Island residents and visitors alike gathered at the base of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Monday morning, July 1, to mark the 20th anniversary of the historic “Move of the Century.”
Honoring the 23-day endeavor that relocated the lighthouse 2,900 feet from its precarious locale on the edge of the ocean, the daylong celebration generated plenty of appreciation and memories for attendees who fondly recalled the controversy, hard work, and vigilance that the project entailed.
A number of speakers recounted their memories of the move that occurred during the summer of 1999, and many folks who were present during the milestone event were also present at the July 1 celebration to mark the historic anniversary.
“20 years ago, this community bore witness to an amazing engineering feat,” said Scott Babinowich, Chief of Interpretation for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “…It took 23 days to slowly move the lighthouse five feet at a time, and it was put atop its new foundation on July 9, 1999.”
“July 1 – today – was also a very important day in that move,” he added. “20 years ago, the lighthouse took its farthest journey along that trip in a single day, and covered over 350 feet on July 1.”
Speakers at the celebration included CHNS Superintendent David Hallac, Dare County Commissioners Bob Woodard and Danny Couch, Distinguished Research Professor of Geology Dr. Stanley Riggs, and Granddaughter of Unaka Jennette, (the last keeper of the lighthouse), Terry Ann Jennette Ponton. All of the speakers had their own personal ties with the move and their own stories to share, and the accomplishment that was achieved 20 years ago was a continual theme at the celebration.
“This move is so important to me for two reasons,” said David Hallac. “First of all, it’s inspiring. This tells us all that if we put our minds, science, hard work and engineering to something, we can move lighthouses, and we can move mountains. We can do amazing things.”
“This is also a testament to the local community,” he continued. “Anybody who has lived in the Outer Banks for the last several hundred years knows that this sandbar that we’re living on moves, and it moves quite a bit. It ebbs and flows, it erodes, and if you’re not willing to roll with the punches and move your structures and your houses and your roads, then you will be dead in the water… So I really think of the lighthouse move as a testament to the culture, the grit, and the boldness and the inspiration of the local community.”
Terry Ann Jennette Ponton recalled living in the lighthouse keeper’s house as a child, pointing to the now-visitors center close to ceremony, and noted how protecting the lighthouse was a constant concern for her family. “We knew it had to be saved… It really was to the point where if something didn’t happen soon it wasn’t going to be here,” she said. “But you saved it. There’s no two ways about it. You saved my family’s home.”
Danny Couch recalled the wave of controversy that surrounded the move, and how he was initially among the critics who were concerned that attempting a move could lead to disastrous consequences.
“[I was] a fierce critic of the move, so if you want to say something like ‘How did that work out for you, brah?’ now would be the appropriate time,” he said to a round of laughs. “But a large segment of the community realized what a great opportunity this was, and controversy can be a great stimulus.”
Bob Woody, NPS Public Information Officer during the move, also recounted how the media would often take an adversarial position and criticize the endeavor at the time, until they were able to literally lend a hand with the project. He shared how he let reporters and journalists take a turn at moving the lighthouse a few feet at a time, telling them afterwards that “Now, you’re part of the problem.”
Personal stories about the lighthouse abounded, and many speakers touched on the fact that residents feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the historic structure. “Every person here has a deep personal relationship with this lighthouse,” said Couch. “This really is a community story.”
In addition to the speakers and stories shared, the ceremony also featured a question and answer session moderated by Aida Havel, Outer Banks Lighthouse Society board member, as well as a performance by Bett Padgett of her original song “If I Were A Lighthouse.”
Throughout the day, visitors also enjoyed free lighthouse climbs, special interpretive programs and presentations, and informational exhibits that outlined the story of the move that took 15 years to plan, one year to prepare, and 23 days to complete.
Despite the hot July weather, all attendees were in great spirits as they looked back at the accomplishment, and celebrated a monumental feat in engineering that withstood the test of time.
“It may be warm, but it is certainly a fabulous day,” said Commissioner Chairman Bob Woodard, “and it’s a great day to celebrate the move of the century.”