#tbt: How Do You Move a Historic Lighthouse? Slowly, and with Lots of Soap

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 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in North America. (Among brick lighthouses, it’s the tallest in the world!) Ships can see its beacon from up to 24 nautical miles at sea.

1991 aerial view of Cape Hatteras Light Station
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands guard over a violent stretch of sea known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Erosion brought the ocean within just 120 feet of the lighthouse before its move. Photo by Mike Booher, courtesy National Park Service

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.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay. This work is in the public domain in the United States.
Pirates stalked the waters of Cape Hatteras before the lighthouse was built. The pirate Blackbeard’s last battle was fought near the Cape Hatteras Ocracoke islands. Illustration by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

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!

Looking northeast from above new site on February 11, 1999
This 1999 photo shows the path along which the lighthouse traveled to its new home. Photo by Mike Booher, courtesy National Park Service

National Geographic magazine published an article in 2000 that described the move as “one of the engineering triumphs of the 20th century”:

… 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.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as sunset starts in Fall 2013.
Today, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located a safe 1,600 feet from the ocean. If you visit, be sure to climb the 257 steps to enjoy the view! Photo courtesy National Park Service.

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.

One thought on “#tbt: How Do You Move a Historic Lighthouse? Slowly, and with Lots of Soap

  1. This story caught my eye and I love this part of the US. I can’t wait to share with my students.

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