St. George Reef is a collection of exposed rocks and covered ledges lying about eight miles northwest of Crescent City. In 1792, English explorer George Vancouver christened the outcroppings Dragon Rocks. Over time, the reef became known as St. George Reef.
It is interesting to note that in historic legend, it is St. George who slays the dragon. However, the dragon was still active July 30, 1865, when the steam side-wheeler Brother Jonathan struck the reef and went down. Of the 244 people aboard, only nineteen managed to escape in a small craft.
Public outcry over the disaster spurred the Lighthouse Board to action. However, with the costly Civil War having just ended, Congress was unwilling to allocate the large sum required to construct a lighthouse on the exposed reef.
Then there was the problem of where to build the light. The wave swept 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. The location was rejected as being too far from the reef itself and in 1881, the Lighthouse Board finally settled on Seal Rock off Point St. George.
With the 1881 completion of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, Alexander Ballantyne proved that construction of a lighthouse on an exposed rock was feasible. The following year, Congress granted an appropriation of $50,000 that allowed Ballantyne to visit St. George Reef and survey Northwest Seal Rock, which would serve as the foundation for the lighthouse.
The Board hired Ballantyne and work began in 1882. Unfortunately, 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 again in April 1883, a cable was stretched from the schooner La Ninfa to the top of the rock, and a platform suspended from the cable was used to transport the workmen to and from the rock. The La Ninfa would initially serve as the barracks and mess hall for the construction crew an as a means of transporting workers to the rock and back again in the event of an impending storm.
When the seas threatened to wash over the rock, the workers would lash their tools to iron rings set into the rock and then ride the platform to safety. It is somewhat remarkable that in the entire construction period that only a single worker was lost.
Explosives were used to blast away chunks of the rock. Flying fragments of rock would shower over the area, even reaching the schooner on occasion and by September, the crew had terraced an area of the rock for construction of the lighthouse.
The work season on the rock was limited to the spring and summer months when the seas were more accommodating. During the fall and winter of 1883, plans were made for the next construction season, while each spring, the moorings for the La Ninfa had to be reset and the damage inflicted on the site during the preceding winter had to be repaired.
In December, Ballantyne heard of a granite deposit along the Mad River near Humboldt Bay. When the granite proved to be of excellent quality, Ballantyne contracted the Mad River Railroad to transport the granite to the north spit of Humboldt Bay, where a depot was built to finish the granite stones and load them on ships to be transported to the reef.
Work on the rock began again in June of 1884. Several weeks were spent building a derrick with a 50-foot boom on the rock. Then, word was received that Congress had appropriated only $30,000 for the work season instead of the requested $150,000.
Work continued, but slowly with much of the work suspended in 1885 and 1886, when minimal funding was provided to continue work and then totally lacking in 1865. The initial estimate of $330,000 had proven to be far too little. Not until 1887 did work restart when $120,000 was appropriated.
During 1887, the first nine levels of blocks for the elliptical pier , which would hold the engine room, coal room, 77,000-gallon cistern and the base of the lighthouse, were set. Some of the stones weighed as much as six tons, and each was finished so that it would require at most a 3/16th of an inch joint between it and its neighbors.
The pier was raised to its thirteenth course or level the next year. In 1889, nearly all of the work on the pier, which contained 1,339 dressed stones, was completed.
The final appropriation, which brought the total cost of the lighthouse to $704,633.78, came late in September of 1890, which prevented any work being done that year. The next spring though, work crews returned to the rock, and the first stone for the lighthouse tower was set in place May 13.
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. 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.) By the end of August, the tower was complete.
The rest of the work season was spent removing the scaffolding around the tower and completing the interior. Although the work was finished in 1891, it would be another year until the lens arrived from France, but in the meantime the station’s fog signal was activated.
The reef was finally lit for the first time on October 20, 1892.
The St. George Reef Lighthouse was one of the least sought-after assignments in the service, with he first head keeper, John Olson, and assistant, John E. Lind, both having been part of the work crew that had built the lighthouse. In all five keepers were attached to the station, and they worked in shifts of three months at the lighthouse followed by two months in Crescent City with their families.
Duty at the station was hazardous. The tower was cold and inhospitable and storms were frequent. Relief only arrived when the weather allowed, meaning keepers could be stranded on the station for extended periods of time during these storms.
Amazingly, an occasional fierce storm would generate waves large enough to sweep onto the top of the caisson, seventy feet above the sea, and send water over the top of the lighthouse. The tremendous poundings would cause the tower to tremble and the men to fear for their lives.
Service at the station claimed the lives of at least five men. During construction, one worker holding a tag line to the derrick’s boom was pulled off the pier and fell to his death.
In 1893, assistant keeper William Erikson and the station’s boat simply disappeared during a trip to Crescent City. According to the Lighthouse Board report, “no vestige of man or boat” was discovered. And Keeper George Roux died of exhaustion after attempting unsuccessfully to reach the light by boat and eventually returning to Crescent City.
The worst modern-day tragedy occurred in 1951, after the Coast Guard had taken control of all lighthouses. Two young Coast Guard electrician mates, Bertram Beckett and Clarence Walker, had been making repairs at the station and were ready to return to shore with a three-man crew, including Stanley Costello, Ross Vandenberg, and Thomas Mulcahy.
The five men were being lowered to the water in the station’s boat when disaster struck. As they neared the sea, a rogue wave struck the launch filling it with water. With the added weight, a ring, to which one of the supporting cables was attached, failed, dropping the bow of the boat and tossing the five-man crew into the water.
The station’s Officer-in-Charge, Fred Permenter, leaped into the water with an inflatable raft and managed to recover Beckett and Walker. Mulcahy and Vandenberg succeeded in swimming to a nearby mooring buoy.
The commercial fishing boat, Winga responded to the scene, picking up the two men from the buoy and the three men in the raft and after a brief search, the body of Costello was recovered. For his attempt to rescue his crewmen, Fred Permenter was awarded a Gold Lifesaving medal.
A Large Navigational Buoy was placed near the lighthouse in 1975 and the station was abandoned. As the last crew prepared to leave the lighthouse, Chief Petty Officer James Sebastian made the following entry in the station’s old logbook:
“It is with much sentiment that I pen this final entry, 13 May 1975. After four score and three years, St. George Reef Light is dark. No longer will your brilliant beams of light be seen, nor your bellowing fog signal be heard by the mariner. Gone are your keepers. Only by your faithful service has many a disaster been prevented on the treacherous St. George Reef. You stand today, as you have down through the years, a tribute to humanity and worthy of our highest respect. Cut from the soul of our country, you have valiantly earned your place in American history. In your passing, the era of the lonely sea sentinel has truly ended. May Mother Nature show you mercy. You have been abandoned, but never will you be forgotten. Farewell, St. George Reef Light.”
The lens was moved in 1983, where it was refurbished, polished, and reassembled as a two-story addition to the Del Norte County Historical Museum. The lantern room wasn’t so lucky though, as the helicopter, carrying it, approached the coast too low allowing the room to crashed into the beach. While the dome was not badly damaged a new lantern room had to be reconstructed.
The tower stood neglected until 1988 when members of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society began work to acquire and restore the lighthouse. Del Norte County had previously obtained the lighthouse from the Bureau of Land Management and have leased it to the preservation society since 1996.
Saint George Reef Lighthouse was relit as a private aid to navigation on October 20, 2002, the 110th anniversary of the first lighting.