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HISTORY SHINES

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Pilot story

and photos by Lynn Davis

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Historical photos courtesy of

St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society

The Book Dock's Discovery Series participants enjoyed a rare chance to talk directly with Guy Towers, president of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society and high-voltage electronic engineer Glenn Williamson July 25.

The two discussed the history of the monument, recent and current restoration projects, future plans, and also, offered ways the general public can become more involved with the lighthouse.

Towers used a large color poster with diagrams showing where each compartment is located inside the structure, and photos of the people who worked on it.

Involved with the lighthouse preservation effort since 1986, Towers has spent the last 17 years giving back to the stately guiding light that helped spare the lives of Pacific seafarers for more than a century.

His inspiration to lead restoration efforts comes from a respect for the people who originally erected the lighthouse, and a belief that this important testament of the spirit and strength of mankind to triumph over adversity is a piece of history that should never be forgotten.

"The engineering, and the courage and ability of people to put a structure like this out in some of the most hazardous conditions in the world is phenomenal," Towers said, "and they did it strictly for humanitarian purposes, to save lives, and not for profit."

The decision to build a lighthouse on what was once called Dragon Rock was made after the devastating crash of steamship Brother Jonathan on July 30, 1865, when it hit St. George Reef and sank off shore. Remains of the shipwreck, including large quantities of gold, were discovered in February 1994.

It took 10 years and $752,000 to build, beginning in 1882, and finishing in 1892. The top of the lantern room stands 146 feet from the average mean water level. Pre-cut segments of granite and brick were transported by steamer from a quarry in Humboldt Bay, near Eureka, Calif., to the site where a wooden, steam-powered boom lifted the stones onto the rock.

Located six miles off shore from Crescent City, the finished lighthouse served as home to three to four keepers at a time, and was originally powered by coal, oil, and then diesel. It has a 43-foot "catch deck" once used as a platform to gather rain for fresh water, but is now used as a convenient helicopter pad.

"That's ample room to land a helicopter," Towers said. "If that wasn't there, I'm not sure what we would be doing at this point."

On May 13, 1975, after 83 years of service, the U.S. Coast Guard crew turned off the light and vacated St. George Reef Lighthouse.

Towers said it took his preservation society 10 years to gain jurisdiction over the historic monument. In 1996, when their application was approved by the federal government, they were finally able to take that first momentous flight out to the rock.

"It was like Carlsbad Cavern at night," he said of his initial experience standing inside the dark and stale tower.

He said crews worked to remove the heavy storm shutters that had been sealed by the Coast Guard 21 years before. When finally able to see, Towers and the others were faced with rotten floors, peeling paint, and a major clean-up effort, yet they were still excited to get restoration efforts under way.

"We're trying to preserve every possible shred of the lighthouse we can," said Towers. "It's been incredible to watch this process."

"We started doing the restoration in 1996. I've never stopped to add it up but if you counted the total man hours, it would run into the thousands," he said. Restoration of the light itself began Oct. 15, 2002.

Towers said many people have had a hand in making the dream a reality. One of the associates mentioned was work coordinator Terry MacNamara. His job is to coordinate aspects of the project such as transportation, scheduling, manpower, volunteers, and other logistics. During one trip, he arranged to have a small volunteer group of young men, including his son, Nick, help out with some sandblasting of corrosion that needed to be removed from the lighthouse. Towers explained the job was not an easy one for anybody, but the crew took in stride and impressed everyone with their strength, endurance, and commitment.

"We needed one ton of sand to do the job," Towers said. The Army Air Guard volunteered to fly the sand out to the lighthouse because it was too heavy for the helicopter the society usually employs, which has a limit of 600 pounds of cargo.

After the sand was at the site, the crew faced a problem with no easy answer.

"How do you get 2,000-pounds of sand to the top of the lighthouse?" Towers asked the Discovery Series audience.

Then he explained, "These kids put 100 pound sacks on their shoulders and marched all the way to the top, and then, they went to work after that! It was amazing."

"That's an example of the kind of crew we've got out there," Towers said.

During the same trip, one fellow put his life on the line to catch a swinging sandpot. As the heavy pot was being lowered to the top of the stairwell, a dangerous situation developed. Towers said the man bravely tied a safety line around himself and caught the pot, preventing it from harming anyone.

In April of 2000, the crew faced another accident situation, only this time it would not be averted.

While approaching the beach in Crescent City, the Chinook heavy-lift helicopter, used to take the 10,000-pound lantern room frame to the beach in Crescent City, came in too low and slammed the cast iron structure onto the shore, where the lower part crumbled on impact.

