Some three dozen people, some traveling as far as Redding, California, eagerly waited for the fog to lift before taking off in a helicopter Sunday for the last trip of the season to St. George Reef Lighthouse, seven miles offshore from Crescent City.
Some hid their anxiety about flying in a veneer of excitement for the arrival, but for most, it was a “bucket list” item they were visibly excited to do.
The short trip there was upstaged by the landing on the catch deck of the lighthouse, the roar of the massive waves pounding the rock and the hour-and-a-half-long tour that followed.
Volunteer docents of the preservation society lead groups of four through the main door of the granite edifice, down winding concrete steps to the engine room, then back up into the tower to the galley and bedrooms where lighthouse keeps spent many a dark and blustery winter.
Water pools in many spots, old pipes are rusted, the diesel engines have long ceased their rumble. Tools are still in place above workbenches, codes near an alarm system are still intact, windows are scoured with salt, the old wooden floors are spongy in spots and red, yellow and green paint peels off the walls like a sunbaked tourist in Florida.
It’s been a long time since volunteers have been able to access the landmark to do restoration work.
In 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration deemed the catch deck too small for a helicopter landing spot, a declaration that banned anyone, much less preservationists, from Northwest Seal Rock on which the lighthouse was built.
They were granted a reprieve in 2017, but can only operate tours from November to April to avoid the endangered Steller sea lions that frolic among the islands offshore and piled up on the rocks.
The tour takes visitors back in time to 1865 when the Brother Jonathan crashed on the Dragon Rocks, the collection of rocks and islands littered in the ocean that create such havoc for ocean-going vessels. Of the 244 aboard, only 19 survived.
It took decades to get approval, carve the granite stones, ship them from Eureka and build the massive, 150-foot-tall lighthouse. Funding came in spurts over the years, but eventually, the foghorn and first-order Fresnel lens — the strongest of the prismed glasses — were installed. The 15-paned, 8-foot-tall lens first shone its particular pattern out to sailors in the fog on Oct. 20, 1892.
Today, the foghorn is gone, and a 2-foot-tall lens powered by a bank of marine batteries fed by a solar panel has taken the place of the Fresnel lens.
As eagerly as tourists today strive to get out to the lighthouse, lighthouse keeps in the 1900s sought to avoid assignation there.
People, food and other necessities were brought to the lighthouse by boat, which was anchored on numerous locations to prevent it from crashing into the rock. Using a giant wooden boom, supplies were lifted via a rope and pulley system — often in crashing surf — to the people who would call it home for three months at a time.
Work was primarily maintenance — cleaning the lens in its early days, painting the brick and mortar to protect it from the abrasive salt wind and water, maintaining the steam engines ensconced in the rock below and other monotonous tasks.
The desolation often affected the mental health of the five keepers assigned; in 1895, First Assistant William Erikson and a station boat left for Crescent City, never to return.
The never-ending tasks there don’t end these days either, and include repairing windows that are sometimes broken out by flying birds, protecting metalwork from rust and replacing rotting woodwork, floors and ceilings. Plumbing, wiring and repointing stone work on the caisson is always underway.
Some of those on Sunday’s trek said they wished they didn’t have to return and would love to spend a night on the rock, amidst the crashing waves and barking sea lions.
Tours to St. George Reef Lighthouse are $300 per person and are available on the second Sunday following a full weekend November through April. More information can be obtained by calling 707-442-4117.