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.
International Chimney was founded about 80 years ago to build smokestacks for steel mills along the Great Lakes. The company still specializes in industrial chimneys and stacks, but has carved out quite a niche in moving historic structures, including lighthouses. In addition to the Highland and Nauset lights, the company also relocated the Southeast Light on Block Island, the Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina, the Sankaty Head Light on Nantucket in 2007, and Gay Head Light on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015.
“Historical structure moves and restorations are about 20 percent of the business of International Chimney, but 100 percent of the fun,” said Joseph J. Jakubik, manager of the company’s historical preservation division. While a lighthouse has few doors and windows—which are typically the weak links in a building move—its vertical shape creates a concentrated load, that is, more pounds per square foot of pressure, Jakubik explains.
Highland Light was by far the heavier of the two lights, with an estimated weight of between 400 and 500 tons to Nauset’s 90 tons. Work began in June of 1996. After the lighthouse was braced and reinforced—a process Jakubik likened to “putting it in a girdle”—the ground around the light was excavated. The staircase was suspended from above and the floor removed. Then holes were cut into the foundation, steel lift beams were inserted, hydraulic jacks were installed, and the light was lifted. Roll beams and rollers were slipped underneath, and large pneumatic jacks began to slowly push the structure forward.
According to North Truro resident Dave Spang, the process was painstakingly slow. Spang is a former Cape Cod National Seashore interpreter who was occasionally assigned to work at the site during the move to explain to visitors what was going on. “Visitors would ask, ‘When is it going to move?’ and I’d tell them, ‘It’s moving now.’ It was like watching grass grow.”
One of Spang’s most vivid memories is of workers lubricating the steel beams with Ivory soap; they went through “cases and cases” of the stuff. “Each time they pushed it would only go 5 or 6 feet,” Spang says, “The workers would get down and rub the I-beams with Ivory soap.”
The all-masonry structure was very unbalanced because of the attached lightkeeper’s quarters, Jakubik says. “The keeper’s quarters had a light footprint and the tower had a heavy footprint. The trick was to keep everything level while it was moving.” Also, due to the weight and the type of rollers used, the lighthouse could only be moved in a straight line. “Right off the bat, we had to aim it where it was going,” Jakubik says. “There was no steering involved.”
The move took 18 days, from July 11 to 29, 1996. The $1.55 million cost was paid by a four-way partnership, with $500,000 coming from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; $450,000 each from the Coast Guard and the National Park Service; and $150,000 from the Truro Historical Society.
While Nauset was technically an easier move, there was far less room at the site for equipment. At Nauset, the International Chimney crew began the process by cutting a hole in the floor of the lighthouse, taking out a square plug of concrete, and digging below the foundation by hand with shovels, Dumont says. Simultaneously, the outside of the foundation was being excavated using a “mini”-excavator. “Vibration is not good in any circumstances,” Dumont says, “but it was very important here because of the proximity to the cliff.”
Next, crews passed steel beams from outside the structure through the center and out the opposite side, creating a grid of steel beams. Jacks were put in place and everything was connected through hydraulic lines. Then the system was pressurized to lift the 90-ton lighthouse evenly. “You have to lift it high enough to place dollies under the main beams,” Dumont says. In this case, the lighthouse was raised about six feet.
Working with Expert House Movers of Sharptown, Maryland, the International Chimney crew set the lighthouse on dollies with rubber tires, which ferried the structure slowly to its new home. The actual move took two days in November, which Dumont remembers as so cold that even the hydraulic fuel was a little sluggish. Not much would change, though, if they had to do it again today, she says. “Even with the advances in technology, you still couldn’t use heavy equipment on a lighthouse that close to the cliff.”
Hawkins Conrad of Eastham, who was involved in the earliest efforts to save the light and served as president of the Nauset Light Preservation Society, recalls the excitement—and trepidation—on day one of the move. “When they first began to move the structure,” he says, “the initial tug made the whole lighthouse rock back and forth a little bit, and we all went ‘Oooh!’” Conrad still marvels at how close the light came to falling into the sea. “We got out by the skin of our teeth.”
The $300,000 cost of moving Nauset Light was covered by donations and a federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) grant.
Ownership of both lights passed from the U.S. Coast Guard to the National Park Service, which established agreements with private nonprofit groups to maintain the lights. Eastern National, a nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, operates the Highland Light Museum Store in the keeper’s house and offers guided tours of the lighthouse, including a climb to the top, during the summer, Monday through Saturday (highlandlighthouse.org). The Truro Historical Society operates the adjacent Highland House Museum, which will mount a special exhibition this summer focused on Highland Light and the move (trurohistoricalsociety.org/highlandhouse). The Nauset Light Preservation Society maintains and operates Nauset Light. Volunteers conduct tours to the top of the tower on Sundays from May through late October, with additional tours on Wednesdays in July and August (nausetlight.org).
Ellen Albanese is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Waquoit.
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