THE BEACON SHINES AGAIN

October 23, 2002 12:00 am
 ().
().

On Saturday night, a group gathered around the lamp in the dome room atop the St. George Reef Lighthouse. In a flash, the beam was activated and the lighthouse, which has stood in darkness for 27 years, sprang to life.

Mother Nature threw beachfront watchers a curve by shrouding the coast in a thick layer of fog. But the crew at the lighthouse wasn't about to let it throw a damper on its party.

Glenn Williamson, a retired engineer who moved to Smith River this summer, designed the system and purchased the equipment necessary to power the light.

He donated the light to the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society in memory of his late wife, Colleen, who wanted to move to a home in Smith River with a view of the tower.

A plaque beneath the new light reads: "In memory of Colleen Lee Williamson … and her love for lighthouses."

The emotional impact of the ceremony hit different people at different times. Guy Towers, president of the preservation society, said, "The room was illuminated fairly quickly. Then the individual beams of light came out and illuminated all the faces in the room.

"I took a moment then to thank Glenn. I could think of no more appropriate way to light the lighthouse than to have it in memory of someone who loved it."

After the beam was turned on an American flag was raised at the base of the lighthouse and a high-powered spotlight was focused on it. The group went downstairs and stood on the platform.

It was then that the weight of the moment hit Towers.

"The search light illuminated the flag and as we looked up, we could see the rays of light spiking from the tower," he said.

"Then a full moon cut through the clouds. I had tears in my eyes. The lighthouse was lit again. It had so much meaning for so many people."

Bill O'Donnell, the official videographer for the preservation society, recorded the event on video.

"It was very inspiring," he said.

"I was filming and as the light came on, you could see the bulb inside the fennel lens.

"When you looked out the window, you could see the beam piercing through the fog. We walked down to the next level and looked up. The fog was really enhancing the beam."

O'Donnell joined the group on the lower platform.

"They had the tower all lit up with a search light. I just got back from Washington, D.C., and saw a lot of the monuments at night.

"The way the lighthouse was lit up at night was right up there with the Washington monument. It was so tall."

The videographer was among the group that spent Saturday night on St. George Reef.

"I waited up until about 11 p.m. By that time, the clouds directly above us had cleared and you could see the stars and the moon. The fog circled us in about a three to four-mile radius, which gave it a totally different perspective."

O'Donnell was up in the lantern room again the next morning. Since the light is designed to switch on and off at dusk and dawn like a streetlight, he wanted to film the light turning off.

"There was moisture on the windows of the lantern room at sunrise and the beam of light was reflecting on the windows. I was filming when the light shut off, and it gave me shivers."

When the fog lifted, a helicopter began lifting tourists out to the reef. A steady stream spilled out of the chopper onto the platform throughout the day and society members gave tours of the tower.

A ceremony was held on the platform to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the lighthouse. Towers held a clock he had found in the basement.

"I found the clock down in the engine room. It was one of the few relics from when the Coast Guard was there."

The clock's hands had stopped at 12:10.

"It was a little rusty, but it still worked," Towers said.

He explained that the lighthouse was operated by the Coast Guard from 1891 until 1975, when it was decommissioned because of the implementation of modern navigational technology.

"We're calling the Coast Guard era the ‘first watch.' But this is a new era and a new light, so we're calling this the ‘second watch.'

"The clock was stuck at 12:10, so I started the clock at that time in recognition of the 110th anniversary of the lighthouse; the ushering in of a new era."

As sunset neared, tourists and volunteers were whisked back to shore. The skies were clear on Sunday, giving landlubbers a second chance to view the light on the horizon.

Williamson said his most tense moment came when he returned to his home Sunday at twilight and peered out to sea. He hoped the system would function properly by itself, and the light would switch on at sunset.

"The most tension I had was when I came back to shore," he said.

"I could see the lighthouse, but it was a little overcast. I had my doubts. I was sweating it out, wondering if the light was going to come on."

It did. A crowd had gathered on the bluff at Point St. George, hoping to get their first glimpse of the beacon after Saturday's letdown.

"When there's a fog bank you can't see it," Williamson said.

"But on Sunday night I could see it from the shore. I understand they let out a big cheer when they saw the light."

O'Donnell was also on the shore at sunset.

"I've never seen so many cars at Point St. George," he said.

"People were pulling over and asking me, ‘When is it coming on?' A lot of people thought it was just coming on that weekend. They didn't know it is going to be on all the time."

Williamson said he plans to replace the bulb in the lens with a more powerful one in about a month. The bulb currently installed in the lens projects a beam up to 25 miles.

"I figure if you're going to put a light out there, you might as well have a good one. The mini-fennel lens we installed can accommodate a bulb with almost twice the intensity as the one we have now."

The lighthouse preservation society plans to schedule more tours out to the lighthouse in the future. The location will also be available for weddings and memorial services.

Towers said that, because of St. George's unique location on a rocky reef surrounded by water, the structure could be an ideal site for oceanographic studies.

Jeffry Borgeld, a professor at the Department of Oceanography at Humboldt State University, visited the reef on Sunday. Borgeld said HSU may consider utilizing the site for future projects.

For lighthouse and history enthusiasts, there are two videos on the lighthouse in stock at the Crescent City Chamber of Commerce.

One video, titled "Last One Out, Turn Off the Light," was filmed in 1975 and interviews the last group of lighthouse keepers stationed on the reef. It costs $17.99.

The other video was made in 1996 as part of the "California's Gold" series on PBS and features Huell Howser touring the empty lighthouse with Towers. The price is $24.95. Both videos are in color and are 30 minutes long.

For information regarding lighthouse tours, contact (707) 464-8299.