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TOM LANDON | Special to The Roanoke Times
Lighthouse on the Greenway.
Monday, July 1, 2013
Q: There is a small lighthouse on the Roanoke River about a quarter mile east of where Tinker Creek empties into the Roanoke River. It is visible from the greenway and is adjacent to the sewage treatment plant property.
Why was it placed there originally? Is it a working lighthouse?
Janice Hoffman, Roanoke County
A: First of all, thanks for attaching the photo to your email, Janice. Seeing the squat version of the Hatteras lighthouse perched atop what looked to me like a sewer access point definitely piqued my interest. This is exactly what I look for in a question - a little offbeat and mysterious, with a dash of quirky.
Have local kayakers and bass fishermen been running aground on the rocky shoals at the confluence of the two streams? Is it a navigational aid for modern day Roanoke River batteaus traveling up from the Albemarle Sound? A beacon for soon-to-arrive aliens?
I asked Liz Belcher, the director of the Roanoke Valley Greenways. She'd know for sure, I figured, but the ersatz navigational obelisk was news to her. So the next logical stop was Scott Shirley, the director of maintenance and operations at the Western Virginia Water Authority, whose maintenance and operations facility (commonly called the sewage treatment plant) is located next to the lighthouse. Here the mystery got a little less mysterious.
According to Shirley, the out-of-service manhole was kind of an eyesore that seemed out of place along the scenic greenway. It would cost more to demolish it than to pretty it up, so he proposed decorating it with a lighthouse topper.
The original idea was to attach a simple top on the concrete cone, but once Ben Mullins, maintenance superintendent, and his team of 20 or so got to brainstorming, the project got a bit more ambitious. This wasn't the first time something like that had happened.
Though they usually spend their time making sure our water is safe to drink and what we flush is treated and released in a safe and sanitary way, the maintenance and operations crew routinely pitches in on tasks that have little to do with "flush and flow."
You might have seen their Peanuts-themed float in last year's Christmas parade, complete with miniature Sopwith Camel airplanes for kids to ride in. These guys have tools, and they know how to use them.
With mostly scrap materials and working around their regularly scheduled duties, they designed and assembled the lighthouse, using complex angled woodcuts and attention to detail. They even built a catwalk at the top from spare parts, and picked up LED flashlights from the dollar store and wired them to a leftover solar charger from another job. And this thing is built to last, from the fasteners to the paint job.
After building it in the shop, they used a forklift to move it out to the manhole and set it in place. They'd hoped to surprise Liz Belcher with it as the latest artwork on the greenway, but it's hard to hide a 15-foot tower along the trail, and I kind of spoiled the surprise when I contacted her for comment. It's not done yet. In the coming months they'll connect the solar light, add stucco and continue the paint job on the bare concrete base. Plans are in the works for signs to educate the public about the important things that happen beyond the security fence that separates the greenway from the water purification facility.
My concern is that this will only add to the confusion of outsiders who mix up our community with that other Roanoke, home to the Lost Colony, since now we'll both have working lighthouses. So, who wants to build a scale replica of Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, and anchor it beside our newest landmark?
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Look for Tom Landon's column on Mondays. Read the WOYM blog on roanoke.com anytime.
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