April 11, 2013
Bodie Island Lighthouse’s long path back to glory had many twists and turns
…WITH SLIDE SHOW
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
as birds nested where metalwork had rusted away and rain spit through
broken glass and rotted window frames, the historic Bodie Island
Lighthouse always had the fortune of a picturesque setting and
But the 1872 brick beacon, which the
Lighthouse Digest added to its Doomsday List just 13 years ago, has its
own tale of survival, rescued from decades of budgetary starvation,
careless neglect, and preservation perils.
April 18, the black-and-white banded tower, now completely restored,
will be opened for climbing for the first time and its rare first order
Fresnel lens will be reactivated.
The 156-foot lighthouse is on
the National Register of Historic Places. Its preservation is
more significant because the lens, a majestic 10-foot high beehive of
344 clear green prisms angled precisely within metal panels, is the
same one that was installed originally – a boast few other lighthouses
For Cheryl Roberts, the relighting ceremony is more like an apogee of a nearly 20- year labor of love.
almost like after raising a child, and seeing that child graduate,”
said Roberts, who with her husband, Bruce Roberts, founded the Outer
Banks Lighthouse Society in 1994 to help save the Bodie Island
“To see that door open and see those people going up those steps –I can’t wait!”
was just a few weeks ago that the 1,850-pound lens was taken from
storage and hoisted up the middle of the tower by lens restoration
expert Joe Cocking.
Cocking, a Coast Guard veteran and Fresnel
lens specialist, said that the most challenging part of the $100,000
conservation was physical. The Bodie lens was in fair condition, he
said, requiring mostly new putty and stabilization. To maintain its
historic integrity, the two missing prisms were not replaced.
“It’s very unique,” he said about the original first order lens. “They’re becoming fewer and fewer.”
work began on the lighthouse restoration, the lens had to be
disassembled and put in storage. Volunteers with the Lighthouse
Society, which today has about 500 members, gently cleaned each of the
prisms with a special powder and chamois cloth and packed them away,
“That lens was so dirty,” she said “It was just a shame.”
were visible on some of the elements. There were chips in the prisms
where ladders had leaned against them. One prism even had someone’s
initials carved into it.
When the lens was put back together, each prism had to be adjusted perfectly while the putty was soft.
doubt the Roberts’ persistence and dedication had spurred the U.S.
Coast Guard and the National Park Service to work toward preserving the
tower for future generations.
Roberts said that her husband, a
renowned photographer, had already published books on lighthouses and
the couple shared an interest in lighthouse preservation.
they first got involved at Bodie Island, the stairs were behind a chain
link fence and the public was not allowed into the oil house to see the
spiral staircase. With the door constantly closed, the contained
moisture made it literally rain inside.
The Roberts persuaded
the Park Service and the Coast Guard to allow them to clean up the
area, open the doors, and let people in for a few hours a day to learn
about the lighthouse history.
“Our goal was to stir interest,” she said.
was obvious to them that the constant moisture – a result of the tower
being unmanned since 1940– had caused alarming deterioration. At
the society’s behest, famed lighthouse restoration expert Cullen
Chambers inspected the tower in 1996 and again in 1998 and found
serious deterioration and water damage, including weakened iron support
“It was in terrible shape,” Roberts recalled about Chambers’ assessment. “He was very disturbed.”
government inspections, starting in 1989, also found increasing concern
about corroded ironwork, peeling plaster, chipped layers of lead paint,
cracked masonry, electrical problems and overall structural integrity.
a prescient warning, Chambers suggested that the Park Service fence the
base of the lighthouse to protect the public from falling chunks of
iron. But the fence was not built until 2004, when two large
chunks of iron fell harmlessly from the gallery.
the Park Service’s 2004 Historic Structural Report, there was apparent
confusion between the Park Service and the Coast Guard, which had a
partnership, about which agency was responsible for maintenance of the
“Work is not done until a major complication arises,” the report said.
was also a difference in priorities: The Coast Guard, which owned the
tower and the lens, regarded the lighthouse as an aid to navigation for
mariners, a role the lighthouse still served. The Park Service,
on the other hand, looked at the tower as a historic structure to
preserve. But as the report indicated, the intersection of missions did
not seem to serve the lighthouse’s long-term prospects.
July 2000, the long-sought transfer of the lighthouse was made by the
Coast Guard to the Park Service, with the Coast Guard continuing to own
the Fresnel lens.
By then, the structure the Park Service had wanted for so long was in a sorry state.
Probably coincidentally, two months after the transfer, it was added to the Doomsday List.
the consternation of lighthouse lovers, in March 2003 the Coast Guard
announced that it intended to replace the first order Fresnel lens with
a plastic light in order to save money.
A furious public
reaction persuaded the Coast Guard to back off. After the Park Service
agreed to take the navigational aid responsibility in 2005, the Coast
Guard transferred the lens.
Funding came in little spurts
initially, allowing several emergency repairs in the early 2000s. A
budget request was later approved, and the Park Service planned to
start restoration in 2008. But Congress pulled the funding from the
budget in late 2007.
In March 2009, $3 million was appropriated, and the restoration finally began in September.
the surprises weren’t over. With the lighthouse nearly completely
restored, the lens safely in storage, the Park Service announced in
January 2011 that additional work was required to fix the gallery –and
another $1.6 million was needed. The elaborate scaffolding surrounding
the tower was all removed while the agency sought more money.
Finally, with funds secured, the scaffolding was put back and repair work resumed in March 2012.
Stover, historian for Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said that the
project included replacement of 32 stair treads and support beams under
the lens. During the restoration, it was discovered that the light had
been off-center for years because one side had been drooping.
“So now that light will shine a level 19 nautical miles,” he said.
will be more restricted than at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, he said,
because the staircase, with 205 steps, is not capable of bearing as
much weight. No more than 20 people at a time will be allowed to climb,
a maximum of 370 a day.
Those who climb to the balcony will be
greeted with a panoramic view of vast marshlands, the Pamlico Sound,
the Atlantic Ocean, Oregon Inlet and the Bonner Bridge.
who has been with the seashore since 2000, said that the lighthouse
will be closely monitored –and regularly maintained -from now on.
amazing,” he said about the restoration, which totaled about $5
million. “I’ve been working on this project since I’ve been here.”
said he remembers the tower’s condition 13 years ago, when there were
so many layers of paint “that’s practically what was keeping it
together,” and the years of disappointment and discouragement in the
effort to get it restored.
Much of the credit, he said,
goes to the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society for keeping the public’s
attention and pressure on the need for the restoration of a national
Bett Padgett, the group’s president, said she is eagerly anticipating seeing the completed tower at the relighting celebration.
“Pinch me,” she said. “We are ecstatic.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Bodie Island Lighthouse opens to the public for tours and climbing on April 19.
Click here for information about reservations and tickets.
for a slide show of the deteriorating lighthouse just after restoration
began. The photographs were taken in February 2010.
Click Here To View Slide Show of A celebration of the restoration and relighting of the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
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