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When he was a child, John Fillmore Gaskill spent his summers helping his family maintain the grounds of the Bodie Island Light Station. He mostly cut grass, but in the

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When he was a child, John Fillmore Gaskill spent his summers helping his family maintain the grounds of the Bodie Island Light Station. He mostly cut grass, but in the

When he was a child, John Fillmore Gaskill spent his summers helping his family maintain the grounds of the Bodie Island Light Station. He mostly cut grass, but in the summer of 1934, John and his father, Vernon, took on the dangerous task of scraping and repainting the lighthouse by hand. The two would climb to the top of the 156-foot tower, where they’d hoist themselves over the balcony railing and down into what they called “the box” — a small rectangular platform with guardrails around the sides. Suspended in the air by a system of ropes and pulleys, they would paint the tower as they lowered themselves down its massive side, then pull the box back up to the top and repeat the process on the next vertical section until the job was done.

Lloyd Vernon Gaskill was the last principal keeper of the Bodie Island Light, serving for two decades beginning in 1919. After the family left in 1940, they watched the lighthouse gradually fall into disrepair. But John lived long enough to see it return to life — that shiny beacon that’s since become the highlight of so many vacationers’ travels along the lonely stretch of sand just south of Nags Head.

“I was told it was like being on an abandoned island,” John’s daughter, Joan Gaskill Davis Wyndham, recalls of her dad’s stories. “There wasn’t any place to go, and nobody was around anyway.” Joan spent many childhood summers at the Gaskill family home in the village of Wanchese, just across the sound. “For a long time, the only way you could get to the lighthouse was by boat, and they wouldn’t let Daddy and his brother use the electric motor to get over there” — she chuckles — “only the sailboats. Then they eventually got the bridges.”

• • •

After leaving behind the last outpost of colorful vacation homes and seafood restaurants, the 25-mile stretch of NC Highway 12 between Nags Head and Rodanthe is windswept and wild. To the east, the roar of the ocean beckons just behind golden dunes flanking the road. A stone’s throw to the west, the waters of Pamlico Sound become increasingly green and clear in proximity to Oregon Inlet. It is along this sandy two-lane strip that a cache of specially cut glass prisms gleams from its vantage point overlooking the Atlantic. The 344 glittering pieces are part of an intricate first-order Fresnel lens, imported from Paris and housed at the top of the Bodie Island Light Station.

With its signature black-and-white horizontal striped daymark, the lighthouse was a lifeline for ships at sea in the late 1800s and early 1900s, aiding navigation along a perilous section of our coastline known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In its most recent incarnation, the lighthouse is well maintained and open seasonally to the public. Its section of Highway 12 has been designated as part of the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. It’s a happy ending — or perhaps a new beginning — compared to some of its past lives.

The Fresnel lens at the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

The first-order Fresnel lens encased atop the Bodie Island Light Station is 12 feet tall, 6 feet in diameter, and weighs a whopping 1,850 pounds. photograph by DAN WATERS/DLWATERS.COM

The original lighthouse at Bodie Island — pronounced BAH-dee, and said to be named for the family who once owned the land — was first lit in 1848, but due to a flaw in the placement of its foundation, it began to lean precariously. It was abandoned and destroyed just 10 years later. The second Bodie Island Lighthouse was built in 1859 and housed a third-order Fresnel lens. During the Civil War, Confederate forces removed the lens, took it inland for safekeeping, and then blew up the lighthouse in 1861, lest it be used as a lookout by encroaching Union forces. The hidden lens was later found on the second floor of the rotunda in the North Carolina Capitol building in Raleigh, along with several more that had been secreted away from other North Carolina lighthouses.

The third and current Bodie Island Lighthouse was built in 1872, in a different location from the original two. Beginning in the 1940s, after it was electrified and became unmanned, the lighthouse was largely unknown to passersby and began deteriorating. But the 1990s ushered in a “lighthouse renaissance,” says Cheryl Shelton Roberts, who cofounded the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society along with her husband, Bruce, in 1994.

“Fresnel lenses didn’t need to be moved to a museum, because they’re in their museum.”

Two reports sponsored by the society revealed the lighthouse’s extensive damage. Steps in its spiral staircase had cracked, its brick masonry was compromised in places, its ironwork was failing, and it was deemed unsafe for visitors. Though the light station was transferred to the National Park Service in 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard retained ownership of the Fresnel lens and planned to move the priceless maritime artifact out of the aging structure.

“It took some time to convince people that keeping the lens where it originated, historically in context, was very important,” Cheryl says. “There’s only a handful of these lenses still operating and still in their original lantern rooms. One lampist told me that Fresnel lenses didn’t need to be moved from their lantern room to a museum because, sitting in the lantern room, they’re in their museum.”

• • •

Like the lighthouse and its lens, the keepers and the families who maintained them for nearly a century are familiar with death and rebirth. Carving out a life on an isolated barrier island, at the whims of high tides and hurricanes, they watched first-hand the natural cycle of destruction and renewal. And they are notably resilient.

Peter G. Gallop, the last lighthouse keeper of the Bodie Island Light

Peter G. Gallop Photography courtesy of National Park Service

Terry Gray is an Outer Banks native and a descendant of Peter G. Gallop, the longest-serving keeper of the Bodie Island Lighthouse, from 1878 to 1906. “The family had two sons and seven daughters, my great-grandmother being one of them, and she was actually born at the lighthouse. I just love that story!” Terry says in a slight but still noticeable Outer Banks brogue. “The people stationed at these lighthouses, they pretty much had their family and that was it. If you were going to make it, you had to make it yourself. There was nobody else to rely on. People back then were community minded.”

Joan Gaskill Davis Wyndham agrees. And she sees these character traits, the products of an isolated life, still represented in Outer Banks communities today. “They share and they take care of each other, and I’ve always loved that,” she says. “There’s that leftover feeling that if nobody else is gonna help us, we have to help each other.”

• • •

More than seven decades after his perilous job of painting the Bodie Island Lighthouse, Joan’s father, John, was able to help the lighthouse society with the restoration efforts that gave the historic light station new life toward the end of his own. “Daddy worked with them and would be a talker and tell stories to people who had questions,” Joan says. “That really added a lot to his life in the later years.”

Restoration began in 2009, and four years later, the Bodie Island Light was relit, its unique flash pattern — 2.5 seconds on, 2.5 seconds off, 2.5 seconds on, 22.5 seconds off — reaching more than 20 miles out to sea. The lighthouse was opened to the public for the first time in its history in 2013, the year that John Fillmore Gaskill died.

Terry Gray in front of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

“The lighthouse is a part of our heritage and it’s part of the history of this area,” says Terry Gray, a descendent of Peter G. Gallop, the longest-serving Bodie Island Lighthouse keeper. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Built more than 150 years ago, the lighthouse’s presence and spirit still can be felt across the island. If the flash pattern is its heartbeat, the light from the Fresnel lens is its soul. And for nearly a century, those early Outer Banks keepers and families who worked tirelessly to keep that light burning were its lifeblood. “We all have a lot of pride in the lighthouse,” Terry Gray says. “It’s something that we can cherish and tell stories about to our kids and grandkids.”

If they could see the lighthouse tower’s freshly painted exterior today, its beacon still burning bright, Lloyd Vernon Gaskill and all the other lightkeepers of the past, too, would be proud.

Bodie Island Light Station
8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Road
Nags Head, NC 27959
(252) 475-9501

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This story was published on May 14, 2024

Hannah Bunn West

Hannah Bunn West was born and raised on the Outer Banks. She’s the author of two books, most recently Save Our Sand Dunes, published this year by the NC Office of Archives and History.