BUXTON, N.C.

More than 100 people gathered here Monday to mark the move of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 20 years ago.

They praised the engineering feat of moving a 4,800-ton tower standing 198 feet tall over more than a half mile of unstable sands in unpredictable winds.

A few yards away, dozens of visitors lined up to climb the iconic black and white striped beacon while tickets were free for the day. Artifacts and photos from the move were on display in the restored keepers quarters close by. The National Park Service owns the lighthouse and the Coast Guard still maintains the beacon that flashes seaward about 20 miles.

"You saved it," said Terry Ann Jennette Ponton, granddaughter of Unaka Jennette, the last keeper of the lighthouse. "You saved my lighthouse. I always say it's mine. I just let the Park Service take care of it."

The distance between the ocean and the lighthouse was so wide decades ago that her grandfather and friends played baseball on the beach, she said. But the sand eroded over time and there were days when waves crashed against the tower's foundation.

Lighthouse officials tried over decades to save it including installing seawalls in the ocean, buffering it with sandbags and experimenting with a barrier of artificial grasses. Nothing worked.

A federal study in 1980s came up with several options including building a new lighthouse to replace the one that had stood there since 1870. The recommendation was to move it and the Park Service agreed.

On June 17, 1999, crews from Expert House Movers of Maryland and Virginia Beach and International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, N.Y., lifted the tower with hydraulic jacks onto a platform with steel tracks. They moved the structure slowly, covering 2,900 feet over 23 days. The first day it moved only 10 feet. A couple of days it did not move at all. On July 1, it moved 355 feet, the most of any day.

Locals opposed the move at first.

Among the speakers Monday was historian and current county commissioner Danny Couch who acknowledged he and others were wrong.

"It is difficult to fathom how monumental an achievement it was," he said. "It was a raging success, from top to bottom."

Twenty years ago, Ponton once spoke in favor of the move in a relative's home and was told to leave. Many did not believe it could be done.

"These people are crazy," Ponton said of the local sentiment.

There were moments of concern such as when jacks failed and had to be replaced with larger ones. On one occasion, computer monitors showed the tower was leaning badly causing panic through the ranks of the moving company, said Jerry Matyiko, an owner of Expert House Movers. But a test with a simple plumb bob ensured that the lighthouse was standing vertical and the computers were wrong.

Scientists on Monday's panel praised the move and cautioned about building structures like dunes, houses and roads on dynamic barrier islands.

"Buxton and the lighthouse are not alone but part of a system," said Stan Riggs, a coastal geologist and professor at East Carolina University. "You have to move with the system."

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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