George Reef Lighthouse, "The Dragon", 1892
Not accessible to the public. Leased by Bureau
of Land Management to St. George Reef Preservation Society and Del
Norte Historical Society. Sits six miles off shore in very dangerous
The St. George Reef Lighthouse is one of the greatest
lighthouses in America. Of the three outstanding engineering feats
among U.S. lighthouses, St. George Reef is truly the most outstanding.
(The other two are Minots Ledge and Tillamook Rock.) It was the
most expensive lighthouse built in the U.S. at a cost of $704,633
(Congress originally appropriated only $100,000). It took George
Ballantyne, who also built Tillamook Rock, 11 years to build. The
St. George Reef Lighthouse sits on a concrete pier 70 feet high.
Its tower is 134 feet, made of 1339 granite blocks with some blocks
weighing up to 2 1/2 tons each. The blocks were fit together with
no more than a 3/16 gap and held together with metal dowels, cement,
and stone shoved in the crevices.
The St. George Reef is the peak of a submerged volcanic
mountain six miles off the northern extreme coast of California.
Rough weather with howling winds and crashing waves create a mist
that obliterates the peaks and creates dangers for mariners. It
was dubbed the "Dragon Rocks" by explorer George Vancouver
St. George Reef Lighthouse construction was precipitated
by the crash of the passenger steamer Brother Jonathan in
1865 and the loss of almost 200 people. The ship was so overloaded
with passengers and cargo that, at first the captain refused to
take off, but he ultimately yielded to the ships owners. The Brother
Jonathan took off from the San Francisco Bay, where it quickly
encountered severe winds and rough seas. The passenger steamer then
attempted to reach the Crescent City harbor, which required passing
through St. George Reef. During heavy weather, the St. George Reef
"smokes" (it produces thick, smoke-like spray) which obscures
the rocks. The ship struck the reef on Sunday, July 30 at 2:00 p.m..
A lifeboat with 19 occupants arrived at the Crescent City Lighthouse
at about 5:00 p.m. that day. They were the only survivors. Accounts
vary, but at least 166 people drowned.
Remains of the Brother Jonathan have recently
been located, and a Southern California company called Deep Sea
Research is currently recovering artifacts.
During the construction, Ballantyne had to use a former
lightship, La Ninfa, as a barracks for the workers because the rough
sea washed over a 54 foot cliff. When he sailed out on the St. George
Reef, intending to permanently secure the lightship, he discovered
that the waters were far deeper than had been reported. Ballantyne
had to return to Humboldt Bay for longer chains, while leaving La
Ninfa on a single mooring. While he was in port, a storm blew in,
and the crewless La Ninfa drifted away. It took Ballantyne a week
to find his lightship. His first step in the construction was to
build a foundation on Northwest Seal Rock. Ballantyne also devised
an aerial boat-to-island tramway to get men to and from the island
more quickly. They faced constant dangers from storms, high seas,
and blasts. There was one death during eleven years of construction.
Keepers lives on St. George Reef:
Commissioner of Lighthouses, George R. Putnam, believed that only
St. George Reef and Tillamook Rock were so difficult to operate
that they warranted five keepers. No families were allowed to live
there -- families of keepers lived in houses on the St. George Point
mainland. The only way to land on or leave the St. George Lighthouse
was with a derrick and a 60-foot long boom. With a hook, lighthouse
personnel hoisted small boats onto the rock. The sea could be rising
or falling up to 15 feet while this was happening. In the early
years, several keepers died and others got seriously ill. Among
the 80 men who served between 1891 and 1930, 37 resigned and 26
transferred to other stations.
George Roux served as head keeper for 20 years, beginning
in 1918. In 1937, he and his men experienced some of the harshest
weather in the St. George Reefs history. The weather conditions
cut off all contact with the shore for over a month, so no supplies
were delivered. Although the crew had worked with each other for
years, they were feeling trapped and tense. They stopped speaking
to each other; just to say "pass the salt" became a personal
affront. Crew members would even eat facing away from the table.
They were so fed up with each other that it became unbearable, and
after 59 days, the weather broke and a supply ship could come out.
As the weather normalized, so did their relationship, and they all
started talking again.
