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Kindling the Future: Relighting the Cape Hatteras Light
by Cheryl Shelton-Roberts
Edited from the Lighthouse News
Vol. V No. 4
Winter 1999

It was a festive occasion. There was an unmistakable feeling in the air that something good was happening as the crowd gathered slowly, tears and laughter mixed in harmony. There were no strangers in this crowd. Couples tightly wrapped themselves into one, with romance thick in the air. Human words in music and speech spread wings over the Atlantic, touching the waves where many had gone before in the light. Stars and stripes, sunset and sea breeze mixed into an unforgettable experience for all of us who love lighthouses.

On Saturday, November 13, 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse flashed its brilliant beam of light again. The light has been extinguished only rarely in its 129-year history, and this relighting ceremony was perhaps the most joyous ever. After decades of debate about how to best insure the long-term protection of Cape Hatteras, this charming structure bonded with millions of Americans who in turn tugged at the hearts of legislators to fund relocation. Following a bold rescue from the edge of the sea, stewards National Park Service and the U.S. Coast Guard paid a rich tribute to this National Historic Monument.

We sat on the remains of the dune that Hurricane Dennis had left after spreading its fury along the East Coast in September. Just in front of us, only feet away, were the granite stones leftover from the relocation. They have been placed in a circle, outlining the original position of the 1870 lighthouse. Perched upon these stones during the ceremony were hundreds of people who had traveled from all around the nation to be part of this historic event. To our left was the bandstand, a makeshift platform on the bed of a big truck. In the distance were thousands more who migrated from the lighthouse, about 2,900 feet to the southwest, back to the ceremony area and back to the lighthouse again. They wandered while taking in all the sights and sounds of the event. We rested quietly, taking in the same in our own way. Waiting. All waiting for the light.

Mr. John Gillikin, then Chief of Interpretation at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, greeted everyone. A legion of voices returned the sound of anticipation. Anticipation of the Light.

The U.S. Coast Guard executed the presentation of colors and Joy Wegner, music teacher at the Cape Hatteras High Schoo,l poured forth the National Anthem while the audience was quiet and focused. Focused on the Light.

Reverend James Huskins of the Hatteras United Methodist Church rendered a magnificent invocation: “Holy and Eternal God, You have created all things that exist. You have given unto Your creatures the duty of caring for each other.

“Here on this shore stands a Beacon constructed by human hands, an historic lighthouse.

“For over one hundred years it has shown forth its Light to guide the sailor home and to warn of danger of shoals.

“As a Beacon of direction and warning it has prevented great loss of life.

“Tonight history continues. By skill and knowledge this Light will again shine, perhaps for another hundred years.

“While we Your creatures are not able to control the mighty sea or its effects to any lasting extent, You have given us the ability to assess and to adapt to nature.

“As this Light again shines as a Beacon to those at sea and serves as a reminder to those on land of the majesty of Your creation and the power of the sea.

“May we here resolve to be a Beacon also to the goodness and radiance of the human soul created in Your likeness.

“May we see this Light as a reminder of our own need for direction in the troubles of our lives.

“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

Reverend Huskins set the tone for the remainder of the program. All arguments had laid aside for this event. Emphasis was on one fact: the lighthouse now has a promising future. Away from the brunt of great storms, chances are that footsteps will continue to be heard echoing up the spiral stairs of future generations.

Then acting Superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Chris Bernthal, stepping in for the recently retired Supt. Bob Reynolds, stated that the Hatteras Lighthouse represents the best of the American character. “This event will go down in history,” Bernthal said with confidence. The son of the last Principal Keeper, Rany Jennette, was in attendance, and Bernthal paid tribute to his family and all Keepers who tended America’s lights. 

Dare County Commissioner Chairman Geneva Perry declined to speak on this evening. Representing this group who had unanimously voted against relocation and twice tried to obtain a stop work order was Cheryl Byrd. Explaining the difficulty of the county commissioners’ decision, she quoted from a letter written by the Central Coordinating Committee for the national lighthouse museum written in fall 1998. As the result of the mobilization of several lighthouse societies all over the United States, she acknowledged receipt of hundreds of letters representing the American voice. They repeated over and over, “Move it.” Byrd stated that no other lighthouse better represents the bravery and dedication of the American spirit than the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  “We are glad it has been moved,” she said.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Historian Steve Harrison stated in his calm delivery that this lighthouse is the reflection of the American character, indeed the American people. Light Keepers and their families alone, day in and day out, maintained the lights. “They devote their lives to their duty,” Harrison said. He went on to expound on his observation that lighthouses are part of our national heritage; saving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is as important as the ships it saved.

Mojo Collins has been singing for twenty years about this lighthouse. In “House of Light,” he sang of the lighthouse’s plea to “save me,” and “I’d like to know just where I stand.” In “Hope of Diamond Shoals,” Collins belted out the call of a mariner to the lighthouse, “Turn the light on and take me to your home, Your Majesty.”

