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On a quiet autumn evening nearly five decades ago, the bride turned around inside the station wagon and gazed through its rear window into the black night. The gentle beam

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On a quiet autumn evening nearly five decades ago, the bride turned around inside the station wagon and gazed through its rear window into the black night. The gentle beam

America’s Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse shines bright at night

On a quiet autumn evening nearly five decades ago, the bride turned around inside the station wagon and gazed through its rear window into the black night. The gentle beam of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse swept across the marsh and spilled into the car before vanishing east over the dunes. On one of the happiest nights of the newlywed’s life, a deep melancholy, as thick as the fog hovering inches above Pamlico Sound, permeated the car as it sped north up NC Highway 12.

Terry Jennette Ponton

Terry Jennette Ponton photograph by Baxter Miller

Terry Jennette Ponton was leaving behind practically the only world she’d ever known. Sensing a longing early in the making, her husband, John, turned to his new wife and promised, “I’ll bring you home one day.” Seven and a half seconds later, the beam of America’s tallest brick lighthouse returned, following the car out of sight.

Thirty years later, in 2011, John made good on his promise, and the beam of Cape Hatteras guided Terry home for good. “My dad would always say, ‘That’s our home,’” she says. “It was part of our existence. We always knew instinctively that it was a part of us.”

The homecoming was inevitable. Terry’s father was born in the Hatteras Lighthouse keepers’ quarters and spent his childhood on its grounds. Her grandfather was the longest-serving and last principal keeper. But Terry’s connection to the lighthouse extends back before its very existence. The story of the guardian of the Graveyard of the Atlantic is intertwined with Terry’s maiden name, Jennette — the alpha and omega of the Cape Hatteras Light Station.

• • •

In 1773, the ship Thunderbolt rounded the treacherous cape of Hatteras Island, sailing too close to shore. The rough waters tossed coals from the cooking stove, igniting a fire. Legend has it that a 17-year-old Alexander Hamilton watched as flames engulfed the sails, threatening to send the ship careening into the shoals. The fire was contained, but the close brush with death left a mark on our nation’s future founding father — and, as fate would have it, the Jennette family as well. Two decades later, Secretary Hamilton influenced legislation that provided the groundwork for a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras.

But the U.S. government would need land to build a navigational aid. The site was identified and, in 1798, Terry’s fifth great-grandmother Christine (Christian) Jennett sold four acres of oceanfront property to the United States for $50, a transaction that would link the Jennette family to the land for generations to come.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse keepers' quarters

Terry Jennette Ponton spent her childhood around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse keepers’ quarters, where generations of her ancestors served as guardians of the light. photograph by Baxter Miller

Unaka Jennette tending to the lens in the Hatteras Lighthouse

Her grandfather Unaka Jennette was the final keeper. Photography courtesy of National Park Service

In 1919, more than a century after the light in the original station was lit, Terry’s grandfather Unaka B. Jennette was appointed principal keeper. Following in the footsteps of half a dozen ancestors, he would become the most well-known keeper of all. His was a time before dunes existed, when roads were trails of soft sand, when livestock and wild horses roamed free on Hatteras. Unaka is remembered today for his mild manner and firm leadership. “Granddaddy was so respected,” Terry remembers. “It was palpable. You could feel it.”

His duty meant life or death. “He took his role seriously. His purpose was to save people’s lives and let them know not to come close to the shoals,” Terry says. “That light was never not attended.” Unaka cared for the first-order Fresnel lens, with its 1,000 prisms, as if it were a piece of delicate china. In Terry’s father’s papers — thin, yellowed sheets with perforated edges and typewriter font — Rany Jennette recalls that the lens was regularly inspected for smudges. “Touching the lens with fingers,” he wrote, “was never allowed.”

• • •

The role of lighthouse keeper was not for the faint of heart. Even routine maintenance tested a person’s constitution. Rany wrote that his father would “rig a ladder from the upper deck, lasso the lightning rod, and pull himself up so he could paint the very top of the 208-foot tower!” When minor painting was needed on the tower’s body, keepers were dropped over the railing in a bosun’s chair and hoisted up and down.

Storms, of course, were a defining part of a keeper’s career. “I think about my grandmother during storms, when grandfather was in the tower,” Terry reflects. “I was told they tied a rope from the lighthouse to the keepers’ quarters so he could go back and forth, hand-over-hand, when the water was coming up. I think about my grandma sitting on the second floor with a baby in her arms, water rushing in, her husband up atop that lighthouse.”

“I think about my grandma sitting on the second floor with a baby in her arms, water rushing in, her husband up atop that lighthouse.”

In time, storms threatened more than a family’s resolve. After a series of back-to-back hurricanes in 1933, erosion took its toll, and waves lapped regularly at the lighthouse’s granite base. In 1936, after nearly two decades of service, Unaka Jennette made his final climb up the light station’s 269 steps. It would be the last time a keeper would set foot in the tower. The graceful lighthouse was to be abandoned and replaced by an unembellished skeletal tower a mile and a half away.

