Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Beacon to Go Dark

Friday, August 27, 1999
The beacon atop the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was extinguished, as crews prepare to move the North Carolina landmark that has stood guard over the "graveyard of the Atlantic" for more than a century. But even as sections of a granite foundation supporting the nation's tallest brick lighthouse were being cut away last week, local residents battled to block the $9.8 million move. Opponents fear when the lighthouse goes, the island's only highway will be threatened because the U.S. National Park Service has said it will no longer maintain critical groins that prevent beach erosion near the lighthouse. "They certainly aren't true to their word. But if they are true about this, we'll lose the only road in and out of here within five years," said John Hooper, a local hotel owner who has joined a last-ditch lawsuit seeking to stop the move. Since 1870, the black-and-white lighthouse has warned ships of their approach to Cape Hatteras and Diamond Shoals, a shallow stretch of ocean where two major currents collide. Hundreds of ships lie on the shoal's sandy bottom, after being sent to their watery graves by storms and shifting currents. The lighthouse likely also would have fallen victim to the pounding surf years ago. But the Navy, to protect a neighboring World War II outpost from erosion, sank a set of steel jetties, or groins, into the surf perpendicular to the beach. With the groins in place, erosion in front of the lighthouse over the years has been slowed, while the beach to its south has been visibly eroded. Locals say the Park Service's decision not to maintain the groins after the lighthouse is moved threatens state Highway 12, which cuts across a section of island less than 299 ft. wide about one mile north of the lighthouse. Buxton, a cluster of weather-worn hotels and beachfront homes in the shadow of the lighthouse, also will be threatened when the beach erodes. Among a stack of letters, reports and studies about the lighthouse, Hooper, whose family owns the Lighthouse View Motel, points to an October 1952 letter from the Park Service promising to keep the road open in return for land around the light and a nearby campground. "What they should really do is build a fourth groin further south and leave the lighthouse where it is," he said. In the lawsuit to block the move, Hooper and county commissioners allege the Park Service did not conduct required environmental impact studies. Although it still stands guard over one of the most treacherous stretches of the Atlantic, both sides concede the lighthouse is obsolete. A beacon mounted on a Texas-style oil platform 14 miles offshore now warns mariners of Diamond Shoals, and onboard global positioning systems keep ships in safe shipping lanes. Instead, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which is visited by about one million people a year, is being moved to preserve a historic landmark. "We've never argued that it's an aid to navigation in this day and time. That's a moot point," Hooper said. Unless a court blocks the move, International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, New York, plans by June to finish separating the lighthouse from its base and lift the tower in one piece onto a set of heavy-duty rails. It will take about two months to slide the 4,800-ton tower to a new foundation about 1,600 ft. from the ocean. Once in place, the beacon will be turned back on. Although crews had planned to move the lighthouse by the end of the spring, it likely will be on the rails during the early part of the hurricane season. "As far as surviving a hurricane, I don't see that as being a problem. It's very safe," International Chimney project director Joe Jakubik said.-Reuters

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