A momentous move, at an inch a minute

Cape Hatteras Light embarks on journey to escape the sea

June 15, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Imagine picking up a set of encyclopedia stacked way up over your head and carrying it across the room.

Now imagine the stack is 200 feet tall, weighs 8.8 million pounds, and you have to carry it across more than a half-mile of sand. Oh, and the entire country will be watching to see if you drop it.

That's the task facing the International Chimney Corp. and its Maryland subcontractor this week as they prepare to move the 129-year-old Cape Hatteras Lighthouse -- the tallest brick lighthouse in the world -- back from the encroaching surf.

"This is a challenge. This is the move of the century here," said Jerry Matyiko.

He would know. His company, Expert House Movers, of Sharptown on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has moved two lighthouses on Cape Cod and a third on Block Island. Last winter, he moved the 3,000-ton Shubert Theater in Minneapolis, the heaviest object ever moved on rubber tires.

But this one is special, he said. "It's the most photographed lighthouse in the world, and the people are lined up out here six deep all day." If anything goes wrong, there will be plenty of video.

The brick-and-granite Outer Banks landmark has already been sheared from its granite base. Last week, the familiar black and white spiral stripes that have graced millions of postcards, North Carolina tourist brochures and vacation snapshots were jacked 6 feet higher into the salt air.

Sometime later this week, more hydraulic jacks will begin shoving the structure toward the southwest on steel rollers and rails. At an inch a minute, the Hatteras light is expected to arrive at its destination in four to six weeks.

When the $9.5 million job is done, the old beacon will stand on a new concrete pad, 2 feet higher than its old spot, and 1,480 feet farther from the sea.

That's about the same buffer the light enjoyed when it was new in 1870. Since that time, however, the surf and Hatteras Island have been migrating westward.

In the 1930s, the waves had chewed so close to the old lighthouse that the Coast Guard built the first stone walls, or "groins," out from the beach to trap sand and slow the erosion. In 1936 they moved the navigational beacon to a steel tower in nearby Buxton Woods and left the lighthouse to its fate.

Although the navigation beacon was later automated and returned to the old lighthouse, further efforts to stabilize the beach, with more groins and sand replenishment, have fallen short. The light now stands just 120 feet from the sea.

Many North Carolinians urged renewed efforts to slow the erosion. But in 1988, experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that relocation was the most cost-effective solution. In 1996, after years of debate, the National Park Service began serious planning for this summer's move.

The decision met stiff community opposition. But the last court challenges have been swept aside. Opponents are resigned but heartbroken.

"All of our people remain unreconstructed," said Hugh M. Morton, chairman of the Save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Committee. "We hope they succeed, but even if they do succeed, North Carolina will have suffered a loss."

First, he said, the state will lose a priceless promotional image of the lighthouse at the water's edge. "At ground level, you won't be able to see the water and the lighthouse at the same time."

But the move also seems to evoke a peculiarly Southern sense of defeat. "People down there feel it has been a symbol of strength and stability, and a monument to heroes," Morton said. "When you turn tail and run, and admit defeat and move it, it no longer has a monument-to-heroes quality."

But move it will.

It is the tallest masonry structure anyone has ever attempted to move, six times taller than it is wide at the base. It was built with a tapered exterior tube with walls 46 inches thick at the base, and a cylindrical interior tube 20 inches thick at the base. The inner and outer walls merge 134 feet from the bottom.

The whole thing rests on a base of Vermont rose granite. The stones were laid on a double pad of crisscrossed yellow pine timbers set below the water table, where the lack of oxygen helped preserve them.

Last winter, International Chimney began work on an ingenious moving plan created in consultation with Peter Friesen, a Lynden, Wash., engineer known in the industry as "Mr. Mover."

The company and its subcontractors began by digging around the lighthouse's foundation to expose the five stepped layers, or plinths, of granite. The four upper layers were reinforced with steel beams and wood wedges.

"It's very important for us to keep the base together. That's where all the action is when we're shifting the load onto the beam system," said International Chimney manager Joe Jakubik.

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