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Updated 4:46pm - Sep 16, 2014

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Book details building of St. George lighthouse

Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built by Dennis M. Powers (Citadel Press, 2007).

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Russell Long

The turbulent and rock-strewn ocean off the Northern California coast has caused the demise of many ships. The most notable loss locally was the sinking of the side-wheeler steamer S. S. Brother Jonathan. Two hundred and twenty-five people were lost in that 1865 tragedy. Newspapers across the country proclaimed the worst peacetime maritime accident to date and recalled the famous personalities lost with the others on board. The sentiment was that a lighthouse rising stories above the seas was needed immediately.

Dennis Powers, as part of his research for writing "Treasure Ship," a book about the life and death of the S.S. Brother Jonathan, became as intrigued by the St. George Reef Lighthouse as he was with the lost ship. Powers recognized that this dangerous station, built on a wave-washed rock only miles from the site of the disaster, was the response to the tragedy and the two stories became interlocked for him.

Powers delved deeply into the files on the St. George Reef Lighthouse. He absorbed the large file at the Del Norte County Historical Society, which includes one-of-a-kind records. He consulted newspaper accounts from Portland, Ore., to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Libraries at the San Francisco Maritime Museum and the U. S. Coast Guard Academy provided growing amounts, as did the National Archives in Washington, D.C. along with individual librarians and maritime historians.

Thus, the story of the hazardous construction and the danger-filled operation of the lighthouse came together. Located miles from the coast, all necessities for builder and lighthouse keeper alike had to be brought in by boat; fresh water, food, supplies and medicines had to be brought to the reef over seas that often rose and fell by as much as fifteen feet.

Facing the challenge of the wild reef, Alexander Ballantyne began construction of the St. George Reef Lighthouse with the skill that only a proven builder could bring to such an arduous project.

Alexander Ballantyne already had proven himself as the builder of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse in Oregon when he came to the St. George project. On this new job, however, he and his men had to be even more adaptable and inventive to survive the hardships of constructing the most dangerous and expensive lighthouse ever built in this country. Years passed before their efforts were rewarded.

After completion, managing the lighthouse was no less dangerous than its construction. Accounts report that more than one lighthouse keeper simply washed away and vanished into the sea. Of the 80 men serving the lighthouse more than 40 years, 67 resigned or transferred to other stations. More than one keeper suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be removed.

Powers' thoroughness gave him access to Ballantyne's original notes on the construction of both his lighthouse projects. In completing the book, Powers sought out those with special knowledge of what life was like on these lighthouses. Pictures bring immediacy to any book and Powers includes old pictures of the construction and workers on site, equipment and ships used. There are photos of the first keepers all of which add drama and authenticity to the story. "Sentinel of the Seas" is a testimonial to an era in our history, which has come and gone.

Powers also is the author of "Treasure Ship: The Legend and Legacy of the S.S. Brother Jonathan" and "The Raging Sea: The Powerful Account of the Worst Tsunami in U.S. History."

Powers, along with authors Susan Calla, Loren Bommelyn, Sandra Jerabek and Derrick Jensen will attend a book signing at the Del Norte County Library today from 5-7 p.m. The event is open to the public.

 


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