With the completion in 1881 of Oregon’s 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, the outermost rock in the reef that 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 1883 and moored to four buoys and two points on the rock to 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.
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 James Simpson built a depot to finish the granite stones and load them on ships for transportation to the reef.
A sum of $120,000 for construction was appropriated in March 1887, and even more was granted for the subsequent two work seasons. Each spring, the damage inflicted on the site during the preceding winter had to be repaired before the contracted ships could begin hauling the large granite blocks from the depot at Humboldt Bay to the rock. During 1887, eight levels of blocks, not counting the foundation stones, were set for the elliptical pier, which would hold the engine room, coal room, 77,000-gallon cistern and the base of the lighthouse. Some of the stones weighed as much as six tons, and each was finished so that it would require at most a three-sixteenths-of-an-inch joint between it and its neighbors. As many as fifty-two men worked on the rock at one time, and they were eventually able to live in quarters constructed on the rock. A chartered steamer delivered granite blocks to the reef “night and day” as needed, and the laborers on the pier worked Sundays when stone was on hand ready for setting. The pier was raised to its thirteenth course or level in 1888, and in 1889, nearly all of the work on the pier, which contained 1,339 dressed stones laid in twenty-one courses, was completed.
The final appropriation, which brought the total cost of the lighthouse to $721,000, came late in September 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, and the rest of the work season was spent removing the scaffolding around the tower, completing the interior, and installing the lantern room and spiral staircase supplied by the Phoenix Iron Company of Trenton, New Jersey.
Although the lighthouse was finished in 1891, it would be another year until the Fresnel lens arrived from France. In the meantime, the station’s twelve-inch steam whistle was activated on December 1, 1891 and kept the keepers partially occupied until the reef was finally lit for the first time on October 20, 1892. The station’s first-order, Henry-Lepaute lens had fifteen flash panels, and every other one was covered by a ruby pane of glass to produce the characteristic of alternating red and white flashes, separated by fifteen seconds. John Olsen, the first head keeper, and John E. Lind, an assistant, had both been part of the work crew that built the lighthouse. Lind would later serve as keeper of Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City.
St. George Reef Lighthouse was one of the least sought-after assignments in the service. Five keepers were typically 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 four of them. First Assistant William Erikson and the station’s boat simply disappeared during a trip to Crescent City in October 1895. According to the Lighthouse Board report, “no vestige of man or boat” was ever discovered.
The worst tragedy at St. George Reef occurred on April 5, 1951, after the Coast Guard had taken control of the country’s lighthouses. Bertram Beckett and Wilbur Walker, two young Coast Guard electrician mates, had been making repairs at the station and were ready to return to shore along with a three-man crew, consisting of Stanley Costello, Ross Vandenberg, and Thomas Mulcahy. 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 men into the frigid water. Fred Permenter, the station’s officer-in-charge, hoisted the swamped launch back up and retrieved an inflatable raft from it. After inflating the raft, Permenter threw it off the station and then jumped from a height of twenty feet into the ocean and swam to the raft. Permenter managed to recover Beckett and Walker, who was likely dead when he was retrieved from the water, while 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, and then, after a brief search, recovered the body of Costello. 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 fellow coastguardsmen, Fred Permenter was awarded a Gold Lifesaving medal.
John Otto Becker was serving as an assistant on the reef in 1909, when a pig was brought to the lighthouse so Becker could prepare an Easter feast of sauerkraut and speck. During the bleak and cold night watches, Becker had been extolling the merits of this special dish and even boasted that Emperor Wilhelm had praised his culinary skills. There was thus great alarm when the pig tumbled into the ocean while pawing mollusks from the reef. With no hesitation, Becker leapt into the water, grabbed the floundering hog, and with its forefeet resting on his shoulders, treaded water until a boat was lowered and the pair was rescued. The pig was thereafter confined to the basement of the lighthouse until he became Easter dinner.
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. A framed blacksmith shop atop the pier was destroyed by a storm in 1896, and on December 7, 1923, huge seas broke onto the pier with enough force to tear the donkey engine house from its foundation and slide it across the deck. During a 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.”
The weather that pummeled the tower often prolonged the stay of keepers at the lighthouse and delayed the arrival of mail and fresh food. Georges Roux spent more years than any other keeper on the reef, arriving as second assistant in 1910 and leaving in 1939 after having been in charge of the lighthouse for over twenty years. In 1937, a long stretch of stormy weather trapped Roux and his assistants on the tower for fifty-nine days. “After the first four weeks,” Roux later recalled, “we were so talked out and thought out that just to say ‘Please pass the salt’ or ‘Lousy day today, ain’t it?’ became a serious personal affront.” Roux added:
It got so bad that we would try to ignore the presence of each other to avoid scraps. This despite our being solid friends for years. Toward the end, when we opened a can of beans or some kind of can and ate it cold, we would face away from each other – not looking, not talking, just so fed up with each other’s company that it was almost unbearable.
Keeper Roux was injured in 1939 while attempting to return to the lighthouse. As he maneuvered the station’s launch close to the tower and attempted to grab the hook suspended from the boom’s lifting lines, he was repeatedly tossed about by waves and even slammed into the bottom of the boat. After battling heavy seas for several hours, Roux was forced to return to Crescent City. Suffering from hypothermia and severe bruising, the sixty-two-year old keeper was taken to the local hospital, where he passed away a few days later.
In October 1923, radiotelephones were installed at St. George Reef Lighthouse and Crescent City Lighthouse, after maintaining an armored submarine cable between the reef and shore proved impossible. The last cable used at the station cost $50,000 and was broken within four months of being laid. During the two-and-a-half years it was in service, the cable was broken and repaired five times. After the radiotelephone was established, the lengthy cable was retrieved and pieces of it were used as a link to offshore stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The lighthouses at St. George Reef and Crescent City had three set calling times, and in case of an emergency, the keepers at the reef would broadcast a message requesting anyone who heard it to contact the lighthouse in Crescent City. Broadcast calls were issued several times and always resulted in prompt action.
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.
As the last crew prepared to leave the lighthouse, Chief Petty Officer James W. 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.