MOUNT NEBO, W.Va. -- The nearest seacoast may be 350 miles to the east and the nearest Great Lake 250 miles to the north, but in another year, West Virginia's first fully functional lighthouse will tower 104 feet atop a slope overlooking the state's largest lake.
What started out as a flight of fancy for Steve and Donna Keblesh, owners of Summersville Lake Retreat, has turned into a down-to-earth, hands-on educational project involving dozens of students in four classes at two area technical schools.
It has also captured the imagination of lighthouse buffs from across the country, who are adding the Summersville Lake tower to their must-see checklists of sites to visit once it's up and its beacon is running.
"I think this all stems from a long-time desire of mine to build a permanent tree house," said Steve Keblesh, a former whitewater guide who founded his camping, cabins and boat rental business on a bluff overlooking Summersville Lake 12 years ago. "This will definitely be the biggest tree house I've ever built."
According to Keblesh, the lighthouse idea started as a joke. And as is the case with every good joke, timing was everything.
"Rick Butler, a guy from Ontario, was staying at our campground in 2009 while he worked on the Beech Ridge wind farm project in Greenbrier County," Keblesh said. After watching giant wind tower components pass by on nearby U.S. 19 en route to the construction site for months, "one evening we offhandedly ribbed Rick that if he would be kind enough to divert one of the tower sections in our direction, we would keep it and disguise it as a lighthouse," Keblesh said.
"Funny that you say that, mate," Butler replied. "We just lost one over the hill."
As it turned out, heavy rains had recently undermined the cribbing supporting a recently unloaded tower section at Beech Ridge. It rolled 75 feet down a hillside, receiving a few dents as it crushed a few medium-sized trees before coming to a stop. While the dents and scratches from the tumble may seem minor to the untrained eye, to project engineers, the damage was enough to consign the tower to the scrap heap, where it was headed until the Kebleshes intervened.
With the help of Beech Ridge construction manager Geoff Kerr, the Kebleshes bought the 72,000-pound steel tube for 32 cents a pound. The couple then paid to have the tower section trucked to their Mount Nebo area campground, but a paving project restricted traffic over the New River Gorge Bridge to one-lane -- too narrow a space for the oversized load. The 100-mile detour added more expense to the project.
Once at Summersville Lake Retreat, the driver of the truck had to back the seven-axle semi-trig a quarter mile through the winding campground road to have the tower properly configured for unloading by a pair of 50-ton cranes.
At this point, the campground owners had tens of thousands of dollars wrapped up in the project, and reached into the community for help in seeing a lighthouse emerge from a discarded steel tower
Bill Toney, a professional engineer and founder of Lewisburg-based Engineering & Testing 2000, had worked on numerous tower projects over the years, including the Beech Ridge job. After learning about the Kebleshes' plans from Butler, he decided to add steel lighthouse construction to his portfolio.
Students and faculty at the Fayette Institute of Technology and Nicholas County Career and Technical became partners in the project.
At the Nicholas County school, students in Dan Cutlip's pre-engineering class designed the layout of the steel spiral stairs and landings that will ascend the inside of the tower to a gallery deck and light room designed by students in Gary Chapman's computer assisted drafting class at Fayette Institute of Technology. Welding students in instructor Joe Hypes class at Nicholas County Career and Technical Center have completed 42 of the 120 steps needed to reach the top of the lighthouse, while Roy Neal's welding students at Fayette Institute of Technology are building the solid steel octagonal light room that will be placed atop the tower.
Chapman's drafting class recently competed a seven-foot-tall scale model of the tower, using a 3-D CAD printer, or rapid prototyping machine, which converts computer drawings into solid plastic three-dimensional models.
What started out as a napkin sketch of a lighthouse by Keblesh became an engineer-approved design (thanks to Toney) that is being drafted and fabricated by area vo-tech students.
"It's exciting. Working on real-world stuff like this wasn't something I was expecting," said Lucas Gardner, a student in Chapman's drafting class.
"It's a lot more interesting than working on an assignment from a textbook," added classmate Lionel Waters.