A light had shined from this site for the previous 133 years, as reliably present as the tides and the setting of the sun. But for the next 15 years, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse would sit vacant and dark, a deep void in the hearts and minds of islanders. Soon after its abandonment, erosion waned, and dunes were constructed to fortify the beach. Calls to reinstate the lighthouse rang loud, and in 1950, the light was returned to the tower. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse once again shined brightly over the Atlantic, this time under the ownership of the National Park Service.

• • •

A new era had begun at Cape Hatteras — one without lighthouse keepers — and Unaka’s son, Rany, would later carry on the family legacy. In 1984, nearing retirement at age 63, Terry’s father joined the National Park Service, where he became the face and voice of the Cape Hatteras Light Station. Mesmerizing visitors with stories of growing up at the site, Rany would hold court from the porch of the house in which he was born. “Dad was a great storyteller,” Terry says. “And he so enjoyed telling people about all the shenanigans that went on.”

Those stories were history brought to life, glimpses of an experience that stands in contrast with long-held notions of solitude. “There have been words written that lighthouse keepers and their families had a very lonely life,” Rany wrote in his papers. “We did not have this experience, however. In fact, just the opposite would be more apt to apply.” With its three keepers and their families on-site, as well as an adjacent lifesaving station and nearby Buxton Village, Cape Hatteras Light Station had been abuzz with activity.

When Rany passed away in 2001, the headline on his obituary read, “Lighthouse Storyteller Dies.” Terry has inherited the honor and the burden of keeping that tradition alive, and today, she tells the greatest story of all — that of the 1999 Hatteras Lighthouse move.

“I think some people were upset that the symbol of their home and everything that it stood for might be taken away from them.”

Dunes and groins had bought time for the iconic structure, but its note was due. Once located more than a quarter of a mile from the Atlantic, by the 1980s, erosion had laid claim to most of the beach. Now sitting a mere 120 feet from the ocean, the lighthouse had to be relocated if it was to be saved. “It was so controversial,” Terry remembers. “I think some people were upset that the symbol of their home and everything that it stood for might be taken away from them. A lot of people just didn’t believe that they could pull it off, that it could actually be moved.”

National news media descended on Hatteras on the eve of the great feat, and Terry was the last civilian to climb up the lighthouse stairs before it began its migration the next day. She stood on the same observation deck where her grandfather Unaka had stood for the last time before shuttering the light more than six decades earlier. She peered up to the windows, where the original Fresnel lens once stood. She looked down the beach to the land that her ancestors once owned. Terry stood looking back on history, in a moment when history was being made yet again.

When she descended, she turned and patted the base of the lighthouse, wishing it well on its journey. The tower had already been lifted up and set onto rails, and, over the span of 23 days, the tallest brick lighthouse in the country was moved 2,900 feet from where it had stood for more than 125 years.

• • •

Today, there probably isn’t much that Unaka Jennette would recognize about Hatteras Island. But rising out of the low, broken thread of sand that hovers barely above sea level, soaring past the live oaks and loblolly pines, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse continues to guard one of North Carolina’s most treacherous stretches of coastline.

The sovereign tower remains a headstone to the waterlogged skeletons of ships that lie in mute testimony to the hazards of Hatteras’s indigo waters. It persists as a bystander to history and a monument to a people and place defined by hard work and resiliency. Its story is not one of brick and mortar, but of people — the story of the Jennettes and the other brave families who lived and worked in its shadow.

For Terry, the Cape Hatteras Light Station and its memories remind her of who she is, where she comes from, and the stock of people from whom she descends. “When I cross the bridge, my heart just gets happy,” she says. “This is home, and there’s nothing else like it. It’s a spiritual connection. This place,” she says, pausing and gesturing around her, “this whole place is home.” — Ryan Stancil

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is currently closed to climbing due to renovation.

Cape Hatteras Light Station
46379 Lighthouse Road
Buxton, NC 27920

Crews moving the Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999

In 1999, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved to its current location on Lighthouse Road. photograph by Mike Booher

A Monumental Move

Cape Hatteras Light Station isn’t the first lighthouse ever to be moved to safety, away from encroaching waves, but it’s the largest. At the time of its construction in 1870, it was the tallest brick lighthouse in the world, and it remains the tallest in the country.

When the current structure was built, it sat 1,500 feet from the ocean. A century later, only 120 feet stood between the lighthouse and the water. The National Park Service was faced with a choice: build a seawall around the structure, augment existing protective groins, or relocate it. After much controversy, the NPS decided to move the lighthouse 2,900 feet southwest of its original location.

Beginning in June 1999, International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, New York, oversaw the process of moving the 4,830-ton structure along steel track beams and roller dollies, five feet at a time. During the move, 60 automated sensors measured data points such as tilt and vibration, and a weather station at the top tracked wind speed and temperature. The move took 23 days. On July 9, 1999, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was lowered onto its new steel-reinforced concrete foundation, 1,600 feet from the sea. Like the many ships that its beacon has guided, our most famous lighthouse is, once again, safe. — Rebecca Woltz

This story was published on May 14, 2024

Ryan Stancil

Stancil is a writer and photographer based in New Bern.

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.