Speaking of isolation, log books record an average
of just five visitors a year from 1892 through 1939, when the Coast
Guard took over. These visitors included the inspectors and lighthouse
The worst tragedy in California lighthouse history
took place at St. George Reef on April 5, 1951, when three Coast
Guardsmen were drowned as a wave capsized their boat while they
prepared to leave the reef. Pictures were taken of the crew just
five minutes before the tragic loss (U.S. Coast Guard files). A
huge swell blasted the launch toward the reef and its backlash rose
up over the men, swamping them with an avalanche of water and throwing
them into the frigid ocean. Officer in charge, Fred Permenter, executed
an incredible rescue attempt with the stations only remaining boat,
the launchs life raft. He managed to save two of the five who had
originally set out by lashing one crew member to the raft.
1952 was not a great year either. One keeper suffered
a mental breakdown and Coast Guard officials had to land on the
island to remove him. Also, the winter of 1952 was the harshest
in history at the reef. During one storm, 160-foot waves swept over
the lighthouse, shattering a window in the lantern room which was
146-feet above normal water.
There is also an article in Lighthouse Digest
(from Curry coast Pilot, Brookings, Oregon) about Duane Ferguson,
who spent 37 months at the lighthouse.
Decommissioned in 1975, the 6000-pound first order
Fresnel lens was removed by the Coast Guard in 1983 and is now on
display in Del Norte County Historical Society museum. The first
Coast Guardsman to enter the tower got quite a shock when he was
greeted by a human-like mannequin hanging from a noose, which was
left by the last Coast Guard occupants.
Guy Towers formed the St. George Reef Preservation
Society in 1986 with the ultimate goal of restoring the lighthouse
and providing access to public. The Society finally got jurisdiction
from the government in the spring of 1996. The only safe means of
transportation to the lighthouse is by helicopter with a 43-foot
landing pad. The first helicopter trip was made in October of 1996
to install wooden patches on the lantern windows. The granite tower
is still in very good shape.
Crescent City Lighthouse), Crescent City, 1856
Accessible. Managed by Del Norte County Historical
The Crescent City Lighthouse was built to guide lumber
ships in and out of Crescent City harbor as they carried lumber
from ancient redwoods to build the city of San Francisco following
the gold rush of 1849. The city was laid out in 1853, and in just
one year there were over 300 houses and hotels. Crescent City was
the port of entry for Oregons gold mines. The lighthouse is built
on an isthmus, and it is only accessible during low tide; during
high tide, the isthmus becomes an island.
First keeper, Theophilus Magruder, was a socialite
from Washington D.C. whose parents were friends of James Madison.
Magruder came to Oregon to search for gold with Jon Marshall. They
were unsuccessful and broke up in 1845. Marshall went to the Sierra
foothills, where he found gold and touched off the California Gold
Rush of 1849! Magruder resigned as keeper in 1859 when the U.S.
Lighthouse Service reduced California keepers salaries from $1000
to $600 per year.
On March 27, 1964, a tidal wave hit Crescent City,
but the lighthouse stood firm. Resulting from an earthquake in Alaska,
four (or five -- in other accounts) Tsunami waves swept far inland
and destroyed most of the citys commercial area and homes. Eleven
people were killed and twenty-nine blocks were demolished. Curators
Peggy and Clarence Coons were in the lighthouse at the time.
Stories about difficulties living on an isthmus:
Keeper Wayne Piland, who served from 1946 to 1953, was once entertaining
overnight guests, an elderly couple. The woman slipped and broke
both wrists. At 11:00 p.m. Piland had to find a doctor willing to
risk the crossing in a raft, which ultimately leaked and soaked
both men. Another time, Piland got caught while taking his daughter
to the mainland. He saved both of them by boosting his daughter
on a boulder while heavy seas swirled by. There are also stories
about a ferocious storm of 1951.
The Crescent City Lighthouse was restored to its 1856
appearance by the Del Norte County Historical Society. Present residents
are Don (keeper) and Carol (curator) Vestal. There are exhibits
about Brother Jonathan, the Tsunami, artifacts from the Emidio
that was torpedoed just days after Pearl Harbor (see Point Arena
story), and the last fourth-order lens is there.
