In the summer of 1999, our Editor and Island Free Press Co-Founder Irene Nolan was a busy woman.
1999 was the year of languishing Hurricane Dennis, (the storm that just lazily hung around like a bad houseguest), the devastating Hurricane Floyd, and – of course – the move of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
At the time, Irene was the editor of the monthly publication The Island Breeze, and in the prime summer weeks before Dennis and Floyd arrived and dominated the headlines, Irene dedicated an entire issue to the historic lighthouse move.
Staff with The Island Breeze trekked out to the site daily, and talked with crew members and foremen, National Park Service personnel, and essentially anyone who could provide insight on the delicate journey of the “move of the century.”
It was a unique time period for the paper, and the coverage of the 23-day physical move ushered in connections with a number of local writers and photographers who work with the Island Free Press to this day.
The lighthouse move was the first time that Irene had an opportunity to work with our longtime photographer Don Bowers and our longtime contributor Catherine Kozack, and if you look back at the series of articles and photos that were captured during the process, you’ll notice a lot of talented local writers’ names in the bylines.
So in honor of this historic milestone, and the upcoming July 1 celebration of the lighthouse landing at its new home 2,900 feet from its original location, we’re going to take a lengthy look back.
Our wonderfully organized publisher Donna Barnett, (who also worked diligently with Irene on the lighthouse coverage 20 years ago), has found and digitalized all of those stories that graced the pages of the July 1999 issue of The Island Breeze, and we’ll be posting them in the days leading up to the July 1 event.
So if you start to see articles pop up on our paper about the progress of the lighthouse move, don’t worry – it’s not being moved again just for giggles. Instead, consider it a “Throwback Thursday” moment that lasts all week.
We’ll also share our own stories and recollections of the move in the days to come, starting with the following passage from Irene’s 2009 blog on the 10-year anniversary milestone. Many folks have long forgotten that moving the lighthouse was a controversial endeavor at the time, and that there were a number of locals who spoke out against the potential and catastrophic pitfalls if it failed.
As it turned out, Irene was one of them…
“Ten years ago this month, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse ended its historic journey.
That journey took the lighthouse about a half mile to the southwest of its original location, where it stood guard over the treacherous Diamond Shoals for almost 130 years, to move it away from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean.
The move was opposed by many Hatteras islanders, who were worried that the old lighthouse wouldn’t make it to its new site in one piece or who just thought it should stay in its historic location by the sea.
However, the National Park Service forged ahead with its plans to move the iconic beacon. After six months of preparation, the lighthouse, resting on a frame of I-beams was moved by hydraulic jacks over a mat of steel to an area surrounded by scrub pine and myrtle about 1,600 feet from the ocean, which is visible only from the top.
The relocation became known as “the move of the century” and attracted thousands of visitors every day to watch the amazing engineering feat. Media came from all over the world to photograph, video, and write about the project.
After months of preparation, the move took just 23 days. It began on the rainy afternoon of June 17 and ended on the hot, windy, and humid afternoon of July 9.
I was one of the islanders who thought the lighthouse should stay at the edge of the sea, in its historic location.
Even now after 10 years, it’s still takes some getting used to seeing the lighthouse in the new location as I drive south on Highway 12 toward Buxton. When I drive through the village of Buxton, the lighthouse is barely visible from the highway.
On the other hand, the amazing feat of moving the 208-foot tall brick lighthouse that weighs about 4,400 tons was a singular experience in my reporting and editing career. It was, as I wrote 10 years ago, a triumph of the human mind and spirit.”…
(You can read the entire article here: https://islandfreepress.org/blog/e-40/)
Irene – as always – is spot on in her perceptions. My initial reaction and ensuing reflections were not quite as eloquent or dignified.
In fact, when the upcoming 20th anniversary first popped up on my radar, my initial thought was “Has it really been 20 years? Holy crap… I’m old.”
And to be honest, when perusing articles, social media posts, comments, and feedback, I was somewhat relieved to find that virtually everyone who was on the island during this timeframe felt exactly the same way. (And yes, it has been that long, and also yes, we have all gotten old.)
I was in school at the time of the move, and was spending a summer waiting tables for upcoming college expenses, (aka, beer money.) I distinctly remember waiting on a big table of crew members for breakfast, who were pleasant but loud, and who required a truly excessive number of coffee refills.
When the check came, instead of leaving me $2.50 or whatever 15% of the bill was at the time, one of the crew members gave me a penny that had been “run over” by the lighthouse while it was mid-transit. Apparently, putting pennies on the railroad-style tracks had become a not-so-secretive thing, and this person had a solid dozen pieces of flattened copper, with Abe Lincoln’s head warped and stretched beyond recognition.
I was mad. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with a disfigured penny, but I certainly could have used that extra $2.50 for sure. (Again, beer money.)
Two decades later, I have easily spent all of the “college expense” income I earned that summer, and couldn’t tell you where it went. I do know exactly where that mangled penny is, however, and it’s tucked away in a Converse shoebox with all of my other little mismatched treasures from my teenage years.
The “move of the century” was a momentous occasion from an engineering standpoint to be sure, but on Hatteras Island, it’s also intermingled with personal memories of where we were, and how much has changed.
We hope our upcoming wave of lighthouse stories from deep in our archives brings the summer of 1999 back into focus for you as well, and sheds a little light on why the 20-year milestone is a celebration for everyone who had a hand or an encounter with the project.
We also welcome you to share your own stories, and to join in the conversation of what you remember from the long endeavor that took months to plan, and just days to execute.
And who knows – by looking back and sharing our mutual experiences of watching the lighthouse slowly shift across the island landscape, maybe we’ll enjoy the upcoming July 1 celebration even more.
At the bare minimum, at least we can all feel old together.