Captain John Cook of the U.S. Coast Guard spoke next, “The greatest love is to lay down one’s life for a stranger.” This was in tribute to the lighthouse’s many years of service in saving lives. While a C-130 Hercules airplane and an HH-60 Jayhawk Helicopter rumbled over the ceremony, Cook spoke of the drama played out on the sands of Hatteras. He paid homage to the brave surfmen who took seriously the code of the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Legend has it the guts of the code originated on the Outer Banks,  “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”

Capt. Cook stated that “If we ask her, she’d tell us stories of shipwrecks and also of the Keepers and their families.” He paid tribute to these families who climbed the tower, trimmed the wick, polished the brass, and kept the light going. For as long as mariners sail over the horizon, fishermen go down to the sea, and no matter how technologically advanced we become, there is comfort in seeing the light telling you “You’re almost home.” Cook commended the National Park Service for their efforts in protecting and keeping this important part of our heritage alive.

International Chimney, Inc. President Rick Lohr rose to speak. A grand applause erupted all around the grounds. Lohr said the applause belongs to a long list of people. “The lighthouse is an absolutely beautiful structure. As we dug around it, worked under it, atop it, we saw quality all around… I do what I love for a living—building smokestacks, yes—but lighthouses…and the people we get to work with—are extremely enjoyable. For instance, Expert House Movers Matyiko brothers, doing what their father did. Look around the job, it’s Matyiko, Matyiko, Matyiko, Matyiko…” Lohr chanted with a smile. He went on to name some of the key people who were involved in the successful move including Pete Friesen, designer of the hydraulic jacking system. “Pete is retiring…he been saying this for ten years and he’s 77!”  Lohr also named Quible, Seaboard Surveying, Law Engineering and Environmental Services, Wiss, Janny, Elstner who monitored the structural integrity throughout the moving process, and more. He credited the great talent of the team whose talents were at their peaks including engineers Dave Fischetti and Bob Gardner. He praised the persistent efforts of Steve Crum who prepared the move corridor, working as long as necessary to get the job done. Team effort for the Light.

Bett Padgett spoke in smooth tones to the audience, saying how happy she was to be at this event “to rekindle our Fair Lady.” Padgett gave an outstanding performance of two songs from her CD “If a Lighthouse Could Speak,” singing in tribute to the Light. In her reverent song “If a Lighthouse Could Speak” (same name as the CD) she sings of the lighthouse’s fear if it isn’t saved, “Will my spirals go into the tide?” And in the irresistible, rhythmic song, “Our Lighthouse,” she sings of the happiness for those who will climb the tower in the future and who will see Buxton and the Atlantic, all around, because “we’ve moved our lighthouse…inch by inch…brick by brick.”

As Bett finished her second song, people began moving towards the tower for the re-lighting. Acting Supt. Bernthal stepped to the podium and emphasized that “A new era of history begins.” She recognized the Hatteras Lighthouse volunteers and cheers filled the air. These are some of the people who work hardest for the Light.

Electricity was building. Only singing “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” could hold back the tide of excitement among the throng. The song quieted the quelling emotion as people sang in harmony, and out of tune, all with the same sincerity. The Light was about to come on.

 As the big reddish-orange sun slipped into the Pamlico Sound, the crowd was asked, "Are you ready?! Let's light this candle!" The crowd counted down in unison, "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!" Steve Harrison fired a Coston flare as a signal to Park Ranger Rob Bolling a half-mile away at the tower to prepare to activate the switch. All eyes were on the Light.

In a flash of victory, the light illuminated Hatteras Island and the thousands who had come to pay respect to this lighthouse. The beam pierced the darkness while friends, families, and couples kissed, cheered, hugged, laughed, cried, and glasses clinked.  They could see the Light.

For those of us who support lighthouse groups all over the nation, the spoken phrases in tribute to the old Lighthouse Service, Keepers and their families for their courage and determination in keeping our nation’s coasts and lakeshores safer were like music to our ears. Vows of support for saving and preservation of our lighthouses along with the affirmation that saving a lighthouse continues its legacy were uttered and repeated. We heard words originating from the lighthouse community spoken by politicians and ministers and government trustees, making every moment given to our lighthouses worth it. Individual effort has paid off. It saved the Light.

Laughter weaved in and out of the groups of people who were shaking hands. Everyone was smiling. The Light was shining.

Countless others who supported the safekeeping of this lighthouse in the name of saving our maritime heritage and tradition were with us in spirit, walking with. I received messages from Connecticut, California, Texas, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, and all corners of the nation. People had lit a candle at 5:15 PM, others sat watching the stars come out, more toasted the rekindled light, some sang in groups, many cheered from afar, and some even watched by Internet. For all in attendance, in person and in spirit, watching or envisioning, it was an unforgettable moment to see the lighthouse away from the brunt of storms, looking her finest, boasting that she had made it. She was home, and everyone could see.  We could see the Light.

©1999 Cheryl Shelton-Roberts

This site last updated Friday, February 10, 2006 7:04 PM