About a decade ago, the Bodie Island Lighthouse on the Outer Banks was in rough shape. Filled with wasps, the stairs to the top wobbled and the glass in the lantern room was broken. Iron work had rusted from rain.
After a $5 million makeover, the Bodie (pronounced bah’-dee) Island Lighthouse opens Friday to public for the first time in its 141-year-old history.
The 214 steps to the top are safe and the 344 hand-cut glass prisms of a 19th century lens have been cleaned so that the complex system can once again cast light 20 miles out to sea.
The lighthouse stands among pine trees and marshland, and people who have climbed it say Bodie’s finest feature is its unimpeded view of marsh, the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound.
“It’s one of the few lighthouses where you can climb to the top and look in every direction, and it could be 1900,” said Bruce Roberts, co-founder of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society. “There are no intrusions of highway trucks or gas stations. Bodie is one of the true lighthouses where you have the feeling that it looks as it did 100 years ago.”
The lighthouse is one of about 15 in the country that still has its original Fresnel lens and one of only a dozen lighthouses that is at least 150 tall. Three others are also in North Carolina, including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, located just south of Bodie Island.
Roberts and his wife, Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, began the lighthouse society in 1994 with the goal of restoring it. The couple, who lived north of the Bodie light, in Nags Head, when they began their effort, estimated they spent about $20,000 of their own money to save the lighthouse.
“So much was already written about the bricks and mortar of American lighthouses,” Shelton-Roberts said. “And there was so little available on Bodie Island. I was amazed. It was not even on the historic register when we first became acquainted with it in 1994. That sent me on a quest to find out more about it.”
The couple got to know people such as John Gaskill, 97, who had lived and worked at the lighthouse. Gaskill once spent an entire summer in 1934 painting black-and-white stripes on the lighthouse.
“That was probably the hardest work I did, but I was getting paid for that,” said Gaskill, son of Vernon Gaskill, the last Bodie Island light keeper. “The other stuff, I didn’t get paid. That was family stuff, and we helped out like any family would help out.”
Gaskill and a few friends scraped the old paint off the 170-foot tall tower, and then painted it as they stood on a platform with a rail around it. They each received $3 a day.
Although the opening is the first time that the public has been able to climb the lighthouse, Gaskill said he and his family previously let visitors tour the tower if they could get there.
“If someone came to the tower and wanted to come in, we took them,” he said. “But we got very few people because people didn’t know how to drive in that sand.”
The $5 million came from the National Park Service’s budget, which initially estimated the cost at $3 million, said Cyndy Holda, spokeswoman for the Cape Hatteras Seashore. The renovation came to a halt in the summer of 2010 when the contractor discovered structural integrity problems with the black struts that sit underneath the balcony – every single one was cracked, she said.
“The work had to cease and we had to find additional funding or people would never be able to climb up to the balcony,” she said.
While lighthouses have turned into tourist attractions, they once filled a vital mission in protecting ships and sailors. If a ship missed the Bodie light, it could end up in Diamond Shoals, a treacherous series of underwater sandbars.
Gaskill, who lives at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., isn’t able to attend Friday’s opening or a reunion of descendants of Bodie Island Lighthouse keepers in October. Roberts expects about 600 people to attend that event.
Lighthouses are a symbol of the best of government, Roberts said. “They represent people willing to risk their lives to save others,” he said.