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St. George Reef Light

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Point Loma

St. 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 waters.

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 Minot’s 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 in 1792.

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 ship’s 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 Reef’s 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 tender crewmen!

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 station’s only remaining boat, the launch’s 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.

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Battery Point (originally Crescent City Lighthouse), Crescent City, 1856

Accessible. Managed by Del Norte County Historical Society

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 Oregon’s 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 city’s 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 hadn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 child.

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.

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Point Reyes Light, Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California, 1870

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 nation’s 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 California’s 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 Drake’s 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.

Alcatraz 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 Francisco’s harbor.

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 three keepers.

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 keeper’s 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.

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Point 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 "I’ve 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.

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Point 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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Old 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 Diego.

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.

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