For the first time in five decades, the giant cross on Mount Lyn Lowry has fallen dark.
The cross has been a nighttime landmark shining over the Balsam Mountains between Waynesville and Sylva since 1965. The cross went dark early last winter, presumably due to an electrical malfunction. The problem has not yet been diagnosed, but an electrician is scheduled to inspect it this week.
The cross was built in the early 1960s as a family’s memorial to a daughter who died of leukemia. The family pledges to repair the cross and get it shining once more.
The problem, unfortunately, is not as simple as needing new light bulbs. At least not according to Marvin Bolick, who for the past 11 years has proudly been climbing the 60-foot cross every time one of the light bulbs went out. Before that, the job of replacing burnt-out bulbs was done by his father-in-law, who maintained the cross for more than a decade before passing the torch to Bolick.
The cross has seven bulbs: five up the center and one on each tip of the cross.
“You can lose one on the main beam and you can’t always tell, but if you lose one of the ones on the cross beam, then it just don’t look like a cross,” Bolick said.
Usually, one will go out every few months, with each bulb lasting up to a couple of years. But Bolick noticed last November that several bulbs went out all at once.
“Then shortly after that they all went out,” Bolick said.
Unfortunately, winter snows had already obliterated the road up to the cross, which sits at 6,000 feet. Only recently has the road become passable again, said Bolick.
Bolick put the family, who is based in Florida, in touch with a local electrician who is supposed to diagnose the problem this weekend and develop a fix.
Bolick surmised it could be any number of problems, from a tripped breaker and loss of power at the meter. Bolick said he would have tried making it up to the cross sooner, but he recently had bypass surgery, likely putting an end to his cross climbing days permanently.
Bolick, who also mowed the grass around the base of the cross, checked the bulbs every time he mows. The lights come on when it gets dark, triggered by a solar sensor. Bolick takes off a mowing glove and drapes it over the sensor, tricking the cross into thinking it’s dark and making it light up.
If one was out, he strapped on his safety harness, pulled a spare bulb from his truck, and mounted the cross with it dangling from his belt in a plastic grocery bag.
The cross is in good shape structurally, Bolick said. About five years ago, the family had it pressure washed and painted.
The cross faces another hurdle in coming years. The mercury-vapor bulb used on the cross is being phased out under environmental energy regulations.
“They are going the way of being obsolete,” Bolick said.
Currently, Bolick said they’re still seeking a replacement for the bulbs, trying to find something more readily available that will be in keeping with the same look that the cross has maintained for decades.
“A lot of the newer lights, they’ve got kind of a pinkish glow and the wattage, also. They don’t have the wattage that these have,” Bolick said.
Since his health now prevents him from continuing to scale the cross regularly, Bolick hopes to transfer those duties to someone else as soon as the lights are once again aglow, though who the next caretaker will be is, as yet, uncertain.
– Colby Dunn contributed to this article.