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Members Are to Be Credited
OBLHS Is Saving History

Quietly, something significantly historic took place May 25 of this year, and the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society members are to receive a great deal of the credit. With no fanfare, the first order Fresnel lens atop the Bodie Island Lighthouse was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to the National Park Service (NPS)  through the required General Services  Administration's Federal personal property disposal process.

Normally the USCG does not relinquish control of a Fresnel lens, now considered a priceless artifact. However, since the NPS already has a successful track record in restoring a number of lighthouses and Fresnel lenses, and being another federal agency the USCG made an exception in this case.

At the ceremony Admiral Sally Brice-O’Hara, Commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District presided over the ceremony and signed the transfer document. Adm. O’Hara is known for her appreciation for preservation of  lighthouses, Fresnel lenses, and the history of the old U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. Representing the NPS was Acting NPS Superintendent Philip Francis, Deputy Supt. Mark Hardgrove, and Chief of Cultural Resources Steve Harrison of the Outer Banks Group. Unfortunately, former Cape Hatteras National Seashore Supt. Larry Belli was not present because he had already been reassigned to a job in Atlanta. Belli helped spearhead the move to get the lens into NPS ownership and forge plans for its restoration along with the tower.

The Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse to the NPS in 2000.  The lens was not transferred at that time because the Coast Guard considers the lens personal property rather than real property.  The first order Fresnel lens was made in France by Barbier and Fenestre in 1871 especially for the Bodie Island Lighthouse (then known as Body’s Island). There are only a few of these magnificent lenses in their original towers and still working each night as they have for the past 130 years and more.

One requisite for the lens transfer is that the NPS has agreed to maintain the lens as an aid to navigation, which will remain under the protection of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society has been asked to raise between $100,000 and $200,000 for lens restoration. Why such a high amount?

The lighthouse must also go through complete restoration. All the reports are done including structural, historical, and engineering. All that is needed is money and then stir. The restoration funding is in queue for fiscal year 2007 and is expected to be passed as planned. This means that while the tower is being restored, the lens will be removed from the lantern room, taken to a local facility for restoration, and when the tower project is completed the lens will be placed back in the lantern room. This requires more steps to the restoration process, time and expertise, and special storage and equipment to complete the prodigious project.

The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society has been present at Bodie Island for over 10 years. It was our first focal point and continues to be until the tower and lens restoration projects are completed. It has been a long road in the transfer process of both the tower and lens from USCG ownership to NPS stewardship. We thank members for supporting OBLHS’s efforts. Here are some of the ways we’ve been involved at Bodie Island:

  • Coordinated volunteers for about five years to open the lower portion of the tower to the public
  • Requested a sign pointing to BILH from Hwy 12--many visitors were past it before realizing it even exists
  • Hosted/participated in various media programs at BILH including PBS, The History Channel, UNC-TV, NPS, HGTV/Save America’s Treasures, and participated in many articles including Southern Living magazine, Our State NC magazine, etc.
  • Produced the video “Growing Up at the Lighthouse” with Ken Mann about the last two keepers and their families at Bodie Island
  • Sponsored the purchase of original 1859 lighthouse plans on linen
  • Sponsored John Gaskill on the porch to greet visitors at the lighthouse. John is the son of Keeper Vernon Gaskill who kept the light from 1919-1939.
  • Hosted many groups at BILH for special programs like “Meet the keepers’ descendants.” Our philosophy is that with awareness comes caring.
  • Sponsored lampist Nick Johnston who donated time for a structural inspection for OBLHS of the lens. A letter from a former USCG employee called for the removal of the lens. Nick’s report given to OBLHS was passed onto the NPS and the rest is history.

The NPS will operate and maintain the Fresnel lens as an aid to navigation and the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society will be there to help. A first order Fresnel lens is something you must see in order to understand its great value.