Lots of ghost stories about footsteps on the tower
stairs are connected to the light. The stories recount incidents
in which Jerry and Nadine Tugel, the last resident curators, experienced
ghosts. Mr. Tugel used to keep his slippers at the edge of the bed,
and for several nights in a row, his slippers were mysteriously
turned backwards. On the fourth night, he blamed his wife, who insisted
she hadnt done it. One night they heard footsteps going up the
stairs of the tower. Upon investigating, there was no one there.
However, the light had gone out and the alarm that should have alerted
them had not activated. Also, their cats were terrified of something.
The cats would only enter certain rooms, and in one room, they wouldnt
walk on the floors, only the furniture. A local college did a reading
in the sixties and determined the presence of two adults and one
An additional museum in Crescent City houses extensive
written files on both St. George Reef and Crescent City Lighthouses.
There is memorabilia and a photo file.
The Crescent City Lighthouse not a significant lighthouse
because it only has a fourth-order lens. After the St. George Reef
Lighthouse was built, the need for the Crescent City Lighthouse
was questioned. However, it is very picturesque.
Reyes Light, Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California,
Accessible; Managed by National Park Service; stairs
to visitor center open Thursday-Monday, 10:00 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse is not exactly in a desirable
location. It is located in the foggiest point on the Pacific Ocean,
and possibly in all of America. Point Reyes is cloaked in fog for
nine months of the year, for a total of almost 2700 hours each year.
It is the nations windiest headland as well. The wind currents
are confusing, and the sea is too deep for mariners to use lead
lines to determine depth or position. Point Reyes is also
a narrow finger of land which curves seaward for 10 miles.
Historic maritime disasters in California began here
in 1595 when the San Augustin became Californias first shipwreck.
Point Reyes is chosen as one of the original West
Coast lighthouse sites. However, there was a building delay because
the land owners requested more money from the U.S. Government. $25,000
had been appropriated for the land and constructions, but the landowners
wanted that sum for the land alone, despite the fact that land was
selling for just a few dollars per acre at the time. Other landowners
had donated their land to the government in the interest of humanity,
and some stipulated that they wanted keepers jobs in exchange.
Therefore, the federal government refused to pay the $25,000, and
no lighthouse was built for another 17 years. During that time,
there were at least 14 shipwrecks, and the government ultimately
purchased 120 acres for $6,000.
Originally, builders were going to place the lighthouse
at the top of the point, but officials realized that the light would
be hidden in fog, so they built it at the very tip. To get to the
lighthouse, visitors descend 300 steps. Keepers had to climb 638
steps to reach the tower and foghorn house from the keepers dwelling.
The forged iron tower is the same construction as at Cape Mendocino.
Early keeper problems:
John Bull was the Point Reyes Lighthouse keeper until 1875, and
he did a fine job. However, the second keeper could not control
his two assistants, who refused to go on duty till after sundown.
The third assistant also refused to be diligent about sounding the
fog signal; he tinkered with equipment and often disappeared from
duty. (Shanks, Lighthouses and Lifeboats of the Redwood Coast
p. 24) By 1876, both the head keeper and his assistants were fired.
The incessant noise of the fog signal, the damage
to the station from the wind, and the battering of the rain were
all significant weather problems at Point Reyes. In 1887, a San
Francisco newspaper reported: "The [fog] sirens had been in
operation for 176 consecutive hours and the jaded attendants looked
as if they had been on a protracted spree." (Shanks, p. 26).
Point Reyes was not a popular station in the early
days of its service. In 1885, Keeper E.G. Chamberlin wrote "Solitude,
where are the charms that sages have seen in thy face? Better dwell
in the midst of alarms then reign in this horrible place. So city,
friendship, and love, Divinely bestowed upon man, O had I the wings
of a dove, How I would taste you again..." Another keeper,
as he was transferred to East Brother Light, made final notation
in his log "Returning to USA". A log entry, January 30,
1889, read: "The second assistant went crazy and was handed
over to the Constable in Olema". In 1887, the San Francisco
chronicle reported that "Another local celebrity, in his way,
was a late (and now happily deposed) keeper, notorious for his love
of the flowing bowl. It is said that he even regaled himself, when
out of whiskey, with the alcohol furnished for cleaning lamps....
