Digest>Archives> Aug/Sep 2004

Jim Woodward's Lasting Love of Lenses

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Jim Woodward working on the fourth order lens at ...

James S. Woodward retired from the U.S. Coast Guard last January after 40 years as an enlisted man and employee. But he's not about to sit still. He's long been one of the nation's most respected authorities on Fresnel lighthouse lenses and his retirement now affords him the chance to devote himself full-time to his business as “The Lighthouse Consultant.” Since 1966, he's played a major role in over 100 lens restorations and shows no sign of slowing down.

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The completely reassembled first order lens from ...

Jim was born and raised in Detroit and became a Great Lakes shipping buff at the tender age of eight when his father took him to see Coast Guard facilities including the U.S.C.G. Cutter Mackinaw. After that tour, Woodward says, he made a promise to himself that he would join the Coast Guard when he was old enough. But he says, he “never really thought anything about lighthouses” as a boy.

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Lens restoration can be hazardous, especially ...

In 1963, Woodward turned down a full college scholarship for automotive design and instead “went to Coast Guard boot camp to get my sea legs, and stayed for the long haul.” After beginning his Coast Guard career on a buoy tender in 1963, he was stationed at the Ninth District Civil Engineering Office in Cleveland, Ohio as an enlisted draftsman. This was where he began his indoctrination in lighthouses and lenses at the young age of 20. “It was fascinating,” he says. “So I gave up the ships and started studying lighthouses.”

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Jim Woodward prepares to hoist one of the lower ...

Arthur Mienholt, who had been a lampist at the Buffalo Lighthouse Depot under the U.S. Lighthouse Service prior to 1939, relocated to the Ninth District Office in Cleveland after the service was merged into the Coast Guard. When Woodward was transferred to the office in 1965, Mienholt was in charge of engineering for Great Lakes aids to navigation. The fourth order lens from Ohio's Lorain Harbor (West Breakwater) Lighthouse, which was in poor condition, was sent to Cleveland for Mienholt to restore.

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The Ninth District Civil Engineering Office in ...

Woodward wanted a chance to help the seasoned lampist and was persistent about it. “I was young and interested in history. It bothered him a bit until he allowed me to work with him and learn the art of the lampist,” he recalls. “Since 1939, the maintenance of lenses became more and more scarce as old lampists retired and their expertise was lost. I was very fortunate.”

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Jim Woodward at work during the restoration of ...

After leaving active duty, Woodward returned to the Coast Guard as an Engineering Technician, focusing on lighthouse-related projects. He became extensively involved in lighthouse automation during the 1970s and early '80s. He now has mixed emotions about the automation program. At the time, Woodward thought it was a good thing that personnel were being removed from the most remote and difficult stations but he was surprised to find that a survey showed that most of the men wanted to stay at the lights.

Woodward has seen some classical Fresnel lenses suffer since automation. “After a few years,” he says, “it became apparent to me that the lenses that were left in service were not doing well on their own, and that with no maintenance support, they would self-destruct if left unattended for too long. In the end, I think the lenses that have been removed are better off because they can be preserved and maintained in a controlled environment.”

Woodward eventually became an environmentalist for the Civil Engineering Unit in Cleveland. In that capacity, he still worked with lighthouse lenses and also provided environmental support for over 140 facilities in a 28-state area.

Woodward has been involved in many notable lens projects through nearly four decades, like the second order lens from Spectacle Reef Light (Michigan), now on display at the Great Lakes Historical Society Museum in Vermilion, Ohio; the second order lens from White Shoal Light (Michigan), now at the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point; and Assateague Light, Virginia's first order lens now at the Oyster Museum in Chincoteague. Many of the restorations Woodward has taken part in were done with fellow lens experts like Jim Dunlap, Neil Johnston and Joe Cocking, with different men in charge of the various projects. Various combinations of this select group of men have also worked on projects that include the restoration of the first order lens in Heceta Head Light, Oregon; the removal of the Fire Island, New York first order lens from the Franklin Institute; and the repair of the first order lens in St. Augustine, Florida that was severely damaged by high-powered rifle fire.

One of the most unusual challenges Woodward has faced was the removal of a second order bivalve lens from Rock of Ages Light in Michigan. “The lens was removed in the normal fashion,” he says, “but the pedestal was too big and too heavy to remove, or so it appeared. It took a while and a lot of ingenuity but the pedestal now supports the lens in the visitor center on Isle Royale, Michigan.”

A recent accomplishment was the restoration and display of an 1855 first order lens from California's Farallon Island Light, now on display at the new San Francisco Maritime Park Visitor Center in a historic warehouse building. “The Farallon Island project came with a whole set of special challenges,” says Woodward. The massive lens had a tough life in its original location offshore and for some years it had been stored at the Marine Corps Museum on Treasure Island in San Francisco. While there, Woodward says, it “was subjected to severe sandblasting that not only removed its paint but also brushed the builder's plate and other castings clean of much detail.”

The Marine Corps Museum closed and a moving company was hired to move and store the lens for the National Park Service. That led to the breaking of one of the lens' circular flash panels. “This panel was reassembled by a National Park Service glass conservator at quite an expense,” says Woodward. And that wasn't the only problem. “While on display, the lens sat for so long without movement that its bearing assembly became distorted and affected the rotation of the apparatus. When I first saw the lens I truly wondered if it could be made into a worthwhile display.” But Woodward worked closely with the National Park Service, and he says, “Today the lens display is excellent and works very well with both the visitor center and the adjacent hotel lobby that is on the other side of a glass wall that separates the two.”

Woodward's latest challenge was the renovation of a first order lens installed in 1904 in Bermuda's Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, along with the replacement of its hazardous mercury bearing with a new mechanical bearing. Many American lenses once floated on mercury bearings, but after some problems with mercury-related illnesses in the 1970s, mercury was removed from all U.S. lighthouses. Working at the 1846 Gibbs Hill Lighthouse with a team that included Jim Dunlap, Kurt Fosburg and Frank Blaha, Woodward successfully removed the lens and mercury in February. At this writing, the lens is in storage awaiting its new bearing.

Despite his vast experience, Woodward feels he has much to learn. “I have found that I will never stop learning about lenses,” he says. “When I was much younger and much more naive, I began to think that I probably knew just about everything. The more I work on lenses, the more I realize that almost each one of them is unique and that you must sit down and study a lens for quite a while before you really get to know it.” It's safe to say that few people have really gotten to know lenses like Jim Woodward.

To contact Jim Woodward about lens restoration, you can call him at (216) 961-6114, email him at lampist45@

hotmail.com or write “The Lighthouse Consultant” 1892 West 44th Street, Cleveland, OH 44113.

This story appeared in the Aug/Sep 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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