It’s been 20 years since Highland and Nauset Light were moved back from eroding cliffs
It’s a familiar story: Perched on the edge of cliffs to maximize their visibility to passing ships, lighthouses are especially vulnerable to land erosion caused by time, weather, and the relentless pounding of the sea. Eventually the lights must be moved—or topple into the ocean.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the move of two historic Cape Cod lighthouses. In 1996 Highland Light in North Truro and Nauset Light in Eastham were both moved back from the ocean edge and given a new—though still finite—lease on life.
How do you move a lighthouse? The short answer is “very carefully.” The long answer involves committed citizens, aggressive fundraising, creative partnerships, and the special skills of one company that has created an unusual niche for itself moving old lighthouses and other historic structures.
Highland Light is Cape Cod’s oldest and tallest lighthouse. Officially named Cape Cod Light, it sits 120 feet above the ocean with its beam elevation 174 feet above the sea. Ships can identify it from 25 miles away. When the original light was built on the cliffs of Truro in 1797, it was located 510 feet from the cliff edge. In 1857 the lighthouse was replaced by the current structure on the same site. In the early 1990s, a measurement from the base of the light to the cliff edge showed only 128 feet, according to the Committee to Save the Cape Cod Light, a grassroots organization chaired by the late Gordon S. Russell. In July of 1996, the lighthouse was moved 450 feet west to put it about 550 feet from the cliff edge, where it should be safe for another 200 years.
That same year Nauset Light was facing an even more dire situation. Originally erected in Chatham in 1877 as the North Tower of the Twin Lights, it was dismantled in 1923 and moved to Eastham, where it was reassembled 275 feet from the edge of the bluff. By September of 1996, though, only 36 feet of earth remained between the base of the tower and the edge of the cliff. Work at Nauset began immediately after an October 12 groundbreaking ceremony, and a month later, the tower was lowered onto a new foundation at a new site across Nauset Beach Road. Although the lighthouse had traveled only 75 to 100 feet as the crow flies, it now stands approximately 330 feet from the cliff edge.
“Time was of the essence,” recalls Valerie Dumont, who served at the Nauset move as onsite construction supervisor for International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, New York, which orchestrated the moves of both lighthouses. “Winter storms had done a terrible number on the cliffs that year,” Dumont says, and the lighthouse was so close to the edge of the cliff, the company could not bring in heavy equipment.