Bodie Island Lighthouse waited 138 years for its first major overhaul, more than $3 million worth of work that started last year with the goal of finally opening the historic structure to the climbing public.
The beloved beacon may now have met a force more corrosive than wind, rain, salt, shifting sand, lightning, rust, termites and neglect: a tight federal budget.
With about 85 percent of the work on the original contract complete, progress will halt next week unless the government can find $1.6 million to fix problems that weren't discovered until the overhaul was begun. Without the money, the tower will be mothballed indefinitely, while the cost of the repairs goes up.
"It's like any old building. You don't know what you're going to find until you start working on it," said Cyndy Holda, spokeswoman for the National Park Service's Outer Banks Group, which includes Cape Hatteras National Seashore, home of the Bodie (pronounced "body") light.
The lighthouse was manned from 1872 until 1940, when the last full-time lighthouse keeper was reassigned and the Bodie light was automated. In 1953, the Coast Guard gave the land around the lighthouse to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but held onto the tower and a 100-foot-square piece of sand underneath it.
After that, it wasn't clear which agency was supposed to take care of the lighthouse. By the time the Coast Guard gave it to the Park Service in 2000, there was a long list of overdue repairs.
Except for one weekend in 1988 commemorating the founding of the Lighthouse Service, the public has never been allowed to climb Bodie Light, first because it was a working light under the ownership of the Coast Guard, and later because it wasn't safe.
A tourist draw?
"It could be a tourist attraction," said Holda, like Hatteras Lighthouse down the coast, which often draws 800 people on a busy summer day, each paying up to $7 to make the breathless ascent.
In 2009, Congress appropriated about $3.1 million to fix Bodie Light so it could open to visitors. The work would repair or replace the tower's 214 iron stairs, the metal around the gallery and lantern decks, the masonry and stone walls, the marble and slate floors, the roof, windows, electrical lines, interior lights and other items.
At the lighthouse, workers and volunteers disassembled the huge Fresnel lens and carried it down, out of harm's way. Contractors enclosed the lighthouse in scaffolding and began work.
Along the way, they discovered that the triangular metal struts supporting the balcony were cracked. To repair them, and keep the lighthouse on the National Register of Historic Places, the Park Service wants to remove the struts and send them to a company in Florida that will make molds of the originals, then melt down the iron, remove rust, add different metals to reduce brittleness and add strength, and cast new ones.
That would cost $1.6 million over and above the $3.09 million original contract.
Park Service officials first hoped to cover most of that with money left over from the renovation of a headquarters building on Roanoke Island, completed for about $1.1 million less than budgeted.
But the bill authorizing the headquarters repairs specifically forbade transferring any leftover money from that project to another. To do so now would require another act of Congress. So far, none is proposed.
In the absence of a transfer, the Park Service is asking Congress for a new appropriation in the 2012 budget.
The contractor is wrapping up what it can do and may take down the scaffolding as soon as next week. Reconstructing it later would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the meantime, the public is still unable to climb Bodie Island Lighthouse and look out on a view of Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, Roanoke Sound and the Atlantic Ocean that is almost unchanged since 1872.
'I fell in love'
Bett Padgett of Raleigh, president of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit friends group, has had the rare privilege of seeing it. She went up in 1999 with a volunteer to open a vent in the top of the tower.
"While we were up there, sitting on the gallery, the sun went down and a full moon came up, and I fell in love right then and there," Padgett said. "I knew this was something we had to save."
Padgett is confident the government will finish the work and open the lighthouse so everyone can see that.
"I think they'll get the money," she said. "I just want them to get it now."
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