St. George Reef Light marks a hazardous reef off Point St.
George near Crescent City. The area was originally christened
Dragon Rocks by English explorer George Vancouver in 1792.
Over time, the reef became known as St. George Reef -
"Perhaps in hopes that the dragon might one day be slain."
(Grant, Jones, vol. I. p. 109)
In 1865, the side-wheeler Brother Jonathan was lost at
the reef with loss of 215 lives. Public outcry over the disaster
spurred the Lighthouse Board to action. However, it was not clear
where to build the light. The waveswept reef itself was deemed
to difficult a location to build a lighthouse, so in 1875 the
Lighthouse Board planned to build a light at Point St. George.
However, that location was rejected as being too far from the reef
itself. In 1881, the Lighthouse Board finally settled on Seal Rock
off Point St. George.
The Board hired M.A. Ballantyne, the engineer who had built the
light at Tillimook Rock in Oregon. Work began in 1882. The initial
surveyors were only able to get to the rocks three times in four weeks
due to the difficult weather conditions at the reef. When work began in
1883, a cable with attached cage was rigged between the schooner
LaNinfa and the rocks. This served as a means of transporting
workers to the rock - and quickly back again in the event of an impending
storm. It is somewhat remarkable that in the entire construction period
that only a single worker was lost.
Work continued, but slowly and at great cost. $100,000 was originally
allocated to construction, but much of the work was suspended after
1885, when minimal funding was provided to continue work. The initial
estimate of $330,000 had proven to be far too little. Only $30,000 was
allocated in 1884, and slightly more in 1885. It was not until 1887 did
work restart in earnest when $120,000 was appropriated.
When the light was finally completed in 1892, the light cost
$704,633.78 - making it the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the US.
The light itself was built on a massive stone base - a pier sixty foot high
built of cut rocks each weighing as much as six tons. The pier housed an engine
room, coal house, and cistern. On top of the base was a tower - a stone
square pyramidal structure over 140 feet above the sea. The tower housed a
first-order Fresnel lens which originally flashed alternating red and white.
(The red was later removed.) One hundred
years after Vancouver named the reef the Dragon Rocks, St. George had
Duty at the station was difficult at best, and hazardous at worst. Families
were not allowed at the station. the tower was cold and inhospitable. Storms
were frequent. Keepers were rotated - on for several weeks, then off for
several weeks. Relief only arrived when the weather allowed. Keepers could
be stranded on the station for extended periods of time during storms. The
environment strained the relations of even the most cordial keepers. For example,
one group of keepers stranded in 1937 for 59 days - men who "had been solid friends
for years" would not speak to one another
nor face each other when eating. "Funny thing the moment the weather pressure
let up and life in the tower returned to normal, so did the pressures and
we returned to normal, too" (The Keeper's Log Fall 2003)
Several keepers lost their lives while serving at the station. Keeper George
Roux died of exhaustion after attempting unsuccessfully to reach the light by
boat and eventually returning to Crescent City. Another keeper was lost
in 1893. In 1951, a rogue wave struck the station while the station launch was
being lowered. The boat filled with water and broke loose, dropping the men
into the ocean. Three of the five coast guardsmen on board died in the accident.
The station was finally abandoned in 1975 and replaced by a large navigational
buoy. The tower stood neglected until the 1980's when the Guy Towers,
Bob Bolen, and other members of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation
Society began work to transport the Fresnel lens to the Del Norte
Historical Society. The lens was moved to the museum in 1983. Today, the society
is working to restore the tower itself. The Coast Guard transferred the property
to the society in 1996. The lantern room was recently removed, restored on
the mainland, and replaced (despite a transportation mishap in which the
lantern room was dropped on shore while being removed!).
Reef was relit as a private aid to navigation on October 19, 2002.
The optic was provided by engineer Glenn Williamson, who donated the
light in memory of his late wife Colleen. A helicopter
shuttled visitors and volunteers to and from the lighthouse in celebration
of the 110th anniversary of the opening of the station.
As of 2006, restoration work is ongoing. The task is daunting.
Work crews helicopter to the site. Work includes repainting, replastering,
removing debris, restoring the railings and staircases, upgrading the power and
plumbing, and repairing windows and shutters. The light installed in 2002
malfunctioned, and the lighthouse lost its Aids to Navigation permit.
The light has since been repaired, and plans are to reinstate the light.
Preliminary plans were unveiled in 2006 to build a maritime museum in
Crescent City, modeled on the lantern room at St George Reef, but 80 feet
in diameter. Some of the artifacts from the lighthouse will be displayed
at the museum. Fundraising is underway as of 2006. The museum project
is expected to cost $405,000.
California Lighthouses, Roberts, Jones, pp. 9-11
Legendary Lighthouses, Grant, Jones, vol. I. pp. 109-110
America's Lighthouses - An Illustrated History, Holland, pp. 171-172
Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Nelson [2nd ed.] pp. 169-172
Battery Point and St. George Reef Webber pp. 63-83
The Keeper's Log Winter 2003, Fall 2003, Winter 2006
Lighthouse Digest January/February 2006