It is no unusual thing for him to be drunk for days at this station."
(De Wire, p. 270-71). In 1926, the Superintendent of Lighthouses
noted that Point Reyes was the most undesirable location in his
district, saying that the keepers often seemed to go about their
duties in a zombie-like state, stunned by the whir of wind and the
oppressive clamor of the fog signal (DeWire, p. 78).
A life Saving Station at Point Reyes was built in
1889, and a weather station was built at the turn of the century.
There was a dramatic rescue by keeper Fred Kreth in
August 1929. A fishing boat with a crew of three had hit the rocks
and the three members were trapped by cliffs on the shore. When
the Coast Guard responded to the call, the three crew members were
gone from the shore. Coast Guard officials went to the lighthouse
to place an emergency call and found the crew members with Kreth,
enjoying coffee and buns. Kreth had descended the 75 cliff and
single-handedly rescued all three (see Bibliography: Elinore DeWire
p. 115 and Shanks, p. 37).
The last civilian keeper was Gustav Zetterquist, who
lived at Point Reyes with his family from 1930 until the Coast Guard
took over the station in 1951. The Zetterquist family lived through
many changes at the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
A strange and disturbing tragedy took place in 1960,
when a motor lifeboat, "The 36" was returning to Drakes
Bay. The two-man lifeboat crew signaled the Coast Guard station
that they would be back to the station in an hour, but never returned.
The next day, their boat was found, run ashore on Point Reyes Beach
with its motor still running. By the end of that year, two bodies
washed ashore, and were identified as the crewmen. It remains a
mystery that two highly trained crewmen could be lost while on a
perfectly seaworthy boat. A large wave probably overturned the boat,
which righted itself and moved swiftly from the Coast Guardsmen
who were left in the cold, rough seas.
The lighthouse observation platform is an excellent
site to see migrating gray whales from January through April. The
rocky shelves below the lighthouse are home for thousands of common
murres (birds), and sea lions.
Island Lighthouse, San Francisco Bay , 1854 and 1909
Alcatraz, which means "pelican" in Spanish,
was placed in operation in June 1854. The Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
was the first active lighthouse on the west coast. Congress, recognizing
that San Francisco was becoming the doorway to the west, appropriated
funds to build one lighthouse after another into San Franciscos
When the military prison was expanded in 1909, it
overshadowed the original lighthouse, which was replaced by an imposing
tower built of reinforced concrete with connecting quarters for
Housekeeping on Alcatraz Island (until the prison
was closed in 1963) presented interesting challenges. Garbage could
not be routinely tossed away. Anything that could be worked into
a weapon had to be tossed into a special garbage security location
to be beaten, broken, and cast into the San Francisco Bay. Keepers
children rode the prison boat to San Francisco to attend school,
while keepers wives rode with the guards on buses to catch boats
to go shopping. All passengers were counted both when leaving the
prison island and upon returning to the launch.
Some interesting entries from longtime keeper B.F.
Leeds logs include the 1906 (earthquake) entry "... is this
the end of the world? ... Terrible seeing S.F. from here."
In early May of 1946 the Coast Guard keepers log says "1430
hours convict on the loose with a submachine gun, entire prison
held at bay, shooting is almost continuous... U.S. Marines landed
on north end of island... fire again raging in the cell blocks...
hand grenades being dropped through holes broken through the roof".
Nearly two days later when the riot was quelled, the keeper wrote,
"The end of 44 hours of HELL" (see Bibliography: Nelson,
California Lighthouses, p. 101).
In 1970, Native Americans claimed the unoccupied island
and abandoned prison facilities under an old law which specified
that excess government lands be returned to Native Americans. The
Federal Government turned off the electrical power to oust the Native
Americans, and the Coast Guard placed lighted buoys at each end
of the island. Despite protests from mariners, the lighthouse remained
dark until the Native Americans themselves lit it on the 8th of
June as a symbol to all Native American tribes to "achieve
their just claims and the recognition of their rightful dignity".
Unfortunately, a fire broke out during their occupation, destroying
the keepers quarters and damaging the lighthouse.
Bonita Lighthouse, 1855 and 1877
Accessible; The National Parks Service. (Please
see our contact sheet for more information.)
