Whidbey students restoring key lighthouse fixture

LANGLEY — Work by high school students to build a new lantern house for the top of Admiralty Head Lighthouse won’t only help restore the historic landmark.

At South Whidbey High School, it’s also kept a vocational shop program going that otherwise would have been eliminated because of budget cuts.

Through a collaborative effort involving a historical group, the state, private businesses and three high schools, the lantern house on top of the 109-year-old structure at Fort Casey State Park will look close to how it did when it was new.

More than 80 metal-shop students at South Whidbey High School alone, and others at Oak Harbor and Coupeville high schools, have received valuable work experience.

“They can go up there and say, ‘I did that,’” said Chad Felgar, the metal shop instructor at South Whidbey High.

The lantern room has been built in pieces and the plan is to put them together and lift the finished product into place by crane in June.

“That’ll be a great moment for us,” said Dick Malone of Oak Harbor, 80, a volunteer tour guide at the lighthouse and one of those who helped get the restoration project started.

Nichols Bros. Boat Builders of Freeland donated the scrap metal for the project. The elimination of that expense for the school, along with a grant from a historical group, kept the metal-shop programs going.

“To me this is about the kids, it’s about the young people,” said Archie Nichols, once a co-owner of the business and now a consultant.

The first lighthouse at Admiralty Head was built in the 1860s, according to LighthouseFriends.com.

It was decided shortly before 1900 that a new lighthouse should be built when Fort Casey was established. The old one, made of wood, was closed and eventually dismantled.

The new lighthouse, a two-story, Spanish-style building, was finished in 1903. It served only into the 1920s because when steam and diesel ships replaced sailing ships, they were able to hug the south side of Admiralty Inlet, making the light at Fort Casey expendable.

The lantern house — the turret containing the light at the top of the tower — was moved down the strait to the Dungeness Lighthouse.

Admiralty Head then stood headless until a restoration in the 1960s after the fort became a state park.

The 1960s rebuild, however, was not done to the original specifications. A straight up-and-down pattern was used instead of cross-hatching on the window frames. Lightweight metal was used instead of steel. Plexiglas was used instead of glass.

Unlike the original design, the spire at the top has no air vents, leaving it hot in the lantern house for the summertime tourists who visit. It also leaks.

“It’s not holding up very well,” Malone said.

A few years ago, volunteers approached Fort Casey State Park maintenance director Chuck Juras about rebuilding the lantern house, Malone said. Volunteers also approached Nichols just to get an idea of what such a project might cost.

Nichols came back and said it would cost nothing, Malone said. Nichols Bros. could donate the scrap steel, and metal-shop students could do the work.

The U.S. Coast Guard helped dig up the original 1898 plans for the lantern house. Nichols created electronic versions and sent the drawings and metal to Seaport Steel in Seattle to have the pieces cut, also at no charge. Seaport donated some metal, as well, Nichols said.

Nichols met with officials and teachers from the high schools to arrange the rest of the work. South Whidbey High had eliminated its metal-shop class, so more money was needed to resurrect it.

The Whidbey chapter of the state’s Lighthouse Environmental Programs, a nonprofit group, receives proceeds from the sale of the state’s specialty license plates depicting lighthouses. It uses the money for special projects to maintain lighthouses in the state, Pigott said. That group kicked in $5,000.

Another $6,000 to $7,000 was raised through money the district is eligible to receive from the state for supplies, South Whidbey High principal John Patton said. Because the metal was donated, the school was able to use the money for operations, instead of materials, to keep the program going through the end of this school year, he said.

Beginning in early 2011, shop students at Oak Harbor High School worked on the window frame piece and students at Coupeville High, the roof. The “tub,” or bottom piece, of the round, 8-foot diameter room was built by the students at South Whidbey.

The shops at Coupeville and Oak Harbor were too small to assemble all three pieces, so a couple months ago, the window frame and roof — which weigh a couple tons apiece — were trucked to South Whidbey to finish the job.

The students there are doing the remaining welding, grinding and buffing. They’re also building the door frame.

The pieces will be bolted to each other — the tub on bottom, the window frame in the middle and the roof on top.

Simmons Glass of Langley has agreed to install the glass in the window-frame section. The current metal spire on the lighthouse will be revamped with vents and placed atop the roof, Felgar said.

Working on the project is especially satisfying because of the historical significance, students said.

“We’re working on something that’s going to last 100 years,” said Colton Justus, 18, one of the student leaders of the project at South Whidbey.

Some have worked on the project at lot, some just a little. Chelsey Schultz, 17, has done some of the welding.

“It’s really cool to know that I helped do something that’s going to be around for a long time,” she said.

Several of the students have learning challenges in the traditional classroom setting and are flourishing in the hands-on shop environment, instructors said.

It gives them confidence, said Charlie Davies, a teacher of special-needs kids.

“They say, ‘I can do something. I’m not a product of my test scores,’ ” he said.

Scotty Campbell, 16, said he’s considering an engineering career but for now enjoys the hands-on end of construction. Plus, he said it will be helpful to know both ends of the process.

“I just like the feel of it,” he said. “I like to learn.”

The funding pays for one class per day, but some of the students come in during their free period around lunchtime to work on the lighthouse project.

“I can’t keep them out of here,” Felgar said.

Many of the students from the shop programs at all three schools go on to work at his family’s business, Nichols said.

He had nothing but praise for the students working on the lighthouse project.

“I would put some of these young people up against many fabricators that have been in the business for years,” he said.

In recent years, though, most of South Whidbey High’s shop programs have been cut because of declining school enrollment, Patton said. Changing demographics on the island have dropped enrollment at South Whidbey from 750 in 2000 to 475 for next year, he said.

Still, interest in the shop programs is climbing again, and partly because of the momentum from the lighthouse project, an umbrella career program including shop work will be offered next year, Patton said.

Several of the students working on the lighthouse project have emerged as leaders and act as de facto foremen for the others working on the project, which makes Felgar’s job much easier, he said.

“There’s a lot of people who are counting on us,” Justus said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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