ASHLAND — By the time its new owners decided to rescue the Linoma Beach Lighthouse, the 110-foot landmark on the back road to Omaha was falling apart.
Especially when wind whipped across the Platte River.
“It was rotted out. And the old panels kept blowing off. They’d blow off when the wind blew,” said Dave Lutton, one of five investors who bought Linoma Beach at a foreclosure sale in 2010.
The peeling plywood had exposed the 2-by-4 framework to rain and rot. And it opened the building to pigeons — at least 200 of them before they were chased away and the tower sealed up.
The investors wanted the 53-acre spread — lake, lighthouse, beach and campground — primarily for its RV park; the 153 sites book solid every season with loyal, paying customers. They haven't reopened the restaurant or the beach.
But they chose to save its 75-year-old lighthouse out of a sense of civic — and personal — duty.
“You go across Nebraska on Highway 6, and you’ve seen this since 1939. It’s a big part of Nebraska history. Who wants to see this fall down? We don’t.”
The beach had come first. Built around a former quarry, the tourist attraction — fed by passenger trains and the growing car traffic on the Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway — opened in 1924 with bathing, boating, fishing and 25-cent chicken dinners.
And dancing. The families picnicking on the beach by day were replaced at night by crowds that first filled the restaurant and later the dance hall. That first summer, the Gretna Breeze reported the orchestra, playing every night, “is indeed an added attraction and at least on some of the chilly evenings is proving itself to be the most popular part of Linoma Beach.”
Within a year, so many were dancing at Linoma that Ashland ministers traveled to the statehouse to complain: Their church attendance was suffering.
But dancing died in the early 1930s, when the highway was rerouted — through the hall.
And the landlocked lighthouse rose up at the end of the decade, a can’t-miss roadside attraction to capture the booming motor tourism. The owner modeled it after a lighthouse he’d seen during a Caribbean vacation, according to its application for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
For years, its first floor — made with rock and ringed with windows — housed a gas station. The second floor still has a toilet, and may have been used for overnight stays. The other eight floors were plumbed, though it’s not clear whether they were rented, too.
And running through, and around, it all: A 120-step narrow spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform high above the valley, and to the neon lighthouse light, which used to glow bright but was long ago shattered.
“The story is when we won World War II, they Morse-coded ‘victory’ on that light,” Lutton said. “Our goal is to light the lighting again.”
But they have still so much to do before that happens. The investors created — and largely funded — a nonprofit foundation for the lighthouse. They took stock of its condition. And they went to work.
“It looked like a war zone,” said co-owner T.J. Straight. “It was needing a lot of help.”
This summer, they tore off the old boards — some of them quarter-inch interior plywood, no match for Nebraska weather — and found a supplier to donate weatherproof, water-tight sheeting. Then they started covering it all with concrete siding.
The new panels turned the lighthouse green this month, and now tan, but that’s only temporary.
Soon, they’ll paint it all bright white and install new 4-foot black letters, also donated, that have spelled out Linoma to passing motorists for three-quarters of a century.
All that, though, was the easy part, Lutton said. The lighthouse is surrounded by about 300 feet of thick sandstone wall, and sections are leaning and listing toward the water. Those need to be stabilized. And the surrounding cement slab — cracked and buckled, undermined by runoff — must be replaced.
To the thousands who drive by daily on U.S. 6, none of that is as visible as the tower. But it’s just as important, Lutton said. And more expensive.
“We have to make sure that doesn’t fail as well,” Lutton said.
He has a personal stake. He grew up here, in the shadow of the lighthouse. His parents courted here at Linoma Beach. His father and uncle were lifeguards. Lutton learned to swim in the lake, before Ashland had a pool, and later worked summers as a lifeguard, too.
He remembers when Linoma Beach would draw hundreds, even thousands.
“It’s so iconic. It is what Nebraska is.”