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Volunteers back to work at lighthouse

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. – Those who looked through a high-powered telescope toward St. George Reef  Lighthouse southwest of Brookings on Feb. 27, might have glimpsed mammals not observed there in several years –  people.

After three years away from the North Coast icon, members of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society arrived by helicopter to find most things as they left them, with a few surprises.

“The galley window was broken out … but the sleeping bags were dry  and even smelled fresh,” said Preservation Society work coordinator Terry McNamara.

Two stories below the broken galley window, at the base of the tower, equipment weighing in excess of 10,000 pounds had shifted several feet across the base of the lighthouse and a large concrete slab covering a ventilation shaft was broken in two, presumably by winter swells that the lighthouse, seven miles off the coast of Crescent City, has endured since its lens was lit Oct. 20, 1892.

A certain amount of winter damage is expected and the last few years have nothing on 1952, when a wave actually broke a window in the lantern room 145 feet above sea level and sent water cascading down the tower steps.

Holding court in the engine room, his hand on a steel girder supporting untold tons of granite block above him, society member Jim McLaughlin also talked about the bad and good news that awaited their arrival.

“After a bit of work we got the engine on the generator started up,” he said, but double doors leading to a perilous stairway to the rock below had been blown open. That, combined with leaking from the ceiling, had flooded the engine room with saltwater.

Ninety-six stairs up from McLaughlin and the work in the engine room, Guy Towers was a man in his element, his excitement on his return to the lighthouse plainly visible on his face as he talked with visitors about the history of the beacon. Speaking from his home Thursday, the  excitement was still there.

“It was a great relief to begin work again … I was delighted,” said Towers, listing last weekend’s accomplishments like a proud father.

Perhaps the most visible change to the casual observer was the new coat of paint in two of the crew member cabins. The stark white walls  stood out in contrast to layers upon layers of paint that can be seen in various stages of peeling in almost every room of the lighthouse.

“They must have painted it every day,” said Towers, speaking of  the paint layers left from the years the Coast Guard inhabited the lighthouse. It’s the first time the rooms have been painted since  the Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse in 1975, leaving the coffee pot on the stove.

The painted rooms and laundry list of other accomplishments represent another step toward the preservation society’s ultimate goal: “To make this place look like it did before it was deactivated … recognizing both areas of service, the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard,” Towers said. He estimates that will take as much as three years and cost thousands of dollars.

The lighthouse tours and donations of goods and services are the primary source of the society’s funding, and last Sunday morning 25 tourists arrived by helicopter on the island once dubbed the “Dragon Rocks” by explorer George Vancouver.

By early afternoon the tours were in full swing with groups traveling up and down the structure, cameras clutched in their hands and smiles on their faces. One visitor was local business owner Matt Kime, who summed it up from his store, Custom Dezign Graphics, Thursday  afternoon: “It was awesome.”

People interested in seeing for themselves what $752,000 of their ancestors’ tax dollars bought have one more opportunity this year. 

Another tour is planned in April and seats are still available, call Guy Towers at (707) 464-8299 for information about tours or contributing to the restoration work.

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