Up until 1939 when its duties were taken over by the Coast Guard, the United States Lighthouse Service was widely known and respected around the world for developing the best systems of aids to navigation in the world. But those aids to navigation were for ships at sea. However, many years before the invention of modern navigational equipment, the short-lived Airways Division of the United States Lighthouse Service was charged with the responsibility of building skeletal towers with beacons atop them to guide the nighttime flights of the early mail pilots across the nation from airstrip to airstrip. The Airways Division was also assigned the task of providing for the lighting of those early primitive airstrips. Little could those men have realized that someday, someone would have the wild notion to build an actual lighthouse structure in the mountains of West Virginia! Nor could they have realized that a discarded airstrip beacon would be recycled to be used in a modern lighthouse tower. But that’s exactly what Steve and Donna Keblesh did at their Summersville Lake Retreat in Mount Nebo, in Nicholas County, West Virginia.
Officially dedicated this past June 20th, the 104-foot tall Summersville Lake Lighthouse, with a top elevation of 2,164 feet above sea level, and weighing 77,000 pounds, was actually erected in 2012.
It all started in 2009 as a casual conversation with Rick Butler, who was working for the company that was installing wind turbines at a nearby location and was a summer guest of the Summersville Lake Retreat. In viewing the large structures as they would pass by the Summersville Lake Retreat on their way to be installed, Steve and Dona jokingly said to him, ”Why don’t you divert one of those towers to us and we could keep it and disguise it as a lighthouse?” Butler replied, “Funny you should say that” He then explained that they lost one over a hill and that it had rolled 75 feet down and it was deemed no longer usable as a wind turbine. And before long that casual, joking around conversation turned into reality, and Steve and Donna were able to purchase the structure. However, they soon wondered what they had got themselves into.
At one time Steve and Donna had talked about buying an old forest fire tower and moving it to their site, which would have fit in well with the mountainous location. But, compared to a forest fire tower, this structure was gigantic and weighed 72,000 pounds. And they had no idea about how to even get the tower to their location. But, thanks to the efforts of White Construction, the company that had assembled over 100 of the wind towers, the structure was delivered to the Summersville Lake Retreat. But, because of bridge construction and permits, the delivery of the wind turbine tower had to take a 100 mile detour to get to the Summersville Lake Resort.
What transpired over the next three years to make the entire project fall into place takes up more space than we have available. But, as you might imagine, there were many hurdles to overcome in the design of the lantern room, dome, gallery, stairs, and in the ultimate construction, all of which took tenacity, patience, lots and lots of planning, and an enormous amount of hard work. However, the project created a unique incubator for students from Fayette Institute of Technology and the Nicholas County Career and Technical Center, something that would ultimately benefit the students, the community, and the Summersville Lake Retreat.
Due to the proximity of Radar Airfield, directly across the lake from them, Steve and Donna made contact with Mary and Jerry Radar of Radar Aviation, who immediately got interested in the project. While Jerry facilitated the process of registering the Summersville Lake Lighthouse with the FAA as an aeronautical aid to navigation, Mary casually mentioned to Donna that there might be an old beacon lying around in the back of one of the hangars. At one time the government contracted with both Crouse Hinds and Westinghouse to produce nearly identical beacons for just such use at rural airports, and by the very nature of their durability in an outdoor environment, the beacons became commonplace at many of these airports.
So then it happened. After months of searching for a suitable beacon for the Summersville Lake Lighthouse, while delving through a pile of old airplane parts at the Radar Airfield – presto - there it was! They could hardly believe their eyes when they discovered a Westinghouse L802 Rotational Beacon complete with a double bulls-eye Fresnel lens, circa 1941. However, to bring it back to working order, a full disassembly and restoration of the beacon would be necessary.
The entire lighthouse project was beyond the financial scope of Steve and Donna Keblesh, but by making the entire process an educational project, they were able to secure corporate “Partners in Education” who contributed materials, equipment, and expertise. Fundraising efforts were established for businesses and individuals to purchase stair-step plaques, with 100 percent of the net proceeds offsetting the cost of steel materials for the students’ work.
Weather permitting, the Summersville Lake Lighthouse is now open to the public to climb from April through October or during other months by appointment. Daily admission is $7 for ages 12 and over, $5 for children under 12 and seniors, or $20 for a family of two adults and three children. For more information on the lighthouse, cabin rentals, camping, boat rentals, and other services at Summersville Lake, you can visit their web site at www.summersvillelakeretreat.com. They are located at 278 Summersville Lake Road (Rt. 129W off US 19), Mount Nebo, West Virginia 26679. Phone #888-872-5580.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2013 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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