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State's first lighthouse opens on W.Va. Day

SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. -- Hundreds of people celebrated West Virginia's Sesquicentennial on Thursday by climbing a 122-step spiral staircase to reach the top of the state's biggest birthday candle.

Summersville Lake Lighthouse opened to the public Thursday, making a four-year dream come true for owners Steve and Donna Keblesh.

"I feel like the weight's off my shoulder at this point," said Steve Keblesh, as he stood on the lighthouse's observation deck, towering 105 feet above his Summersville Lake Retreat campground.

 "I get a sense of fruition," Keblesh said. "I like seeing the smiles on people's faces when they reach the top and take in the view. I've heard a lot of them say things like, 'I never realized we live in such a pretty state.'"

Four years ago, the Kebleshes were looking for some type of iconic development to help make their campground stand out from others in the area.

"There are 6,300 billboards between here and Florida, and I doubt that drivers remember any of them except maybe the Big Peach [on Interstate 75 near Byron, Ga.], which is really a water tower," Keblesh said. "People will recognize and remember this."

The Kebleshes initially planned to buy a surplus forest fire lookout tower and reassemble it on their property, located just off U.S. 19, a major four-lane shortcut linking north-south traffic on Interstate 79 near Sutton to Interstate 77 at Beckley. Difficulties with insurance coverage helped nix the fire tower idea, but soon another one rolled in -- or at least down a nearby mountain -- to replace it.

In 2009, during a period of heavy rain, a wind turbine tower section at the Beech Ridge wind farm project in Greenbrier County broke loose from its crib blocks and rolled 75 feet down a hill. The tower section downed several trees and collected a few dents in the process, making it unsuitable for its original role.

At that time, the construction crew for the Beech Ridge project was using the campground at Summersville Lake Retreat as its base camp. One night, back at the campground, Keblesh jokingly suggested to a member of the crew that if he could divert one of the wind turbine towers in his direction, he would keep it and disguise it as a lighthouse.

"Funny you should say that," the construction man replied. "We just lost one over the hill."

The Kebleshes bought the 72,000-pound tube of steel and arranged to have it hauled back to their campground. There, they got a pair of engineers on the wind project -- Bill Toney and Nycoma Scott of Engineering and Testing 2000 in Lewisburg -- interested in recycling a slightly dinged wind turbine tower into a lighthouse.

Next, the campground owners established partnerships with faculty and students at the 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 plan for a reinforced lamp room, surrounded by a balcony, which would be attached to the top of the lighthouse tower. Neal's colleague, drafting instructor Gary Chapman, had his students convert field sketches into computer-aided design plans, which Neal's students followed in fabricating the lamp room complex.

Welding instructor Joe Hypes and his students at the Nicholas County school got to work fabricating a solid steel spiral staircase that eventually would extend the equivalent of 10 stories inside the tower, to provide access to the lamp room and observation deck. The plans for the staircase were developed in a nearby classroom by instructor Dan Cutlip and his pre-engineering students.

Several students were hired by the Kebleshes to complete the installation of stairs during the summer.

After the couple searched online in vain for an authentic and affordable Fresnel lens to illuminate their lighthouse, Mary and Jerry Rader, operators of nearby Summersville Airport, mentioned that they had an unused airport beacon light. They wondered if it could possibly fit the bill as a lighthouse beacon.

When the Kebleshes went to the Raders' hangar to check out the device, it turned out that the airport beacon was not only in working order but that it came equipped with the desired lighthouse-quality Fresnel lens.

The lighthouse tower with its beacon, which can be seen from 30 miles away, "is a true navigation aid, but for aircraft instead of ships," said Steve Keblesh. "It's registered with the FAA as an official navigation aid."

Foundation experts Doug and Roger Gerwig helped design and build an octagonal concrete foundation, in which an array of 20 threaded steel pins is embedded to secure the lighthouse in place.

"There's 9 feet of tower underground, anchored to solid bedrock. It's not going anywhere," Doug Gerwig said as he admired the view from the top of the lighthouse Thursday.

"When I first heard about the lighthouse idea, I didn't know what to think of it," said Billy Bush of Poe, one of the Nicholas County students who worked on the project, and now is an employee of Summersville Lake Retreat. "But it turned out to be pretty cool, and a lot bigger than I imagined."

Bush, who spent two years, including summers, on the project, said he learned a lot about welding and design. "And the next time someone wants to build a lighthouse around here, I'll be ready," he joked.

Thursday's public debut of the lighthouse included food, music, crafts, Civil War re-enactors and more.

Among those making the 122-step trek to the top was Mary Elkins of Gilboa, who has been monitoring the progress of work on the lighthouse for the past two years.

"I couldn't wait for this to open," she said. "It's been a fantastic project. People should come and see it now that it's done. The view is gorgeous, and I'm so proud that we have the only lighthouse in the state."

"This is absolutely gorgeous," Nicholas County Commissioner Ken Altizer said upon reaching the observation deck and admiring a sweeping view of Summersville Lake.

While Altizer said he initially thought the idea of the lighthouse "was a little strange, the more I talked to Steve and Donna, the better the idea seemed to get," he said. "If you want to get things done in this state, you need folks like Steve and Donna to make them happen."

Guided tours of the lighthouse will be offered daily, three times an hour, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., weather permitting. Cost is $7 for adults and children 12 and older, and $5 for those 3 to 11 years old, or 65 and older.

The addition of the lighthouse tour program has allowed Summersville Lake Retreat to more than double its workforce, from 9 to 20. "We're making a little difference in the local economy," Keblesh said, "and that makes me feel good."

For more information on the lighthouse and Summersville Lake Retreat, visit www.summersvillelakeretreat.com.

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

 


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