A majestic lighthouse symbolizes the way forward, illuminating the dark so travelers can navigate their way safely around the obstacles and the uncertain waters of life. The keepers of the lighthouse are noble, independent people of strong character.
Iowa’s Ocean celebrates the new Rathbun Marina Lighthouse. Lake visitors turning into Rathbun Marina’s entrance, who then proceed to the hilltop overlooking the scenic marina will appreciate all 52 feet of nautical history on display.
Rathbun Marina owners, Doug and Sheila Clemens, with partner Brett Knuckolls are the keepers responsible for one of the unique lighthouses in the country. Standing tall at 52 feet the Rathbun Marina Lighthouse is the tallest pre-cast concrete lighthouse in North America.
There is only one other pre-cast concrete lighthouse, and it wades on the banks of Lake Erie in Michigan. That maritime structure is 32 feet tall. Team Clemens and Knuckolls have engineered their lighthouse a full 20 feet taller for a structure that is 52 feet from terra firma to beacon.
Everything is bigger in Iowa.
Rathbun Lake was warming under the high sun on a humid July afternoon. Doug, partner Brett, and operations manager Adam Kool were on site with the marina’s newly celebrated icon.
“It’s an iconic tribute to our local community and the history of the marina,” explained Doug.
The now completed 52-foot lighthouse will become a nautical destination. The three-story tower occupies the hilltop overlooking scenic Rathbun Marina. The monument that has consumed most of Doug’s, Brett’s, and Adam’s summer is a marvel of the original conception, the can-do-spirit of local contractors, and the landmark’s ability to energize the area.
The red and white gloss exterior paint pops then glints under summer’s yellow sun. Doug says, “Shelia, Brett, and I undertook the project with no expectations that the landmark will serve as an income producer. The lighthouse and the planned lighthouse park will be open to the public.”
The Rathbun Marina Lighthouse Park, when completed will serve the public as a staging area with rock outcroppings, trees, a shelter, and firepit. The park will be a popular destination to take graduation, wedding, and special occasion pictures.
One wonders if, “Meet me at the Rathbun Marina Lighthouse” has been trademarked yet.
A lighthouse keeper sometimes referred to as a lightkeeper maintains and cares for a lighthouse. When the first lighthouse was built in the Boston Harbor during 1716 oil lamps and clockwork mechanisms were used. Lighthouse keepers were sometimes called “wickies,” because it was part of their duty to trim the wicks.
The Clemens and Brett, with help from their manager Kool completed a public project by taking it personally.
“A century ago lighthouse keepers were the guardian of mariners, keeping the beacon lit under adverse conditions, primitive technology, and no electricity,” Doug says. “The early lighthouse burnt oil like a candle and relied on the Fresnel lens to guide the mariners thru the darkness, fog, and storms.”
“Lighthouses are the icon for nautical lifestyle and adventure, and most important a beacon that provided guidance for mariners to safe harbor, typically a marina,” concludes Doug.
As with so many other trades and skills surrounding great bodies of water, the original need for the lighthouse and her keepers meant to navigate vessels has passed. Sterile technology has again replaced skilled humans. GPS units now navigate water vessels. Lighthouse keeper Doug laments, “A microchip will never replace the 1,500-year history of the lighthouse.”
Partner Brett who is a legit nautical mariner himself describes his affinity with lighthouses.
“I boat a lot around the country and have for a long time, especially Lake Michigan,” he said. “Lighthouses have always fascinated my family. Honestly, anyone who relates to boating or marinas understands that lighthouses are in the culture.”
“The structural design of the lighthouse is unique and designed with the same principles as a large-scale chimney. We thank our structural engineer Ben Long, of Des Moines, for catching the lighthouse fever and providing us the detailed roadmap: 36 pages of calculations and material specifications,” explains Brett.
A lighthouse still in operation on the Great Lakes was the scale model reference for the marina’s new tower at a ratio of approximately 2.5 to 1.0. All things being equal, in scale, this would be a 150-foot lighthouse.
