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."