Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Location: Buxton, North Carolina

Year Built: 1802 (original tower) 1870 (current tower)

Height: 210 feet

Lodging: No

Active: Yes

Open For Tours: Yes (between Easter and Thanksgiving)

Hatteras Island, where the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located, in part of a group of islands called the Outer Banks. These islands are surrounded by dangerous shoals that make maritime travel extremely dangerous, and many ships were savagely destroyed by the unforgiving shoals. Congress approved funding in the amount of $44,000 to construct the original lighthouse “on the head island of Cape Hatteras and a lighted beacon on Shell Castle Island, in the harbor of Ocracoke in the State of North Carolina”. Construction was completed in 1802, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began lighting the way through the menacing shoals.

The original tower was outfitted with 18 lamps that contained 14″ reflectors, and stood 112′ above sea level. However, this newly constructed tower proved to be ineffective in navigating ships through the shoals, and did little to provide safe passage through the narrow corridor between the shoals and the Gulf Stream current. The inadequate accommodations of the original tower were laid out in a report written by Lt. David D. Porter in July of 1851. In the report, he stated,

“Hatteras light, the most important on our coast is, without doubt, the worst light in the world. Cape Hatteras is the point made by all vessels going to the south, and also coming from that direction; the current of the Gulf Stream runs so close to the outer bank of the shoals that vessels double as close round the breakers as possible, to avoid its influence. The only guide they have is the light, to tell them when with the shoals; but I have always had so little confidence in it, that I have been guided by the lead, without the use of which, in fact, no vessel should pass Hatteras. The first nine trips I made I never saw Hatteras light at all, though frequently passing in sight of the breakers, and when I did see it, I oculd not tell it from a steamer’s light, excepting that the steamer’s lights are much brighter. It has improved much latterly, but is still a wretched light. It is all important that Hatteras should be provided with a revolving light of great intensity, and that the light be raised 15 feet (4.6 m) higher than at present. Twenty four steamship’s lights, of great brilliancy, pass on this point in one month, nearly at the rate of one every night (they all pass at night) and it can be seen how easily a vessel may be deceived by taking a steamer’s light for a light on shore.”

Lt. Porter makes it clear that the extreme conditions along the Outer Banks are exceptionally dangerous, and require exceptional lighthouses to effectively provide safe maritime passage. In 1854, the suggested improvements in Lt. Porter’s report, a first-order Fresnel lens was installed and the tower was raised 150′.

Soon after the new lens was installed in the taller tower the Civil War began, and in 1860 the Lighthouse Board feared for the safety of the Harretas Lighthouse and reported that it needed to be protected, and they were right. In 1862, they documented “Cape Hatteras, lens and lantern destroyed”.

In 1868, Congress approved $80,000 in funds to build a new lighthouse, which is the lighthouse you see today. Construction was completed in less than two years, but went a bit over budget with a final price tag of $167,000. On December 16, 1871, the lighthouse was activated and was the tallest lighthouse in the world at the time. The old tower was removed, as it had been structurally damaged during the war and there was a reasonable fear that it might fall during a strong storm.

Soon, people noticed that the sea was rising, and getting closer to the lighthouse. It was a gradual process, and nothing of immediate concern until 1919 when the water line reached 120′ from the base of the tower. After several attempts to stay the rising sea using dikes and breakwaters, the tower was finally released to the National Park Service and abandoned. The light was replaced with a skeleton tower that was placed out of reach of the rising tides.

In 1942, control of the tower was transferred to the Coast Guard, and they used the tower as a lookout station until 1945. On January 23, 1950, the tower was once again lighting the waters of the Outer Islands, as the water levels had receded and the tower was now 500-900′ inland. Today, the Coast Guard and National Park Service share the responsibility of caring for the tower. The Coast Guard is responsible for the navigational equipment, and the Park Service cares for the tower and maintains the historic structure.

Im 1999, erosion of the shore reached a point that the Cape Lookout Lighthouse had to be moved. This was a monumental project and one that inspired passionate debate. However, science was on the side of those who wanted to proceed with the project to move the lighthouse farther inland. In a 1988 report titled Saving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the National Academy of Sciences found that moving the lighthouse would be the most cost effective way to preserve it.

In 1996, North Carolina State University reviewed the National Academy of Sciences findings, and released their own report titled Saving Cape Hatteras Lighthouse From The Sea. North Carolina State University not only agreed with the National Academy of Science, but recommended that they proceed with relocating the lighthouse and the surrounding structures as soon as possible.

How do you move a lighthouse? Very carefully, and by replacing the pine timbers at the lighthouse’s base with temporary shoring beams and supports. Then a steel beam mat was over the temporary mat and posts. Cross beams and main beams were set, and the temporary posts were able to be removed. The main beams contained hydraulic jacks, and this enabled them to easily raise the lighthouse six feet. Once the lighthouse was raised, roll beams and rollers were added and enabling them to move the tower safely.

Once the tower was ready to roll, it was moved to its new location, which is a safe 2900′ from the shoreline, on steal track beams that acted as rails. Three different zones containing hydraulic jacks were used to keep the lighthouse safely aligned on the tracks. Push jacks moved the frame only 5′ at a time, and 60 sensors were rigged up to the lighthouse to measure things like the transfer of the load, tilt and vibration. To monitor wind speed and temperature, the lighthouse was even armed with a weather station.

The Hatteras Lighthouse was back in action on November 13, 1999, and remains active to this day. Through incredible acts of preservation, you can tour this amazing lighthouse that is still the tallest lighthouse in the United States.

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