderson that no new soundings had been taken for years; twenty-year-old information had been transferred to the 1890 chart. Anderson went straight to New Jersey to talk with his partner, Mr. Barr.

Barr convinced his colleague to go ahead with the attempt. He told Anderson that since they had $100,000 already invested into the project and their only chance of recovering their efforts was by spending a little more and attempting to put the caisson in place.

Anderson must have been feeling miffed. On his way from New Jersey to Norfolk he stopped off in Washington, D.C. and made his way to the offices of the U.S. Lighthouse Service to pay a visit to Engineering Secretary Major Gregory. Anderson knew Gregory had the power to stop the project until the contractor's concerns could be addressed. But as Anderson relates in an 1894 interview, he found the major gone from his position; moreover, neither Gregory's replacement nor anyone in the engineering department would help him.

Anderson concluded he must make an attempt to build the lighthouse. He felt there was a chance, with good luck and good weather, that he could get the caisson, already completed on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, grounded and stabilized before a storm could wreak havoc. His work force left Norfolk with three ocean-going tugs towing the floating caisson, followed by eight working vessels. On the morning of July 1, 1891, they were in position on Diamond Shoals and started filling the caisson with seawater to sink it. When it came to rest in about twenty-five feet of water, it settled three feet out of vertical. Anderson immediately ordered dredging on the high side, and by dusk they had leveled the caisson.

In what must have been a dismal dawn, the next morning's light revealed that scouring action by underwater currents had given the caisson a nine-foot lean. Thus began an act of strength and courage to keep the caisson level and above water.

For three days, the workers struggled in a futile effort to settle the caisson. No sooner had they corrected one side by dredging, than the swift scouring action of the currents around Diamond Shoals would scoop even more from under the other side. One night's scouring action removed over twelve feet of sand from the caisson's footing. Even with the utmost patience, perseverance, and engineering skill, in an attempt to keep the caisson level, their efforts could not overcome the quicksand effect of scouring. As the caisson sunk into the shoals, workers frantically placed the six-foot panels of iron plates needed to keep the caisson's head out of water.

While America paused to celebrate July 4th with pageantry, it was a far different scene on Diamond Shoals. Weather was gradually growing worse as wind and waves piled atop one another and barometers dropped on the bridges of the working vessels. It grew more difficult to keep the caisson level while adding height to overcome sinking.

Weather history documents a hurricane, an unnamed tropical cyclone, was rolling off the Cuban coast across the south Atlantic. What the scouring and sinking action didn't finish off, the storm-driven seas did. It was a chaotic scene filled by tossing tugs, workers, and caisson. Like an unseen stagehand, the storm drew a curtain on the act, abruptly ending the play, and Anderson gave the order to stop work. The Captain turned the vessels windward and all returned safely to Norfolk.

The Light-House Board Annual Report for 1892 succinctly states, "Since the destruction of the caisson on July 8, 1891, reported in the Board's last annual report, no further attempt was made to erect this light-house."

As an ironic anticlimax, Congress redirected $79,000 of the appropriation for the failed Diamond Shoals Lighthouse to build the sturdy Lightship 69. For the first time in seventy years since the first light vessel was removed after repeatedly being blown off station, Diamond Shoals would be marked.

The footnote to this story was written in Congress in 1904. A bill authorized payment of $590,000 (and would be raised to $750,000 in a later amendment) to Captain Albert F. Eells upon the successful completion and five-year survival of a Diamond Shoals Lighthouse. Eells was to personally finance the project and upon success, the government would reimburse him. Although his plans received much national attention, he never started construction.

Not until a half-century later, in 1967, would the U.S. Coast Guard successfully build a Texas-tower type beacon whose foundation would secure a purchase on Diamond Shoals.

From Engineering News and American Railway Journal July 18, 1891

"The Hatteras Caisson was reported as wrecked on July 8, on the Diamond Shoal. This report is practically denied by officers of the Lighthouse Board in Washington, who up to July 10 had received no information of any disaster. It is reported that Messrs. Anderson & Barr, the contractors for erecting this lighthouse, grounded the caisson successfully on July 1, and thus had a bout 7 days to secure it before the date of the reported wreck. Mr. Anderson believed that 24 hours of good weather, after reaching the site, would be sufficient to secure the caisson against serious damage by a storm.

As we go to press we receive the following significant item from the office of Messrs. Anderson & Barr; it tells its own story: - LOST. On Diamond Shore [sic], off Cape Hatteras, July 8,during a severe storm, one caisson. A liberal reward will be paid to any one finding and returning the same in good order to the undersigned."

This story appeared in the May 2000 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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