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 Saint George Reef, CA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: St. George Reef is a collection of exposed rocks and covered ledges lying about eight miles northwest of Crescent City. In 1792, George Vancouver named the outcroppings Dragon Rocks, while the nearest point of land was dubbed Point St. George, in hopes that the dragon might one day be slain. The dragon, however, was still alive and well on July 30, 1865, when the steam side-wheeler Brother Jonathan struck the reef and went down. Of the 244 people aboard, only nineteen managed to escape in a small craft.

Two years after the loss of the Brother Jonathan, the Lighthouse Board requested funds for the construction of the St. George Reef Lighthouse. However, with the costly Civil War having ended just two years before, Congress was unwilling to allocate the large sum required to construct a lighthouse on the exposed reef.

With the completion in 1881 of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, Alexander Ballantyne proved that construction of a lighthouse on an exposed rock was feasible. The following year, Congress granted an appropriation of $50,000 that allowed Ballantyne to visit St. George Reef and survey Northwest Seal Rock, which would serve as the foundation for the lighthouse.

In 1883, an additional sum of $100,000 was allocated to start construction. The schooner La Ninfa was towed to the reef in early April of 1883 and moored to four buoys and two points on the rock. La Ninfa would initially serve as the barracks and mess hall for the construction crew. A cable was stretched from the schooner to the top of the rock, and a platform suspended from the cable was used to transport the workmen to and from the rock. When the seas threatened to wash over the rock, the workers would lash their tools to iron rings set into the rock and then ride the platform to safety.

St. George Reef Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Powerful explosives were used to blast away chunks of the rock. After the fuse was lit, Ballantyne would cry "fire in the hole," and the men would "hunt holes like crabs" to protect themselves from the flying fragments of rock that would shower over the area, even reaching the schooner on occasion. By September, the crew had terraced an area of the rock for construction of the lighthouse.

The work season on the rock was limited to the spring and summer months when the seas were more accommodating. During the fall and winter of 1883, plans were made for the next construction season. In December, Ballantyne heard of a granite deposit along the Mad River near Humboldt Bay. When the granite proved to be of excellent quality, Ballantyne contracted the Mad River Railroad to transport the granite to the north spit of Humboldt Bay, where a depot was built to finish the granite stones and load them on ships to be transported to the reef.

Work on the rock began again in June of 1884. Several weeks were spent building a derrick with a 50-foot boom on the rock. Then, word was received that Congress had appropriated a scant $30,000 for the work season instead of the requested $150,000. Funding was a disappointingly small $40,000 in 1885, and then totally lacking in 1886. During this period, the work was limited to preparing the granite blocks at the depot and performing minimal maintenance work at the construction site. The District Engineer complained in his report that, "It would be difficult to point out more clearly than has already been done, the uselessness of beginning construction without money enough to push to the uttermost this difficult work during the short favorable season."

A sum of $120,000 for construction was appropriated in 1887, and even more was granted for the subsequent two work seasons. Each spring, the moorings for the La Ninfa had to be reset and the damage inflicted on the site during the preceding winter had to be repaired. Only then would the contracted ships begin hauling the large granite blocks from the depot at Humboldt Bay to the rock. During 1887, the first nine levels of blocks for the elliptical pier, which would hold the engine room, coal room, 77,000-gallon cistern and the base of the lighthouse, were set. Some of the stones weighed as much as six tons, and each was finished so that it would require at most a 3/16th of an inch joint between it and its neighbors. The pier was raised to its thirteenth course or level the next year. In 1889, nearly all of the work on the pier, which contained 1,339 dressed stones, was completed.

The final appropriation, which brought the total cost of the lighthouse to over $700,000, came late in September of 1890, which prevented any work being done that year. The next spring, the crew returned to the rock, and the first stone for the lighthouse tower was set in place on May 13. By the end of August, the tower was complete. The rest of the work season was spent removing the scaffolding around the tower and completing the interior. Although the work was finished in 1891, it would be another year until the first-order Fresnel lens arrived from France, but in the meantime the station's fog signal was activated. The reef was finally lit for the first time on October 20, 1892. The first head keeper, John Olson, along with an assistant, John E. Lind, had both been part of the work crew that had built the lighthouse.

The St. George Reef Lighthouse was one of the least sought-after assignments in the service. Five keepers were attached to the station, and they worked in shifts of three months at the lighthouse followed by two months at Crescent City with their families. Service at the station tried the mental health of many keepers and claimed the lives of five men. During construction, a worker holding a tag line to the derrick's boom was pulled off the pier and fell to his death. In 1893, assistant keeper William Erikson and the station's boat simply disappeared during a trip to Crescent City. According to the Lighthouse Board report, "no vestige of man or boat" has ever been discovered.

