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Recycled wind turbine tower now lighthouse at Summersville Lake

Courtesy photo
A three-year dream is now a reality for Steve and Donna Keblesh, as their Summersville Lake Lighthouse stands sentinel on a stretch of high ground on their Mount Nebo area campground.
Courtesy photo Two cranes were used to raise the former wind turbine tower section onto its foundation near Summersville Lake.
Courtesy photo A crane hoists a compartment holding the lighthouse's beacon into place at the top of 102-foot-tall structure.
Courtesy photo A three-foot-wide balcony on the lighthouse's observation platform will give visitors 360-degree views of Summersville Lake and the Gauley River National Recreation Area.

MOUNT NEBO, W.Va. -- What began as a dream more than three years ago is now towering 104 feet above a slope overlooking a corner of Summersville Lake, drawing camera-wielding visitors off nearby U.S. 19 like a ... well, like a lighthouse along a scenic coastal highway.

"Every time I take the 122 steps to the top, I feel like Huck Finn -- it's a heckuva tree house," said Steve Keblesh, who with his wife, Donna, oversaw the development of the recently erected Summersville Lake Lighthouse at their Summersville Lake Retreat near Mount Nebo.

The Kebleshes initially envisioned building an eye-catching forest fire tower on a high point on their property before settling on a more nautical theme.

"We thought a fire tower would fit in nicely with our camping theme, and we even looked at buying one of the surplus fire towers the state of Virginia was auctioning off a few years ago, until our insurance people told us it wasn't a great idea," Steve Keblesh said. "But about the same time that plan was falling through, another one fell into place -- or at least rolled down the mountain."

During the summer of 2009, a number of construction workers helping build the Beech Ridge wind farm project in neighboring Greenbrier County were using Summersville Lake Retreat as their base camp. One night, Keblesh was talking with Rick Butler, a Canadian working on the Beech Ridge job, and jokingly suggested that if Butler could divert one of the wind turbine tower sections in his direction, he would keep it and disguise it as a lighthouse.

Butler turned to the campground operator "with a classic deadpan expression," Keblesh recalled, and said "Funny that you say that, mate. We just lost one over the hill."

One of the newly delivered tower sections, it turned out, had broken loose from its crib blocks and rolled downhill following a heavy rain. It downed several trees and picked up a few dings, making it unsuitable for wind power production, before coming to rest 75 feet down the embankment.

The Kebleshes were able to buy the 72,000-pound tower section and have it hauled back to their campground, using a 100-mile detour to avoid crossing the New River Gorge Bridge, which had traffic limited to one lane each way to accommodate a resurfacing project.

Truck driver Roger Hilsher had to back his rig one-fourth of a mile along Summersville Lake Retreat's main access road to reach the tower's final destination.

Bill Toney, the owner of Lewisburg-based Engineering and Testing 2000, and Nycoma Scott, one of his engineers, who had been overseeing the installation of the Beech Ridge towers, became intrigued with the Kebleshes' plans to recycle the turbine tower into a lighthouse. The two engineers provided information on such topics as wind shear loads and cathodic protection and oversaw the design and construction needed to convert the tower into a lighthouse.

The Kebleshes developed partnerships with faculty and students from Fayette Institute of Technology and the Nicholas County Career & Technical Center.

 Roy Neal, welding instructor at the Fayette County school, converted a set of octagonal gazebo plans into a reinforced lamp room with a surrounding balcony that would be attached to the top of the tower. Neal's colleague, drafting instructor Gary Chapman, and Chapman's students converted field sketches into computer-aided design plans, which Neal's students followed in fabricating the lamp room and its support structure.

Meanwhile, Nicholas County Career & Technical Center welding instructor Joe Hypes and his students began fabricating a solid steel spiral staircase that would eventually extend the equivalent of 10 stories inside the tower to provide access to the lamp room. Plans for the staircase and its four landings were developed in a nearby classroom by instructor Dan Cutlip and his pre-engineering students.

 "We had our share of naysayers at the start," said Keblesh. "But as things progressed, people realized that we were quite serious -- that we were building the real deal, not just a roadside tourist trap like you'd see at golf courses and such."

The Kebleshes launched a search to locate a light source using the beacon effect of a Fresnel lens to make the illumination source of their lighthouse authentic. After searching through a number of online auction sites, they found that "even the smallest fifth-and sixth-order lenses were beyond our budget."

Since they had to register the lighthouse site with the Federal Aviation Administration, due to its proximity to the Summersville Airport, they contacted airport operators Mary and Jerry Rader, who became interested in the project. In addition to helping get the lighthouse registered as an aeronautical navigation aid, the Raders mentioned that they had an unused airport beacon light that could possibly be used as the beacon for the lighthouse.

"I heard what they said, but I let it go for months, thinking the odds were too small that their light would be usable," Keblesh said. "I kept searching eBay and looking for leads elsewhere, until I finally decided to take a look at their beacon."

Finally, on New Year's Day, the Kebleshes took advantage of some free time to look through the Raders' collection of assorted aviation gear in a hangar. There, they came across a 1942-vintage Westinghouse rotational beacon complete with a Fresnel lens.

"There it was, right across the lake from us, for all that time," Keblesh said. Electrician Ed Wood converted the beacon's energy-gulping 1,000-watt halide incandescent bulb system into a 400-watt multi-vapor system, capable of producing a beam of light that can be seen 30 miles away.

Foundation experts Roger and Doug Gerwig helped design and build an octagonal concrete foundation for the lighthouse, which includes a circular array of 20 threaded steel pins, to which the tower would be attached.

On Oct. 17, a pair of giant cranes from ALL Crane and Equipment Rental "picked the whole thing up and set it in place over the foundation pins," Keblesh said. After a few whacks with a ball peen hammer, "it dropped in place like a giant Lego brick."

The stairway to the light room atop the tower is complete, although some handrails still need to be installed.

"It's 122 steps to the top, with four landings for rest breaks," Keblesh said. In the observation room atop the tower, a three-foot-wide gallery deck extends 360 degrees around the tower, providing sweeping views of Summersville Lake and the Gauley River National Recreation Area.

A smaller lamp room, accessible only to Keblesh and his staff through a trap door, is perched atop the observation room. An 18-inch-wide "widow's walk" platform encircles the upper deck to accommodate the routine cleaning of the beacon windows.

Among tasks remaining to be completed is the installation of safety wiring by the Western Reserve Lightning Rod Co., and backfilling and landscaping adjacent to the foundation. A picnic pavilion will be built early next year and a visitor center is being planned.

The Summersville Lake structure is already listed, along with 750 other U.S. lighthouses, in the current Fyddeye Guide to American Lighthouses, which takes note of its Fresnel lens illumination system and public access to its inner stairway.

 The grand opening ceremony for the lighthouse will take place on June 20, 2013, the 150th anniversary of West Virginia Statehood.

"We've got a huge birthday candle for the state," Keblesh said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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