Would iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse be underwater now if it wasn’t moved 20 years ago?

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When experts decided in 1999 that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had to be moved to survive, Dare County officials sued to stop the risky relocation.

They lost, however, and the nation’s tallest brick lighthouse — built in 1870 at 198.49 feet — was put on rails and rolled to a new home on Hatteras Island.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the colossal effort and Charlotte Observer reader Phil Hildebran, 57, of Taylorsville wondered if the encroaching Atlantic had finally reached the spot where the lighthouse once stood.

Curious NC, a joint venture between The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, got the answer.

David Hallac, superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, told the Charlotte Observer the short answer is “No,” but he says that’s misleading.

“If we hadn’t moved the (Cape Hatteras) lighthouse, we’d be regularly dealing with the wrath of the ocean pounding that lighthouse in tropical storms and hurricanes,” Hallac said. “We’re talking about waves smacking against the lighthouse.”

Hallac says park officials have documented instances in recent years in which the old foundation is not only covered with water, but the ocean has moved far past it.

The track to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Staff photo Harry Lynch, News & Observer

“We’ve experienced situations where the (old lighthouse’s) parking lot, which is hundreds of feet away from the ocean, is not only flooded, but has small waves breaking in it,” Hallac said.

He has no doubt moving the lighthouse saved it from toppling into the sea. The National Park Service has a web page devoted to the lighthouse that says the tower was just 50 to 70 feet from the ocean at one point.

It’s now 1,500 feet back from the ocean at a time when a recent study of Cape Hatteras National Seashore predicted a 2.5 foot rise in sea level at the park over the next 80 years.

The National Park Service faced intense pressure to leave the lighthouse where it was back in 1999.

The proposal was condemned by Dare County officials in a lawsuit that claimed cracks in the 4,800-ton tower would make it crumble if moved, according to a Dec. 5, 1998 story in the Charlotte Observer.

A federal judge backed the National Park Service’s stance that the lighthouse would not survive further beach erosion, the Observer reported on April 7, 1999.

Congress supplied the $9.8 million needed to move the lighthouse, with the support by the Bill Clinton Administration, the Observer reported in 1998.

It took 23 days to move the lighthouse, which reopened to tourists in 2000, says the National Park Service.

Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs


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