For 130 years, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse has stood sentry over the treacherous expanse of ocean called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," holding strong through 40 hurricanes, countless nor'easters and the administrations of 25 presidents.
But today, in a moment blending history and technology, this American icon with the black and white spiral design began a 2,900-foot journey that federal officials hope will prevent it from falling into the sea. The nation's tallest lighthouse -- and certainly its most recognizable -- began moving slowly inland from the eroding shoreline along North Carolina's Outer Banks as a crowd of several hundred drenched tourists looked on.
The five-inch test movement of the 208-foot-tall tower at midafternoon was so tiny as to be virtually unnoticeable by the average spectator standing in the rain. For the crew that has been working on this project for six painstaking months, the thrill was in knowing that this rather rare undertaking apparently was going to work.
"I was up there on it, and I couldn't really tell it was moving," said facility manager Daniel H. McClarren of the National Park Service. "But I've got to admit I felt a little spark, emotionally."
Within a month or so, the move, which will be accomplished using a hydraulic system and a specially built rack of seven steel rails, will place the light station at about the same distance from the shore as it was when it was built in 1870, before erosion took its toll. The price tag, however, is vastly different. The lighthouse was constructed with congressional appropriations of $167,500; the move is costing nearly $10 million.
The structure will inch along at just 100 feet a day, creating a scene that National Park Service spokesman Bob Woody likens to "watching the grass grow or the hands of a clock move." But to the people who witnessed the feat, among the more than 1 million tourists who visit the lighthouse each year, the experience seemed worth the soaking. As the afternoon progressed, the station was moved several more feet.
"It's barely perceptible, but it's still pretty neat -- how often do you get to see a historic monument move?" said Kerry Keim of Chantilly, who was vacationing with her family. "I think some people thought it was kind of funny -- they expected something more dramatic."
There was, after all, very little to see, except for the lighthouse -- the subject of many a vacation postcard -- standing proudly in an expanse of dirt and gravel against a backdrop of dense gray sky. Severed from its granite-block foundation last month, it sat on steel supports that raised it more than five feet in the air.
"I just wanted to see it for myself, the history of it all," said Eldridge Willey of Cambridge, Md., who with his wife, Verna, brought their three grandchildren, including lighthouse-fancier Matthew Thorne, 13, to the mobile monument.
Tourists seemed to enjoy the spectacle, but it has been a sore point among many residents of the fragile Outer Banks, who question what state and federal officials are doing to preserve their homes and businesses as the ocean continues to eat away at the land. Carol Dawson, a native Outer Banker who owns the Cape Hatteras Motel with her husband, Dave, said her son, Ryan, a college student, has been making posters and decorating T-shirts to protest the move.
"The big picture here is that they are not going to do a beach nourishment program or anything like that," said Carol Dawson, who believes environmentalists would prefer the residents to pick up and leave the area in its natural state. "Yes, it's great that they're saving the lighthouse, but we feel abandoned. Human beings are lower on the totem pole."
In the past, the lighthouse has been supported by three concrete groins that build up the beach in front of the station by catching drifting sand. Although Dare County commissioners proposed a fourth groin, the state Coastal Resources Commission rejected the proposal, arguing that such hardened structures damage the beaches. Controversy about the best strategy persists.
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse earned its keep over the years, saving an untold number of vessels from the treacherous shoals of this stretch of the Atlantic. According to one account, more than 2,200 ships have sunk off the Outer Banks since Europeans first arrived, National Park Service spokesman Woody said. The station is still a working lighthouse, although it is now automated and not quite as critical to navigation.
Eric Hannum, 17, of Severna Park, Md., here to celebrate his high school graduation with friends Jake Posko, Andrew Jones and Matthew Heim, saw the man-made undertaking today as one small swat against a force bigger than anyone. He is glad to see the lighthouse preserved, but he is not surprised that the ocean had begun to engulf it. And he won't be surprised when it starts to happen again. "You can't beat Mother Nature, no matter how hard you try," he said. "She's always going to win."