It was the end of 1998, and Hatteras Islanders were dispirited at the prospect of moving the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse one half-mile from its eroding seaside perch. Congress had provided $9.8 million for the project earlier that year, and Buffalo, NY contractor International Chimney had already started preparations for the move.
That’s about the time the handful of local media started showing up at the site, and that’s when Irene Nolan and I became fast and close friends. Nolan, then the editor of the Island Breeze, was not just my compatriot; she instantly became my journalism soul sister. Both of us were, as Irene called it, “news hounds” and we were in our element at that muddy construction site in Buxton, peppering the contractors with questions and cornering any stray official who wandered within our range.
Preceded by years of hand-wringing and controversy about how to save the lighthouse from plunging into the surf lapping at its granite base, we knew the relocation of the landmark would be consequential to the island. But we hadn’t anticipated that the move also would explode into an international media sensation. Irene and I were in the thick of it, and we had a blast.
I was covering the project for The Virginian-Pilot, which at the time had a full-time news bureau in Nags Head. For a few months, bundled in our winter coats, we local journalists mostly had the project to ourselves, with a few stragglers coming and going from Raleigh, Charlotte and NYC. Filmmaker Kevin Duffus soon became a regular, joining Mike Booher, the official photographer for the National Park Service, in documenting the intricate engineering and exacting physical skill displayed by contractors.
By the time the lighthouse actually started inching forward on its 2,900-foot glide inland on June 17, thousands of onlookers had arrived on the island, and everyday of the 23-day move, more and more would come – families, couples, young, old. They seemed to come from every corner of the country and the world. Locals commented that they hadn’t heard so many foreign accents since catching a flight from JFK in New York City. Journalists and television outlets from LA, New York, Miami, Paris, London, Beijing, Barcelona, Tokyo, and numerous other cities crowded around the temporary fence to get a shot of the slow-moving tower. The weekend before the move at least 20,000 people a day arrived to the site, many carving their own pathway through the shrubby marsh. Restaurants, shops, motels and bars were overflowing.
Even National Park Service law enforcement ranger Steve Ryan confessed to having a great time interacting with the horde of people, who he said were all well-behaved.
“It was fun,” said Ryan, who is now retired. “It was like going to the state fair everyday. It was a carnival atmosphere. Everybody was in a good mood.”
The community had never seen anything like it – before or since, agreed Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch, a Buxton resident.
“We were like pieces of seaweed behind an aircraft carrier,” he recalled in a recent interview.
Couch, who at the time ran an automotive service station in Buxton, had been at the front lines of the battle to keep the lighthouse in place and protect it with a fourth groin on the beach. Local residents back then, he said, had a personal and passionate attachment to the lighthouse. They worried that the structure couldn’t survive a move intact. And many of them, he said, were island natives – Midgetts, O’Neals, Austins, Williams – who still felt scarred by the showdown in the 1950s with the National Park Service, “the devil incarnate.”
“That was their lighthouse, by God!” Couch recounted. “The social makeup of Dare County is not the same now as it was then.”
Development and tourism were also heating up on the island, he added, and the Park Service policy of letting nature take its course had reignited some simmering resentment towards the agency. In that context, the move was perceived as an assault on island heritage.
“It was a lightning rod for a lot of different things going on,” Couch said.
Indeed, to look at the bucolic setting of the lighthouse now, it’s easy to forget that there was a truly epic –and remarkably high profile – tug-of-war between proponents and opponents of the move.
When the Park Service decided in the mid-1990s not to pursue placement of the groin to protect the lighthouse and instead seek funds to relocate it, opponents in Dare County quickly united and formed the Save the Lighthouse Committee to fight to keep it on the beach. Another like-minded, but notably more influential, opposition group, the Save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Committee, was created by esteemed North Carolina photographer Hugh Morton, who was joined by other state heavy-hitters such as artist Bob Timberlake, former Greensboro congressman Richardson Preyer and former UNC President William Friday.
Morton, in a March 1999 interview in the Greensboro News & Record, lamented that the lighthouse would lose its “exciting seaside landmark” if it was moved to the bushes, and promised to provide funds to protect it on the beach.
The dramatic location on the edge of the Atlantic, he said, had made the black-and-white spiral-striped tower one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world. Morton also said he understood the meaningful attachment Outer Bankers had for the lighthouse on the beach.
“It’s a symbol of stability and courage and the history of man’s battle with the sea,” Morton said. “They think when you turn tail and run and try to move it you diminish its value as a monument to courage.”
With the support of a study from North Carolina State University that backed an earlier study by the National Academy of Science, Park Service officials wanted to move the tower, then 120 feet from the surf, 1,600 feet from the ocean, where it stood when it was built in 1870.
Although he initially supported the move, then-state Sen. Marc Basnight later backed Dare County in opposition, along with U.S. Rep. Walter Jones and U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Then-Gov. Jim Hunt and U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth supported the move.
But a federal lawsuit filed by Dare County – due to an earlier legal error -ended up being filed after the move had already begun. By the time the case was heard in March 1999, contractors had already relocated the five outbuildings and cut half the lighthouse from its granite foundation.
In his ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle was unsympathetic to the county’s delayed court filing in its quest to stop the project.
“Plaintiffs have failed utterly to demonstrate that they will suffer irreparable harm if this court fails to issue a temporary injunction,” Boyle said.
But opponents, including Couch, said that the Park Service had been waffling for years about the erosion problem and they were caught off-guard by the agency’s abrupt decision to proceed with the relocation.
With the benefit of time, however, Couch said he and most others in the community accept that the move was the right thing to do. (Coastal scientists like to point to the project as a prominent example that proves the wisdom of retreat.) Compared with those days, the islander’s relationship with the Park Service is much improved and the bitterness is a bad memory.
“It’s well beyond that, and it’s one of the things I relish now,” he said. “It’s taken a long time. It has evolved. It was like a virus. It had to run its course. It was mutual loathing and disdain, and it has evolved into mutual respect.”
But Couch said he doesn’t regret the fight to try to save the lighthouse at its beach location, and there’s no denying what a professional job the contractors did.
“It was just a great experience and something I totally enjoyed,” he said of that summer. “I believed what I believed . . . But when they started cutting that thing, there was no looking back. There was an aspect for me and others where we said, ‘Okay, where’s the lemonade in there?’”
For Couch, the lemonade was about $1 million in non-stop business, and ultimately the project changed the island’s economy.
“It was the big spark of why our real estate took off,” he said. “In 2003-2004, we were on the international stage – we were discovered.”
Through it all, Nolan and I exchanged tidbits of news, and naturally, lots of gossip. Still, as professionals, we always maintained an unspoken competitive wall. During the months of the project, we established a rapport with the contractors – especially the entertaining and friendly Matyiko brothers. Yes, we handed them quarters and nickels for the lighthouse to roll over and flatten, and we snuck past Ryan, the park ranger, just for the fun of it.
And to top it all off, we both were offered a chance of a lifetime, giving us bragging rights few other journalists have shared.
Donned in our mandated white hardhats, we separately jumped on the moving platform, grabbed a lever – and pulled.
We got to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse! How cool is that?
I still have my photograph. I was laughing with delight.
My friend Irene Nolan and I shared that experience, and often talked over the subsequent years about how that opportunity – which probably was over in seconds – was a highlight of an overall fascinating, intense and fun story to cover.
And it was a great way to cement a great friendship.