Brett continues, “The total weight of the lighthouse and the footing is just under 100 tons. We used 2,400 linear feet of reinforcing steel in the footing.”
“It’s way bigger than any of us originally thought,” quips Doug.
Beginning with the initial pour of cement this past June, the partners were adamant concerning the hiring of local contractors, suppliers and products.
Clemens, a proud supporter of the area’s work ethic states, “To the extent possible, all the materials and services that could be sourced locally were. As always, the local community of businesses has been very supportive of this project, and everything we have undertaken these past few years at the Marina.”
“All the contractors, suppliers, and professional consultants that have taken part in the project have been supportive and enthusiastic,” acknowledges Doug. ‘We will place a dedication plaque after completion as a tribute to the development and construction team.”
Understanding that most of their marina guests may never again get this close to a functioning lighthouse, the three lighthouses keepers paid incredible attention to detail. They spared no cost in their national search of historically accurate aesthetics.
Clemens takes pride in explaining the lighthouse’s authentically sourced appointments, “The portholes that serve as the windows in the lighthouse came from a cargo vessel that cruised the trade routes between Europe and North America in the Atlantic Ocean. The portholes are a witness and bare scars of 40 years of Atlantic storms.”
Now looking 52 feet straight up the lighthouse Doug continues, “The lighthouse beacon is a retired US Coast Guard navigation beacon that served in the Florida Keys. For three decades, this beacon was on a reef to warn mariners of the shallows.”
The Florida Keys beacon now sits like a king’s crown jewel atop its adopted Iowa lighthouse. Thanks to the forethought of the marina ownership another section of the lighthouse will get its afterlife, serving its original purpose for many more decades.
Clemens adds, “The beacon has a glass Fresnel lens that focuses light in a horizontal beam that can be seen until the curvature of the earth shields visibility.”
“The largest Fresnel lens ever cast is still in operation and owned by the US Coast Guard. Its value is approximately one million dollars,” says Doug.
Once Failed, Twice Determined
It may surprise some to learn that this isn’t Rathbun Lake’s first go at a lighthouse.
“Years ago a previous generation of Rathbun Lake Marina patrons, local businesses, local civic and nonprofit organizations, and other supporters of the lake organized an effort to construct a lighthouse in Buck Creek,” said Doug.
“Yes, the initiative came real close to fruition but did not get across the finish line because of the lack of private sector support,” adds Brett.
Doug, Sheila, and Brett express their appreciation to the Rathbun Lake, Army Corps of Engineers, “The Corps of Engineers is the custodian of the federally-leased lands which makes them our landlord. They have been supportive and assisted our project to the extent possible with an expedited review and approval process.”
It Doesn’t Take A Village
The hot July sun that had been sparking like a Fourth of July bottle rocket dimmed. Humidity fainted and was caught by a light breeze.
The marina’s water was glass. The breeze drafted on cooler air up to the lighthouse where Doug and Brett enjoyed the first night of their now complete landmark. All systems go.
The venerable lighthouse beacon for the first time hummed back to life, then illuminated the hilltop, keeping an eye on Rathbun Marina.
The air smelled of a campsite’s burning wood, sizzling hot dogs on a stick, and s’mores drifting over from the nearby marina campground. The day’s summer sweat had all but evaporated off the boaters smiling faces, walking up from the marina boat slips. Swimmers back from having fun in the marina’s new swim area hung their wet, sandy beach towels over a thick tree branch.
It doesn’t take a village; it takes a marina.
Now walking away from their 52-foot creation of concrete, rebar, copper and steel, Doug and his partner Brett began the walk home. It had been a muscle-tiring, but a soul-celebrating, three months.
Not loud enough to be overheard by the nearby campers and boaters. Brett said to Doug, “We just built something that will last longer than any of us will be here.”
Turning his eyes toward his friend, Doug smiled, “It’s not everybody that builds a lighthouse.”
Brett, Doug, and Shelia: Keepers of the lighthouse. They’ll leave the beacon on.