CCG Blackhaw servicing lighthouse
Photograph courtesy MKC Roger S. Wright
The worst tragedy at Saint George Reef occurred in 1951, after the Coast Guard had taken control of all lighthouses. Two young Coast Guard electrician mates, Bertram Beckett and Clarence Walker, had been making repairs at the station and were ready to return to shore with a three-man crew, consisting of Stanley Costello, Ross Vandenberg, and Thomas Mulcahy, that was being relieved. The five men were being lowered to the water in the station's boat when disaster struck. As they neared the foaming sea, a rogue wave struck the launch filling it with water. With the added weight, a ring, to which one of the supporting cables was attached, tore loose, dropping the bow of the boat and tossing the five-man crew into the frigid water. The station's Officer-in-Charge, Fred Permenter, leaped into the water with an inflatable raft and managed to recover Beckett and Walker, who was likely dead when he was retrieved from the water. Mulcahy and Vandenberg succeeded in swimming to a nearby mooring buoy. The Winga, a commercial fishing boat summoned to the scene by the Coast Guard, picked up the two men from the buoy and the three men in the raft. After a brief search, the body of Costello was recovered. Artificial respiration was administered to Beckett en route to Crescent City, but he along with Walker and Costello were pronounced dead upon reaching medical assistance at the harbor. For his courageous attempt to rescue his crewmen, Fred Permenter was awarded a Gold Lifesaving medal.

Amazingly, an occasional fierce storm would generate waves large enough to sweep onto the top of the caisson, seventy feet above the sea, and send water over the top of the lighthouse. The tremendous poundings would cause the tower to tremble and the men to fear for their lives. During one such storm in 1952, the raging sea tossed rocks through the lantern room glass. Floyd Shelton recalls that, "there was a waterfall running down the central spiral staircase from the ocean coming in the lens room 145 feet or so above sea level."

A Large Navigational Buoy (LNB) was placed near the lighthouse in 1975 and the dangerous and costly station was abandoned. Eight years later, the lens was removed piece-by-piece and transported to Crescent City, where it was refurbished, polished, and reassembled in a two-story addition at the Del Norte County Historical Museum.

The St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in 1988 to acquire and restore the lighthouse. Del Norte County had previously obtained the lighthouse from the Bureau of Land Management and leased it to the preservation society in 1996. As part of the restoration effort, the lantern room was removed from the lighthouse during the spring of 2000 and then suspended from a helicopter for the flight to shore. As the helicopter approached land, it came in too low, and the lantern room crashed into the beach. The dome was not badly damaged and was used by a local firm, Fashion Blacksmith, to construct a new lantern room, which was returned to the tower in 2001. Saint George Reef Lighthouse was relit as a private aid to navigation on October 20, 2002, the 110th anniversary of the first lighting, but this failed after a short time. On March 10, 2012, the lighthouse was activated once again.

As the last crew prepared to leave the lighthouse, Chief Petty Officer James Sebastian made the following entry in the station's old logbook. "It is with much sentiment that I pen this final entry, 13 May 1975. After four score and three years, St. George Reef Light is dark. No longer will your brilliant beams of light be seen, nor your bellowing fog signal be heard by the mariner. Gone are your keepers. Only by your faithful service has many a disaster been prevented on the treacherous St. George Reef. You stand today, as you have down through the years, a tribute to humanity and worthy of our highest respect. Cut from the soul of our country, you have valiantly earned your place in American history. In your passing, the era of the lonely sea sentinel has truly ended. May Mother Nature show you mercy. You have been abandoned, but never will you be forgotten. Farewell, St. George Reef Light."

Head Keepers: John Olson (1891 1913), John Luckman (1913 1918), Georges Roux (1918 1938), Chester M. Johnston (at least 1940).

References

  1. Sentinel of the Sea, Dennis Powers, 2007.
  2. "St. George Reef America's Most Expensive Lighthouse," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log, Fall 1985.
  3. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.

Location: The lighthouse is six miles at sea near the California/Oregon border.
Latitude: 41.83699
Longitude: -124.37527

For a larger map of Saint George Reef Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: The Del Norte County Historical Society Museum, which houses the first-order Fresnel lens from the lighthouse, is located at 577 H Street in Crescent City. Tel. (707) 464-3922. The museum is open May through September from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

To view the St. George Reef Lighthouse from land, go north on the road that hugs the coast in Crescent City. When you arrive at the airport, turn left on Radio Road and follow it to the beach at its end. This is Point St. George, and the housing used for the keepers when they were ashore is adjacent to the parking area.

The St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society offers occasional helicopter rides out to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the St. George Reef Preservation Society. Tower open during helicopter tours.

Find the closest hotels to Saint George Reef Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
When we visited the lighthouse during the summer of 1998, a diving vessel was being used to recover artifacts from the Brother Jonathan. Several of the artifacts, including gold coins and pottery, are on display at the Del Norte County Historical Society Museum in Crescent City.

At the intersection of 8th Street and Pebble Beach Drive (about a half-mile north along the coast from the Battery Point Lighthouse) is located the Brother Jonathan Cemetery. Buried in the circular park are at least two of the victims of the shipwreck. The grounds here were actually the original Crescent City Cemetery, but most of the graves were apparently transferred to the city's new cemetery when it was established.

Steve writes:
Almost 150 years after the gold went down with the passengers on St. George Reef, we were there to witness close up the mini yellow submarines operated by remote control as they salvaged the gold bullion worth millions of dollars.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Bruce Robie, used by permission.