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.