BUXTON, N.C.

Park ranger Olivia Hathaway spoke to a group of visitors under a pavilion set in the path where the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was lifted and moved to its current location 20 years ago.

Strong winds blow here between thick stands of live oaks and brush like they would in a tunnel.

"It comes right through here," she said. "Sometimes I lose my hat."

The long, clear corridor that looks something like a landing strip is a remnant of when in 1999 engineers moved one of the world's most famous lighthouses — standing 198 feet tall and weighing 4,800 tons — across more than a half mile of unstable sands in gusty winds to save it from waves crashing around its foundation.

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is holding daily presentations through the summer next to the nation's tallest lighthouse describing the engineering feat.

The park will also mark the anniversary on July 1 with speeches, a question and answer session with experts, artifacts from the move, ranger talks, activities for children and free lighthouse climbing.

Efforts to save the lighthouse from an unpredictable sea began a century ago.

In 1919, the ocean was lapping within 300 feet of the structure's base. The beach had eroded more than 1,000 feet since the tower's construction a half century earlier, according to a park history.

Lighthouse officials installed sea walls called groins to try and stop the encroachment. In 1933, the surf was only 100 feet away and then two years later, waves broke onto the base, Hathaway said.

The light was abandoned and a steel tower went up to replace it. By the end of World War II, the beach had expanded to between 500 and 900 feet, according the park history. With the enlarged shoreline and dune work by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a light was returned to the brick tower in 1950.

Over the next two decades, the beach receded again, prompting action from the National Park Service including pumping in sand, installing sandbags and experimenting with artificial sea grasses, Hathaway said. In 1975, cracks appeared on the tower and it was closed to public.

By 1980, the shoreline was only about 70 feet from the base. The tower sat on a foundation of pine timbers set on hard-packed sand eight feet below the surface. Freshwater covered and preserved the wood. Five layers of granite blocks sat atop the timbers.

If a storm eroded the sand, or saltwater disturbed the freshwater, "the timbers would rot and the foundation would eventually fail," the park history says.

Plus saltwater would attract shipworms that could eat holes in the pine timbers, Hathaway said.

A 1988 study by the National Academy of Sciences recommended relocation as the best way to save the lighthouse. For the next seven years, the study was hotly debated. There was a letter writing campaign and a lawsuit to keep the lighthouse in place.

Many locals worried over how a structure made of more than a million bricks standing nearly 200 feet tall could travel over a barrier island known for strong winds and shifting sand, said Danny Couch, a Dare County commissioner, Hatteras Island businessman and local historian.

The black and white candy striped tower had stood on that site, flashing its light 20 miles over the Graveyard of the Atlantic, for 130 years. People who lived and worked there had a huge stake in this icon, he said. The relationship between natives and the park service was strained, which added to the angst.

North Carolina State University did another study and also concluded that the light must be moved. The park received federal funding and went ahead with its plans.

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 on June 17, 1999. Over 23 days it slowly crept forward 2,900 feet southwest on steel tracks. The first day it moved only 10 feet, Hathaway said. On another day it moved 355 feet. A couple of days it did not move at all.

Thousands of people turned out daily to watch the move in part to see an engineering feat that had worldwide attention and in part to see if the tower could make the trip without toppling over.

Steel beams became rails, and roller dollies allowed the support frame to move along the track. Workers rubbed soap on the rails to make the ride smoother, Hathaway said. Sixty automated sensors attached to the structure measured the slightest shift in the load and any tilts or vibrations. A weather station was installed at the top to monitor wind speed and temperature.

"We were very sure we could move it safely," said Joe Jakubik, manager of the historic preservation division of International Chimney Corporation. "If we saw anything wrong, we stopped."

The lighthouse finally settled into place on July 9, 1999, now 1,500 feet from the ocean again as it had been when it was first built on the original spot.

It remains the most important project Jakubik has undertaken in a long career, he said.

"I really developed a love for the lighthouse and the Outer Banks," he said.

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

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