An important rescue mission is taking place here on the Cape Cod coast, where the Atlantic surf is eroding away the sandy cliffs that undergird many Cape communities.
Officials have decided the only way to save a 66-foot-high, 420-ton lighthouse from crashing into the surf is to pick it up and move it.
Heralded as the Cape's most cherished landmark, the Highland Light in Truro - also known as the Cape Cod Light - is in the final stretch of a $1.5 million relocation project that began last Wednesday.
The white brick lighthouse, originally built of wood in 1797 and rebuilt in 1831 and 1857, is being pushed 450 feet on a makeshift railroad laid down by International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., and Maryland-based Expert House Movers Inc. They are the same contractors who in 1993 successfully moved the 2,000-ton Southeast Lighthouse on Block Island, R.I., and restored the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina.
"If man can build it, man can move it," insists Merl Copeland, superintendent of International Chimney. "It's strictly a function of time and money."
The project has become a major tourist attraction this summer. Hundreds of onlookers have gathered daily at the edge of a fence some 300 feet away, where a National Park Service ranger stands guard.
"Lighthouses are one of those interesting buildings that everyone takes a liking to," says Larry Davis, project manager with the US Army Corps of Engineers. "They are really part of our heritage."
Some enthusiasts spent a good part of their vacations waiting for the first budge.
"I want to see it move a little bit," says Ginny Stockford, a visitor from the Cape Cod town of South Yarmouth. "It's nostalgic. Imagine being out at sea, looking for that light."
The ultimate goal is to have the lighthouse open to the public by next April. The Coast Guard, National Park Service, and the local historical society are all expected to play a part in its operation.
How to move a lighthouse
Basically, the lighthouse is being jacked up from its weak, three-foot-deep foundation and pushed down a set of seven steel beams to a new location 570 feet from the eroding, 160-foot-high bluff. During the journey, the lighthouse will drop 10 feet in elevation.
In May, before any movement took place, the chimneys, lens, and window openings on the tower and adjacent building were braced. Some wiring and plumbing in both buildings was removed. Floors were also removed in both buildings. Cracks in masonry were repaired.
Although the lighthouse may sway at times during the move, Mr. Copeland says the bracing will keep it from tipping over. The Southeast Lighthouse, which weighs 2,000 tons, had only a few cracks as a result of its move.
Work crews dug out Cape Cod Light's foundation and used diamond-tipped drills to bore through the brick foundation walls and insert a network of 30 cross-beams. Four levels of crisscrossing beams form the base to support the building before the move. Twenty-six 50-ton jacks were used to lift the lighthouse from its old foundation. Six-by-six-foot wooden timbers were used for "cribbing" to provide space for the installation of the steel track, which consists of two sets of 40-foot long I-beams.
The hydraulic system that will push the Highland Light to its new location consists of fourteen 50-ton jacks, resting on fourteen 75-ton dollies. The move was expected to take about a week.
Twelve additional jacks will lower the structure at intervals over the length of the move, while four 40-ton rams provide the real horsepower behind the move, pushing the lighthouse five feet at a time. The track will be rearranged 11 times before the move is complete, Copeland said.
"The last-minute adjustments are taking the most time," Copeland said on the first day the lighthouse was moved. On the other hand, he said, lighthouses are not particularly difficult to move. "It's no more tricky than moving any other piece of masonry," he says.
Although there are other ways to move a lighthouse, this method was the cheapest, says Mr. Davis, of the Army Corps of Engineers, which awarded the contract. Another contractor proposed pouring a concrete ramp and rolling the lighthouse on massive dollies.
Who pays for it?
Financing the project took state and federal support, but the effort would not have begun if it were not for the Truro Historical Society, which spearheaded the project starting in 1987. The society collected 100,000 signatures and raised $150,000.
"We knew that the light would eventually go over the cliff," says Bob Firminger, treasurer of the society and vice chairman of the Committee to Save the Cape Cod Light. "We believe that it should be preserved for future generations."
If all goes as planned, the lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will be set in its new foundation this week or early next. An adjacent wood-framed light keeper's house will be moved separately on dollies. Additional work, to enlarge a parking lot and build a movable observation deck, should keep contractors here until October.
Other lights in danger
About 15 miles to the south, the Nauset Light in Eastham is in even more dire straits than the Highland Light, resting a mere 35 feet from the bluffs. Maria Burks, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which owns the Nauset land, says that project, estimated to cost approximately $600,000, is currently out for bid, and work is expected to begin sometime in October.
The Nauset Light will be pushed back about 250 feet from the bluffs. While it is no longer an official guide to navigation, it is still used by local mariners.
Unlike the Highland Light project, in which a federal agency - the Army Corps - is overseeing the operation, a private group, the Nauset Light Preservation Society, is the driving force behind the relocation, Ms. Burks says.
Group members have solicited about $100,000 in private donations. Another $500,000 in federal funding has been approved, Burks says. A steering committee of the Coast Guard, the Army Corps, and the National Park Service helped land federal funds.
Despite its close proximity to the bluff, officials do not expect the Nauset Light to go over the edge this summer.
Both lighthouses are graphic illustrations of how the surf has worn away Cape Cod's coastline.
Burks calls the situation a "crisis," but she notes that the lighthouses never got so much attention when their futures weren't in doubt. "All of a sudden, we realize we care about them," she says. "Both of the lighthouses have become beloved symbols of a special place."