A CELEBRATION OF THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BODIE ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE
-- by John Havel
October 1st of this year marks the 150th anniversary of this third and current Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of only two coastal towers in North Carolina to still have its original first order Fresnel lens (the second one being the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla). Considering the short lives of the first two Bodie Island Towers, both sites now underwater, 150 years is truly a remarkable achievement.
However, this achievement and the lighthouse’s journey has not been without problems. In 1939 when the US Bureau of Lighthouses merged with the U.S. Coast Guard the last two keepers at Bodie Island, Vernon Gaskill, Sr. and Julian Austin, Sr. both left, Gaskill in 1939 and Austin in 1940. With the lighthouse then electrified and automated, the U.S. Coast Guard took over control of the tower. Throughout the World War II and up until the 1980s the light continued to operate but fell into disrepair.
In 1983 the National Park Service (NPS) began interpretation at the lighthouse, but the Coast Guard felt the structure was unsafe and erected an 8-foot chain-link security fence to prevent people from climbing it. In 1992 the Park Service opened the visitor center in the keepers’ quarters, but people were still unable to climb due to safety concerns.
In 1994 Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts, residing in Nags Head at the time, formed the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society (OBLHS). Their primary purpose in founding this organization was to address the ongoing damage they saw occurring at the Bodie Island Lighthouse, and other North Carolina lights as well. They saw a critical need for an organization to help preserve the beautiful lighthouses of the Outer Banks.
In 1994, volunteers from the OBLHS opened the lower portion of the lighthouse tower and offered interpretation to the public. Climbing, however, was still prohibited.
Then, in 1997, OBLHS sponsored an inspection of the tower and a formal report to the National Park Service by lighthouse historian Cullen Chambers. This report became the basis for the Park's restoration timeline and strategy. Also that year, the society invited a Lighthouse Keeper's son, John Gaskill, to greet visitors and tell stories about growing up at the Lighthouse.
In 2001 to assist with the restoration plan, OBLHS paid International Chimney Corp. (the company that had successfully moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999) to inspect the deteriorating ironwork and other damaged areas of the lighthouse.
In 2004 OBLHS further sponsored an inspection of the first order Fresnel lens and started a campaign to keep the lens in place until the lighthouse could be restored. Then, on August 9th of 2004 two cast iron pieces fell from the gallery level. As a result, the base of the tower had to be closed to visitors and a safety fence was once again installed around the lighthouse.
In 2005, due to the actions of NPS Cultural Resource Manager and Historian Doug Stover, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the possession of the Fresnel lens and the operation of the lamp to the Park Service, an unusual action for the Coast Guard.
By 2006 all the studies and plans for a full restoration were complete, but funding from Congress was still not available. OBLHS donated $10,000 towards the restoration effort and then committed the same amount for the restoration of the lens.
It was not until three years later in 2009 that the National Park Service received the necessary funding for the repair and replacement of ironwork, masonry, stone, marble floors, and other interior treatments that were needed, and serious planning and work could finally move ahead.
Scaffolding went up during the winter of 2009-2010, but during the preparation work, several previously unknown issues of structural integrity were discovered, and restoration was halted. The project restarted in March 2012, and a little over a year later, on April 18, 2013, the Bodie Island Lighthouse was relit to great fanfare, and the tower was opened to the public for the first time ever in its history.
In the last eight years, Bodie Island Lighthouse has remained open and shining. OBLHS hosted a Keeper’s Descendants’ homecoming in 2014, and welcomes visitors almost daily during the tourist season. Due to the fragility of its stairs, only a few climbers may ascend at a time, but all can enjoy the magnificent sight of a fully restored, functional, first-order Fresnel lens shining proudly on a cloudless night. One hundred and fifty years old never looked so good!
THE FIRST AND SECOND TOWERS
The first Bodie Island Lighthouse was placed in operation in 1848. A year or so after the lighthouse was completed it was discovered that one side of the base of the tower was one foot lower than the other. It was also found that the clockwork mechanism used to rotate the chandelier was operating erratically, most likely a result of the tower being off center. The problems persisted and by 1858 a new lighthouse board determined it was not feasible to repair the structure. Congress appropriated $25,000 for a new lighthouse at the site. Erected close to the original tower on the south side of Oregon Inlet the second Bodie Island Lighthouse was a tall, graceful brick structure exhibiting its light 90 feet above sea level. It housed a revolving third order Fresnel lens.
However, the second Bodie Island Lighthouse never saw its third birthday. Soon after its completion the Civil War began, and it was destroyed by the Confederate army. Between 1861 and 1867 5th District engineer William J. Newman wrote the Lighthouse Board several times urgently emphasizing that the Bodie Island Lighthouse must be replaced. As a result, in November of 1870 chief engineer James Hervey Simpson wrote the chairman of the lighthouse board requesting a new light be built.
John Havel describes himself as a graphic designer, webmaster for this website, and an ardent researcher and writer on the history of the
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse which he someday wishes to write an authoritative book on. He and his wife Aida Havel, who is an attorney, live
in Salvo, on Hatteras Island, and enjoy researching the Outer Banks of North Carolina and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.