WASHINGTON -- Years ago, when James H. "Bud" Doughton ran a ferry between Harkers Island and Cape Lookout, N.C., he would watch as tourists disembarked and patted their hands on the brick of the towering, 163-foot lighthouse. They'd peer up its side and tell him, "I want to climb it."
Soon, they can.
The U.S. Department of Interior announced Wednesday that it will spend $487,000 to repair the 150-year-old lighthouse, midway down North Carolina's barrier islands -- hopefully by the 2010 tourist season -- so that visitors can climb the cast-iron stairs to its crown.
The lighthouse was first lit on Nov. 1, 1859. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made Wednesday's announcement to coincide with its 150th anniversary.
Doughton, the president of the Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore, said he'd been hoping for word when he heard news Wednesday on the radio.
"It was like a bolt of lightning," he said. "Today's a great day."
The lighthouse, with its distinctive black-and-white diamond pattern, still swings its light across the shoals of Cape Lookout to guide ships at night. The lamp room is run by the U.S. Coast Guard, but the National Park Service has owned the lighthouse since 2003.
For three years, the park service would hold a handful of open houses each year, said Russel Wilson, superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Visitors could walk up the 219 steps, climb through a hatch and step into the open lamp room. They could venture out onto a balcony 150 feet in the air for a sight that Wilson considers nearly pristine.
There was the tourist town of Beaufort, with its bars and bed and breakfasts, and the Shackleford Banks, populated by wild horses. There lay Harkers Island, inhabited by a few fishing villages. A few miles into the ocean, the treacherous shoals could be seen beneath the water's surface.
"It's a gorgeous view," Wilson said.
Then, in the spring of 2008, an inspection closed the lighthouse to visitors.
The Carteret County Chamber of Commerce put the lighthouse repairs on its legislative wish list. The Friends of Cape Lookout made restoration a top priority. The entire North Carolina congressional delegation supported repairs, Wilson said.
Wednesday morning, Salazar and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., held a conference call to announce the funding.
The money has yet to be released, but the Interior Department expects to put the project out to bid by early next year. The work will include repairs to the spiral iron staircase that corkscrews up the lighthouse, repairs to the historic handrail and a new modern handrail. The opening from the stairwell to the lamp room will be improved, and new guardrails will be added to the outside gallery view to protect small children, Wilson said.
Doughton, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C., said he can't wait until motel owners and restaurants in the tourist community of Carteret County can steer their customers to the lighthouse.
"Even if they open up in the fall, the fact they're doing it is exciting," Doughton said. "This is one federal program that will have tremendous benefits for that county immediately."
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