SHINING THE LIGHT
February 28, 2003 11:00 pm
 ().
().

Pilot story by

Bill Lundquist

The second in a series of winter fireside chats Sunday at the Book Dock in Harbor featured a presentation by the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society.

Society president Guy Towers and retired electrical engineer Glenn Williamson gave an update on what has been done to restore the lighthouse and on future plans.

Towers explained that the St. George Reef Lighthouse was built with thousands of granite blocks quarried in McKinleyville, Calif., each weighing two to 12 tons.

The rock the lighthouse was built on was blasted into a pyramidal shape to anchor the lighthouse base, and the granite blocks were dovetailed into the rock and attached with two-inch spikes.

"It's literally a part of the rock," said Towers.

He also said the lighthouse is still 95-97 percent intact. The mortar between the granite blocks has not yet worn away.

"It's as solid as the day it was built," said Towers.

Except that it took a decade to build, not a day. Construction took place in spurts from 1882 to 1892 as Congressional appropriations trickled in.

Using a 12-foot tall first-order Fresnel lens, the light guided ships around the treacherous St. George Reef from 1892 to 1975.

The lighthouse was run by the U.S. Lighthouse Service until 1939, when it was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard.

By 1975, automated buoys had rendered the lighthouse obsolete. The Coast Guard closed the facility and vacated it in such a hurry that the coffee pot was left on the stove.

Brass was valuable, so items made from it were removed. Vandals in passing boats shot the windows out.

The Fresnel lens was rescued in 1983 and moved to the Del Norte County Historical Society Museum.

Towers said he was always interested in lighthouses, and before he moved there in 1986 knew the greatest one in the world was near Crescent City .

He formed a group to save the lighthouse, and ironically, it was put up for sale a few days later.

Towers said the group could have purchased the lighthouse then for about $150,000 and controlled its destiny.

He added ruefully that they decided to try to get the lighthouse donated to the group instead, a process that took 10 years and continues to involve red tape.

The society now leases the lighthouse from Del Norte County and must follow the rules of the National Park Service.

Work crews have been traveling to the lighthouse by helicopter for restoration projects, but people are banned from the site from June through October because of Endangered Species Act laws regarding stellar sea lions.

Still, much has been accomplished. A new light has been installed and the kitchen galley is now fully functional.

Ironically, the wind generator powering the new light has failed, but the galley refrigerator left from the Coast Guard days works perfectly.

The outside rails have rusted away. Towers said temporary safety rails will be installed, and will be replaced later with ones that look like the originals.

Crews now work on the 150-foot--tall structure with no safety harnesses, because there is nothing to attach them to.

The lighthouse's electric system is up and running again, but is powered by portable generators.

Towers said there are three large diesel generator engines in the caisson beneath the lighthouse. The society hopes to restore and restart at least one of them.

The caisson's roof had been leaking before workers unplugged a rain catch basin.

Williamson engineered the new light in the lighthouse, but said the wind generator was destroyed by too much wind.

Because the batteries are charged only by a solar panel now, the light runs out of power by 11:30 p.m.

The new light will never be commissioned, because the lighthouse is not manned and no one is there to repair the light if it goes out. It is, however, a private aid to navigation.

Williamson said he didn't want the wind generator to be so large that it marred the appearance of the lighthouse.

"We were told it could handle 100 mph winds," he said. "Now they admit it is not right for our area."

Since the efficiency of solar panels never rises above 30 percent on the Northern California coast, Williamson will try to power the light with another wind generator.

He said the new generator will not fail if he can figure out a way to automatically shut it down when the winds exceed 30 mph.

The lamp itself is a proven unit with six rotating lenses magnifying a 50-watt bulb. The light has a range of 25 to 30 miles.

"You can hardly look at it, even in the daylight, it's so bright," said Williamson.

The light appears to flash every 12 seconds to observers. There are three bulbs. When one burns out, the next kicks in.

Towers said the society offers many ways for lighthouse buffs to support the restoration efforts.

Helicopter tours from the Crescent City airport out to the lighthouse will be offered in the mornings today (March 1), March 22 and 23, April 26, a yet-to-be-set date in May, and June 1.

The tours cost $150 per person. The helicopter takes three people at a time out to the lighthouse, and can handle 36 visitors in a day.

The flight takes five or six minutes, and each person gets to spend about an hour on the lighthouse.

Gift certificates are available. Call Towers at (707) 464-8299 for information.

Towers said guests should have no fear of being stranded on the lighthouse. He said the Coast Guard could pick up people in an emergency, and the galley is stocked with enough food for several days.

Those who want to see just the light, not the lighthouse, can have it lit any night of the year for a loved one in the society's Love Lights program.

"It's a very romantic notion," said Towers. "I'm a full-blown romantic."

The light can be lit for up to five names each night of the year for $20 each. A calendar naming those so honored will be published each month in The Pilot and Triplicate newspapers. There are vacancies for March and April.

When the original lantern room was reconstructed, the old glass panes were broken and framed or put on driftwood sculptures.

Depending on the work of art, people can buy a piece of the original lighthouse glass for $15 to $150.

Video tapes and other gift items are also available, as are society memberships and sponsorships running from $25 to $5,000 or more.

Towers wants to raise as much money as possible. He said no further restoration work can be done until the last $8,000 owed for the lantern room reconstruction is paid.

Towers can take tourists out to the lighthouse, but can't afford to send work crews out.

"The restoration is on hold, and I hate it," he said.

Eventually, said Towers, the watch room and other rooms will be restored to their appearance from the Lighthouse Service days. The galley and engine room will be restored to fit the Coast Guard era.

The water pressure system will be restored, keeper's rooms will be repainted, hand rails will be erected, and the winch will be taken off for repair. The remaining 47 feet of the original 90-foot boat boom will be restored.

Because of unpredictable weather (water has topped the lantern room twice), tourists will probably never be allowed to stay on the restored lighthouse, but scientists may be able to stay there for research.

Volunteer work crews stay for days at a time, often working through the night.

"I can't get them to stop and eat," said Towers.

Despite the hard work, there is a waiting list to get on the crew, he said.