By Sarah Rhodes
Senior Librarian, National Geographic Library
Imagine seeing a massive lighthouse lifted from the ground and rolling down the beach. Fifteen years ago, that’s exactly what happened on the shore of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
Why move a lighthouse? Because the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was in trouble, and this was the National Park Service’s best hope to save it.
The lighthouse stands guard over a violent stretch of sea known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Since colonial times, there have been between 600 and 1,000 shipwrecks along the North Carolina coast. (National Geographic published a map in 1970 plotting more than 500 of these wrecks. You can check it out here.) Even pirates—including the notorious Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard—stalked these waters before the lighthouse was built.
Completed in 1870, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse weathered roughly 40 hurricanes and a major earthquake. But one thing it couldn’t survive was a rapidly eroding shoreline. Originally 1,500 feet from the water, the lighthouse was just 120 feet from the ocean’s edge by 1970. Something had to be done, or else it too would fall victim to the Graveyard of the Atlantic’s crashing waves.
In 1999, the National Park Service embarked on a controversial plan to save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It would be moved out of harm’s way, a half mile from the shore.
But how do you move a 130-year-old, 9.6-million-pound lighthouse? Well, very carefully. And slowly. And with a lot of soap!
… the National Park Service adopted a technique that had been used to rescue other lighthouses, although never on such a large scale. The lighthouse was first severed from its foundation by a heavy-duty, diamond wire saw, then raised on hydraulic jacks. A support frame of steel beams was slid underneath. Lowered onto seven steel travel beams fitted with roller dollies, the lighthouse and frame were ready to roll.
During its 23-day journey, the lighthouse rolled at a top speed of one foot per minute. To keep this pace, the engineers relied on an old trick of the trade. Their secret weapon? Ivory soap! The soap was used to grease the giant steel tracks that guided the lighthouse into place.
This trick worked so well that the lighthouse slipped into its new home two weeks early—and without a crack. On July 9, 1999, it was carefully lowered onto its new foundation.
Today, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is safely located 1,600 feet from the ocean. And lucky for us, it’s open to visitors! So, if you find yourself near North Carolina’s Outer Banks, be sure to visit Cape Hatteras and climb the 257 steps to the lighthouse balcony.
From there, you can look out over the sandy beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the treacherous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and the half-mile path the lighthouse took to safety.