Digest>Archives> June 2009

Moving The Cape Fear Fresnel Lens

By Ann Mills


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Mick Johnston of the Lighthouse Lamp Shop ...

It’s 6:30 pm and I have been sitting in the back of a 26 ft. box truck for over 9 hours with two other people. The weather is lousy, approximately 42 degrees and pouring down rain. I look around at the 29 wooden crates stacked in the truck, four of which we packed today, and realize we have 25 more to pack in the next two days. Why are we working out of the back of a box truck on a chilly February day? Why is it taking so long and why are we taking such care in the packing of these crates? It’s what we are packing that is so rare, fragile and important to history that causes us to go to such great lengths.

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Carefully, very carefully, packing up a section ...

We, Nick Johnston from Lighthouse Lamp Shop, his wife Debra and myself, Ann Mills Executive Director of the Old Baldy Foundation, are packing up an Order One Fresnel Lens that once shined brightly atop the Cape Fear Lighthouse on Bald Head Island. The lens was built in 1902 in France and made a brief appearance at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1903 before making the journey to Bald Head Island. It was placed in the Cape Fear Lighthouse in August 1903 where it warned mariners of the Frying Pan Shoals until 1958. When the lighthouse was blown up, and replaced by the Oak Island Lighthouse, the lens was removed and transported to Wilmington, NC where it changed hands at least once. It came to rest on top of a brick tower in front of an antique dealers shop on Oleander Drive. Over the years prisms and entire frames were sold to collectors until it was offered for sale to the Old Baldy Foundation in late 2007.

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The sections of the Frensel lens from the Cape ...

That’s where Nick, Deb and I come in. We arrived in Wilmington on Saturday morning February 27, 2009 with the truck, 29 wooden crates and lots of packing material. The first order of business was to set up a workshop in the box truck complete with lights, tables, tools, conservation materials and lap top computer.

Twelve lower catadioptric (also fondly called cats) frames and one bulls eye frame were located in a very crowded garage with the majority of the frames in the attic above the garage. The other 16 frames were in a dilapidated, unheated house close by. The first order of business was to get the 11 cats safely out of the attic. Nick built a saw horse and rigged up a block and tackle above the small opening in the attic. Inspection of the cats revealed that the putty holding some the prisms in place was dry and falling out. Moving the frames down the flimsy pull down attic stairs had to been done very carefully to insure none of the prisms slipped out and landed on the concrete garage floor. The block and tackle insured that if Nick slipped on the stairs or dropped the frame, Deb his wife and counter weight on the other end of the rope, could lower the frame safely to the ground. It took over 4 hours to move all the frames out of the garage and into the truck.

Next, each frame was inspected and documented. I was the note taker and need a quick lesson in terminology and frame identification. One inspection entry reads like this: LC 8-9, R5-Corner shard: glued, top edge lateral fracture 2 1/2" long, inside edge: cone 1 1/4" long 2" from center, cone 5" from center ¼ long" Translated the first part identifies the frame as a Lower Cat #8-9. The second part identifies the prism in the frame as the 5th from the top on the right side. The rest is the condition of the prism. A shard is like a chip on the edge of the glass. Cone is short for impact cone which is a circular break in the glass caused by an impact. In this case the lower cat frames were outside on a brick pedestal for years. The owner took them down once he realized that passers by were taking pot shots at the glass. A fracture is a long thin line in the glass indicating the glass is broken but not separated. Impact cones can lead to a fracture. Of course none of this is good for the beautiful glass prisms. My favorite entries read like this: LC 8-9, R7- Perfect.

After the inspection and lots of photos the frame was ready for some basic conservation work. The frame and prisms were quickly dusted and wiped clean. The original putty that held the prisms in the frame for over one hundred years was understandably old and dry and in some cases cracked or missing. To stabilize the putty special glue was painted on the remaining putty. If the prisms were loose they were shimmed with small pieces of wood or in some cases they need some plastic foam stuck between the glass and the brass frame. This extra work will keep the glass prisms from rubbing on the frame, causing more damage to the glass, during the moving process.

Once all this was accomplished it was time to wrap each panel. We used sheets of foam and lots of shrink wrap. Lots of tape, foam and shrink wrap later the frame was ready for the wooden crate. Each frame was carefully laid in the appropriate sized crate lined with Styrofoam. Last the lid was screwed on and the frame identification number was written on the crate side and lid.

When you handle an object as much as we did these frames they start to tell you their story and what they have been through. When you look closely you can tell the difference between the original putty and newer putty. You can tell how the frame has been handled and how the prisms have been cut. We knew that over the years several of the prisms had been removed and sold but we discovered that some of the prisms were not in their original location in the frame. We suspect they had been rearranged within the frame because some of the putty was newer and not as cleanly applied as the original. We discovered the frames were soldered with silver and in at least one instance had been twisted causing a slight tear in the metal at the corner of the frame. With more inspection later in the preservation process, I am sure the prisms and frames will reveal more secrets from the past.

After a long, cold and wet three days in the back of a truck with lots of lifting and moving crates we finished the packing with a sense of accomplishment. We hugged and took pictures of each other putting in the last screw in the last crate. As my husband, Gary, drove off with the box truck and all 29 crates secure in the back, I had a strong feeling of being a part of history. Ironically we had just saved the light that had in turn saved the lives of sailors and ships for over 50 years. We had just saved a piece of the rich maritime history of the Cape Fear region. It didn’t seem to matter that my back was aching, my fingers stiff and bloody. I just plain felt great.

This story appeared in the June 2009 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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