RALEIGH, N.C. -- When the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved 15 years ago, the massive stones that held up the famous beacon were left behind at the erosion-prone spot on the Atlantic.
A nonprofit group paid to have the stones engraved with the names of the 83 light keepers, and the stones were then placed in a circle that became a popular spot for weddings and other events. But as erosion continues to threaten the area and sand from storms such as Isabel and Sandy covers the stones, Hatteras Island residents now want the stones moved to the lighthouse.
"Eventually, if they are not moved, they will probably be washed to sea," said Bruce Roberts, co-founder of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, the nonprofit that paid $11,500 to have the 20 or so stones engraved.
"I think in some ways that circle of stones became almost a sacred place," he said of the spot that's become known as the Circle of Stone. "People got married there. It's one of the most special places on the Outer Banks."
The smallest stone weighs about 3,000 pounds, said his wife, Cheryl Shelton Roberts, the society's other co-founder who worked meticulously to make sure each keeper's name was spelled correctly, along with his first year of service. The names include the keepers of this lighthouse and the original one, built in 1803, which no longer exists.
Moving them is no easy job and probably expensive, especially since the Cape Hatteras National Seashore budget is $2 million less than it was in 2010. Instead, the National Park Service says the stones will be uncovered one more time in the spring, making sure they still form a circle, and then will be mostly left to nature's forces.
The stones "will periodically be covered and uncovered" by these processes and may not always be entirely visible, wrote Barclay Trimble, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in an email to Dawn Taylor, president of the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society.
Taylor provided the email to The Associated Press and posted it on a Facebook page for lighthouse keeper descendants.
Trimble maintains that Lighthouse Society members agreed with that decision. But Bett Padgett, president of the lighthouse society, insists they are opposed to the plans.
"In order to preserve them, they must be moved," Padgett said.
In a letter dated June 14, 2013, she wrote to Trimble that the current society members and the society founders "unanimously disapprove of allowing the stones to be covered by sand and sea, just as they did not want that to happen to the light itself."
Cleaning the stones involves far more than a broom and a shovel. They're so covered with sand that Trimble, who became the seashore superintendent in October 2012, has never seen them. The stones would have to be placed in slings and lifted by heavy equipment such as a front-end loader, then placed on top of the sand.
Taylor said she doesn't know of anyone who believes the stones should stay where they are.
"They're as much a part of the lighthouse as the bricks and windows," said Dawn Taylor, who has family connections to 16 of the light keepers. "They're the foundation for it."
In 1999, when the lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet from the spot where it was built in 1870, the society members were so relieved to protect the lighthouse that they didn't worry about the stones, said Bruce Roberts of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society.
"We were willing to compromise and trusted the park to do the right thing," he said, referring to the National Park Service. "The park is very sensitive about its moral obligation to preserve history."
The issue has the attention of Rep. Walter Jones, who has written to Trimble urging the Park Service to ensure "that these important pieces of eastern North Carolina history survive for future generations to visit."
He plans to write a second letter, urging the Park Service to meet with the groups that want to preserve the stones "with the understanding that maintaining the stones will likely mean they will need to be relocated at some point," spokeswoman Sarah Howard wrote in an email.