The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the nation's tallest, has been closed so it can be moved from its ocean-eroded spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to a safer point inland.
The 208-foot working lighthouse received its final visitors over the weekend, with 3,000 people climbing its 268 winding steps.
After Dec. 1, movers from International Chimney Corp. are scheduled to start preparations to move the lighthouse away from its precarious perch about 120 feet from the ocean. When the move is complete in June, the lighthouse will rest on a new foundation some 1,600 feet away from the Atlantic.
The land between the lighthouse and the sea has been steadily eroded, raising fears that the landmark will fall into the ocean. The National Park Service decided to move the lighthouse at a cost of $9.8 million.
The move remains under dispute by local residents and historical preservation societies such as the Save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Committee, who fear the structure will be damaged in transition. The committee wants the lighthouse to be preserved in its original location, and argues that protective measures can be used to save it from erosion.
When encroaching waters threatened the lighthouse in 1981, the committee was formed to raise money to help the National Park Service protect the landmark. The group's fundraising helped buy sandbags, sand fences and a synthetic seaweed that were all used to stave off erosion for fifteen years. But in 1998, the lighthouse was again threatened by the sea.
The lighthouse was a quarter-mile from the ocean when it was completed in 1870. By the end of World War I, waves were lapping just 300 feet from its base. The ocean is now 120 feet away.
Despite arguments against moving the lighthouse, officials say that the National Academy of Sciences has vetoed about 12 alternatives.
Earlier this month, Dick Holmberg, a contractor from Whitehall, Mich., declared that he could save the structure using his method of building concrete-filled containers to slow waves and cause them to drop sand.
However, researchers found the device would not be effective in North Carolina and would be illegal under a state law banning hard structures to stop erosion.
At this stage, only an action by President Clinton or the secretary of the interior could stop the move, Bob Woody, a spokesman for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said last week.
Another preservation group, the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society lauds the moving plan, and has helped raise money for the relocation effort.
The lighthouse was erected to warn vessels away from Diamond Shoals, which got the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic" for its unpredictable currents, frequent fogs and shifting ocean bottom.
"We plan to open it for the summer of the year 2000," Woody said on Monday. "That's our goal."
During 1999, visitors won't be able to climb the tower. But they can watch the work from a viewing trail that wilbe built next month along the 2,900-foot moving path.