Several shipwrecks, including the loss of the Tennessee,
with a cargo valued at $300,000, precipitated the need for a lighthouse
at Point Bonita. The Point Bonita Lighthouse sits at the tip of
a narrow ledge 124 feet over the sea. This point marks the seaward
approach to San Francisco, just several miles north of the city.
Visitors transcend a paved path, pass a windy gap and through a
tunnel, and then cross a suspension bridge to get to the tower.
The first type of fog signal was a gun, which was
also used at Boston Light. Point Bonita was given a fog cannon in
1855. A retired Army sergeant, who retired to the solitude of lighthouse
life, was hired to operate the beacon and the gun. He resigned after
two months, saying "I cannot find any person here to relieve
me, not [for] five minutes; I have been up three days and nights
and had only two hours rest. I was nearly used up." He was
replaced, and the cannon was substituted for a mechanical fog bell
that struck automatically (see Bibliography: DeWire, p. 69-70).
The existing Point Bonita Lighthouse is actually the
second tower which was built in 1877. The first one stood 306 feet
over the sea and was plagued with problems with fog at the higher
elevation. When the keeper Captain John Briercliff Brown lit the
light at the second tower he said "Ive stood my watch outside
(the old tower) in the storm, rather than be inside when the walls
was rockin like the cradle in the deep" (see Bibliography:
Nelson, California Lighthouses p. 86).
The keepers dwelling collapsed during the 1906 earthquake,
as described by Norma Engel in Three Beams of Light.
In 1915, Assistant Keeper Martin and his wife used
to keep their children tethered when they played outside because
the cliffs were dangerous. One day, his wife looked out the window
and saw the tether but not her daughter, whom she found dangling
from the edge of the cliff! After that, the family decided to move
up the hill.
Other San Francisco Bay Lighthouses:
Yerba Buena Island, which was also used as a lighthouse depot, is
now the home of a high-ranking Coast Guard official. The Angel Island
Lighthouse, where Emily Fish (Point Piños society keeper)
once rang the fog bell for 20 straight hours in warning when the
fog signal malfunctioned, is currently inhabited by her niece, Juliet
Fish: Lime Point and Fort Point lighthouses are also located in
the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sur Light, Big Sur, 1889
Accessible; United States Coast Guard Contact Dept.
of Parks and Recreations.
In 1935, while in sight of the lighthouse, the Navy
dirigible, The Macon, crashed and two of the eighty-three
crew members were lost.
The Owens family lived at the Point Sur Lighthouse
for several years starting in 1935 when Bill Owens was the assistant
keeper (see Point Arena).
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Point Loma, San Diego, 1855
Accessible to the public and open 365 days a year.
National Parks Service
One of the original eight lighthouses built in California,
the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is located at the tip of Point Loma,
eleven miles from downtown. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse overlooks
the city, and visitors enjoy a spectacular 360 degree view of San
Diego and the Pacific. The Cabrillo National Monument, which includes
Old Point Loma, is one of the most visited monuments in the west
with 1.2 million visitors per year.
When the year-long construction effort was completed,
builders discovered that the tower was too small to accommodate
the first-order Fresnel lens that had arrived for it. They substituted
a third-order lens originally meant for the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse
in northern California and this lens was sent to Cape Flattery Lighthouse
in Washington. Nevertheless, the Point Loma Light was powerful enough
to be seen for 25 miles (and some sea captains even claimed to have
seen it 40 miles away.
Old Point Loma was originally located at an elevation
of 460 feet. At the entrance of the San Diego Harbor, it was the
loftiest tower in America. However, this location proved to be a
disadvantage because it was often higher than low-lying clouds.
Therefore, in 1891, it was replaced by New Point Loma, which is
still in use today.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse has been fully restored
to the period when keeper Robert Israel served. Demonstrations are
on a scheduled basis in period dress. There is a teacher who portrays
newspaperman from the period and a demonstration garden. There is
an annual Cabrillo Festival takes place in September with a reenactment.
On the 28th there is a reenactment of the Cabrillo landing in San
Ross Holland began in the National Parks Service at
Point Loma. The article in Keepers Log, winter 1997, focuses on
his view from the office.