Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Historic lighthouse piece is reflection into history


The Virginian-Pilot
By Catherine Kozak
March 20, 2005

HATTERAS - A shipwreck museum indeed may be the most fitting place for the remains of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse’s original Fresnel lens.

With its former majesty picked away by vandals and salvagers, the first -order Fresnel lens that is being conserved this month for display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras is a battered, skeletal survivor of time and elements.

But like the shipwrecks lying off the coast of the Outer Banks, within the remnants of the lamp that once guided mariners there’s a profound American story to be told.

“This lens suffered from abuse and neglect and the ravages of souvenir hunters,” said Kevin Duffus, the president of the museum’s board who wrote a book about his quest to find the lens. “No one will come here and admire this lens for its beauty; they’ll admire it for its history.”

On loan from the National Park Service, the steel, pineapple-shaped frame and bronze panels that will hold about 400 sea-green crystal prisms are being assembled for display in the entrance hall of the museum, which is incomplete.

The $75,000 lens stabilization and reconstruction project is expected to be completed by April 1.

As far as restoration projects go, Jim Woodward, one of a handful of Fresnel lens experts in the country, said it is the most unusual in his 40 years of working on the lenses.

Woodward, 59, is being assisted by lampist Jim Dunlap and metals expert Kurt Fosberg.

“This embodies all the experience all of us have, ” Woodward said during a break in assembling the frame Thursday. “Because it was so messed up, to make it right takes a lot of experience. It’s great to be part of the link with the past.”

Woodward, owner of The Lighthouse Consultant LLC in Cleveland , said the task entails straightening, scraping, repairing, cleaning and rebuilding parts.

After the panels are determined to fit exactly, the prisms will be secured with a putty like compound, and the panels will be bolted to the frame. When it’s done, he said, two panels with prisms will be at the top third of the lens; the flash panel frames in the middle will have no glass; and the lower panels will be about half-filled with the prisms. If it has any light at all, he said, the lens would probably be illuminated by a light beamed from the ceiling.

“And that’s what they’re going to see,” Woodward said. “They’re going to see what happens to a lens when people totally abuse it.”

Joseph Schwarzer, the museum’s executive director, said the exhibit in all its ruggedness will work well with the mission of the museum to preserve the robust wealth of Outer Banks maritime history.

Schwarzer said an additional $500,000 is needed to finish the gallery area and back of the museum, and $1.2 million is needed to do the exhibits. Recent federal, state and private grants have enabled the museum to build offices and a collection storage area starting next month.

Noted for its extraordinary ability to refract and reflect light, the Fresnel lens revolutionized the U.S. Lighthouse Service in the 19th and early 20th centuries .

“This is not a run-of-the-mill lens,” Schwarzer said of the exhibit. “It is one of the first ones purchased by the United States. I think by the time it’s done, it’s going to be recognizable as an amazing artifact.”

The rediscovered Fresnel lens already is inspiring some lighthouse lovers to trek from far and wide to the Outer Banks to help in the restoration.

Paula Liebrecht and her sister Lauren Liebrecht, both from Laurel, Md., spent three days last week cleaning the panels and preparing them for display. The 47-year-old twins frequently have volunteered on lighthouse projects, Paula Liebrecht said.

“I tell you, when we were called and given the opportunity to do this, we jumped,” she said in a telephone interview from her home. “This one had a special mystique to it because it wasn’t around, and all of a sudden we had a chance to help. It really excited us.”

The 6,000-pound lens, built in Paris in 1853, was installed in the 1803 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in hopes of reducing the high number of shipwrecks at wicked Diamond Shoals. Because of its reputation as dangerous, Cape Hatteras was one of the first locations in the country to get the lighthouse technology.

But on the eve of the Civil War, the lens was secretly removed to keep it out of the hands of Union forces. It was then hidden in numerous places, recovered and lost and recovered again, shipped back and forth across the Atlantic before history finally lost track of its whereabouts.

Until 2002, when Duffus unraveled the mystery of its fate in a dusty room of the National Archives, the lens was thought to be gone forever.

But after tracking the twists and turns of the lens’ travels, Duffus determined that it had been installed in the 1872 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which had replaced the 1803 beacon. For years it had been assumed that the lens was from a different lighthouse.

As it turned out, Duffus discovered, the lens at the top of the Hatteras lighthouse that had been abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1936 in Buxton was the lens that everyone had been searching for since 1861.

When the 1872 lighthouse was later put back in service as an aid to navigation, the beacon was replaced with a modern lamp, and what was left of the Fresnel lens was put in storage by the National Park Service.

“If I go back to the moment in the National Archives,” Duffus said, “it would’ve been at that time beyond my imagination that I’d be in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum looking at it. And be able to share that history.”

The park service has agreed to loan much of the recovered lens to the museum but has declined to lend its pedestal and clockwork mechanism still at the top of the restored and relocated Hatteras tower.

Lawrence Belli, superintendent of the park service’s Outer Banks Group, said that the pedestal is an important part of the tower’s original structure.

Belli said that the park service also is unwilling to let the shipwreck museum borrow the panel of prisms from the original lens that is displayed in the Cape Hatteras Light Station museum in Buxton.

“That has never been on the table,” he said. “It’s in context with the lighthouse itself.”

Woodward, however, persuaded the park service to loan the museum a panel of first-order Fresnel prisms that had been on display at the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

As it is, about 600 of the original 1,000 glass prisms are missing from the lens. Although no one is quite sure what happened to them, the assumption is that local people, thinking the tower had been abandoned to the elements, helped themselves.

Dale Burrus, who was born in Hatteras in 1942, remembers that there were a lot of big pieces of glass that the local children played with when he was growing up.

“You could take a piece of paper and set it on fire with the glass,” he recalled. “They were definitely around. They told us they were pieces from the lighthouse lens. It was kind of like a little toy.”


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