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St. George Reef Lighthouse, California
Date Issued: 2007-06-21
Postage Value: 41 cents

Commemorative issue
Pacific Lighthouses
St. George Reef Lighthouse, California

St. George Reef Light marks a hazardous reef off Point St. George near Crescent City. The area was originally christened Dragon Rocks by English explorer George Vancouver in 1792. Over time, the reef became known as St. George Reef - "Perhaps in hopes that the dragon might one day be slain."

In 1865, the side-wheeler Brother Jonathan was lost at the reef with loss of 215 lives. Public outcry over the disaster spurred the Lighthouse Board to action. However, it was not clear where to build the light. The waveswept reef itself was deemed to difficult a location to build a lighthouse, so in 1875 the Lighthouse Board planned to build a light at Point St. George. However, that location was rejected as being too far from the reef itself. In 1881, the Lighthouse Board finally settled on Seal Rock off Point St. George.

The Board hired M.A. Ballantyne, the engineer who had built the light at Tillimook Rock in Oregon. Work began in 1882. The initial surveyors were only able to get to the rocks three times in four weeks due to the difficult weather conditions at the reef. When work began in 1883, a cable with attached cage was rigged between the schooner LaNinfa and the rocks. This served as a means of transporting workers to the rock - and quickly back again in the event of an impending storm. It is somewhat remarkable that in the entire construction period that only a single worker was lost.

Work continued, but slowly and at great cost. $100,000 was originally allocated to construction, but much of the work was suspended after 1885, when minimal funding was provided to continue work. The initial estimate of $330,000 had proven to be far too little. Only $30,000 was allocated in 1884, and slightly more in 1885. It was not until 1887 did work restart in earnest when $120,000 was appropriated. When the light was finally completed in 1892, the light cost $704,633.78 - making it the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the United States.

The light itself was built on a massive stone base - a pier sixty foot high built of cut rocks each weighing as much as six tons. The pier housed an engine room, coal house, and cistern. On top of the base was a tower - a stone square pyramidal structure over 140 feet above the sea. The tower housed a first-order Fresnel lens which originally flashed alternating red and white. (The red was later removed.) One hundred years after Vancouver named the reef the Dragon Rocks, St. George had finally arrived.
Duty at the station was difficult at best, and hazardous at worst. Families were not allowed at the station. the tower was cold and inhospitable. Storms were frequent. Keepers were rotated - on for several weeks, then off for several weeks. Relief only arrived when the weather allowed. Keepers could be stranded on the station for extended periods of time during storms. The environment strained the relations of even the most cordial keepers. For example, one group of keepers stranded in 1937 for 59 days - men who "had been solid friends for years" would not speak to one another nor face each other when eating. "Funny thing the moment the weather pressure let up and life in the tower returned to normal, so did the pressures and we returned to normal, too."

Several keepers lost their lives while serving at the station. Keeper George Roux died of exhaustion after attempting unsuccessfully to reach the light by boat and eventually returning to Crescent City. Another keeper was lost in 1893. In 1951, a rogue wave struck the station while the station launch was being lowered. The boat filled with water and broke loose, dropping the men into the ocean. Three of the five coast guardsmen on board died in the accident.

The station was finally abandoned in 1975 and replaced by a large navigational buoy. The tower stood neglected until the 1980's when the Guy Towers, Bob Bolen, and other members of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society began work to transport the Fresnel lens to the Del Norte Historical Society. The lens was moved to the museum in 1983. Today, the society is working to restore the tower itself. The Coast Guard transferred the property to the society in 1996. The lantern room was recently removed, restored on the mainland, and replaced (despite a transportation mishap in which the lantern room was dropped on shore while being removed!).

St. George Reef was relit as a private aid to navigation on October 19, 2002. The optic was provided by engineer Glenn Williamson, who donated the light in memory of his late wife Colleen. A helicopter shuttled visitors and volunteers to and from the lighthouse in celebration of the 110th anniversary of the opening of the station.

Topic: Lighthouses (42)  

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