All of the pieces were, fortunately, recovered and will be put back together, Towers said. The hope of the preservation society is to one day exhibit the restored piece in a museum dedicated to the lighthouse.

"We decided to replace the frame with steel, and the glass with durable polycarbonate material," Towers said. The roof survived the crash, he said, and was placed onto the new steel frame. The original glass from the lantern room was removed prior to the flight, and set aside to be used in fundraising endeavors to help support further restoration of the lighthouse.

Currently, these pieces, which are between 30 and more than 100 years old, are available to purchase through the society and have been cleaned, engraved, and placed onto polished and stained driftwood. Prices range from $25 to $100 and up.

Towers said the new lantern room was installed in 2001 and is holding upwell.

"It survived some hellacious windstorms last year," he remarked.

The light is managed by Williamson, who stays up night after night to turn it off by remote control from his Smith River home, as a tribute to his beloved wife, Colleen, who died last year, Colleen he said, had a passion for lighthouses.

"The light is shining in remembrance of her," said Williamson.

The light, which flashes every 12 seconds, runs strictly on solar power at the moment, and has been since October of last year. Towers said there is a wind generator as well, but it's broken, and they need funds to repair it.

The light comes on automatically at dusk, and is powered by three, 150 pound batteries.

"One battery weighs four times the amount of an average truck battery," Williamson said.

The light is 36 inches tall, which is equal to, or higher, than the original lens. It shines a 50 watt bulb, that is visible for about 30 miles, he said.

Shining more light into the lives of Towers and everyone else involved in the restoration was the recent installation of a working flush toilet.

"It was the most wonderful experience I've had out there." Towers said.

"A generous company donated a submersible pump," he explained. Now, the crews no longer have to use the old-fashioned "bucket brigade."

At this point in the discussion, former lighthouse keeper at Battery Point, Nancy Schnider, offered up a picture of Towers demonstrating the lighthouse's new addition. It made its way through the Discovery Series crowd of about 70 people before finding its way into the confines of Schnider's purse.

Currently, Towers said, crews are working to restore the original cast iron boom. It was made in 1930, is 90 feet in length, and he considers it to be the "lifeblood of the lighthouse." They currently have 50 feet of it on shore for sandblasting.

"The greatest thing we need is money to pay for the helicopter, and to pay for the fabrication of new hand rails," Towers reported.

"It costs $3,000 to take a crew of 15 and materials each time we go out," he said. "We go out as often as the weather and finances allow."

Towers appreciates the skills of their pilot, Dave Evanson, and said he has no doubts about his ability to get the crew to the lighthouse in one piece, no matter what the weather is like.

"He's really a genius with that helicopter," Towers said. "We've been in 45-50 mph winds and he sets us down safely every time. It is quite a thrill," he said with a chuckle and roll of his eyes.

There are still a few other areas of weather damage needing to be addressed, as well as aesthetic improvements, but Towers is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"With any luck and provided we have enough money, we could be finished in five years or even less than that," he said.

Towers described the expense of the endeavor, and said the society is looking for ways to raise more funds to complete the ambitious project.

"We applied for a $300,000 grant last year," he said, "but we didn't get it." Towers estimates that figure to represent, roughly, what he believes it will take to complete the restoration. He plans to be aggressive in applying for any other grants that come up but, for now, they are raising money by offering helicopter chauffeured tours, love and memory light dedications, driftwood and glass sculptures, and society memberships.

"The profits we made from the tours have been our main source of funding," he reported. The society hosted over 200 lighthouse tourists last season.

Towers invites anyone interested in visiting the lighthouse, to take advantage of a tour. Participants take an approximate five-minute helicopter ride from the airport to the lighthouse, and are given a one hour tour of the facility. The first tour of this season is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 12. Towers said they try to offer one per month from October through June, at a cost of $150 per person.

St. George Reef Preservation Society memberships are available for an initial year's fee of $25, and following year renewals for just $10.

A "love light" or "memorial light" can be dedicated to friend or loved one for a $20 donation per name, and all names are listed on a large monthly calendar published in the Daily Triplicate. The society allows up to five dedications per specific date.

To join the society, reserve a tour, purchase driftwood and glass sculptures, or to dedicate a love or memorial light, contact Towers at (707) 464-8299.

For people interested in learning more on the subject of St. George Reef Lighthouse, the following two videos, and book, are recommended: "Last One Out, Turn Out the Light," produced by St. George Reef Preservation Society, and a PBS production titled, "California Gold," as well as the book titled, "Battery Point and St. George Reef Light."

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