Visitors picked their way across the tide pools and climbed the short steep hill to Battery Point Lighthouse. But since the museum was closed last Thursday, folks contented themselves with exploring the tiny island instead.
Inside, Keith and Kathie Hammer entertained their friends, Ted and Pat Brown. Soup simmered on the stove and the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the small sitting area the Hammers used as a dining room. In a few short hours, the incoming tide would force the Browns back to the mainland, leaving the Hammers alone until the next low tide.
“Those are my tide rocks,” Kathie Hammer said, pointing at a pair of rocks on the western side of Battery Island. When the incoming tide submerges them, she said, she knows to tell visitors to head back to the parking lot. “People were staying too long. I had to tell them to go or they would have to swim.”
The Hammers have spent the last three Julys as lighthouse keepers, volunteering their time for the Del Norte County Historical Society, which operates Battery Point Lighthouse. Hailing from the Bay Area, Kathie leads the tours while Keith mans the gift shop. But their job doesn’t stop there.
They keep the lighthouse clean, maintain the front lawn and take care of any repairs the 158-year-old building may need. Kathie said it’s also their job to make sure the lantern stays lit.
“If it goes off we have to report it and then change it and report to (the Coast Guard) again,” she said. “We make sure everything looks nice and is safe.”
Keepers have been taking care of Battery Point Lighthouse since its light came on Dec. 10, 1856, said Dottie Nuszkiewicz, chairwoman of the historical society’s lighthouse committee. The position used to be a full-time paid position, but in 2008 the historical society began using volunteers to man the lighthouse on a month-by-month basis, she said.
To become a lighthouse keeper, Nuszkiewicz said, she looks for volunteers who have had careers working with people. They must also be resourceful — things will often break down at high tide when a plumber or electrician can’t get to the lighthouse, she said.
“We ask that two people be there for safety reasons,” Nuszkiewicz said. “They have to like each other because there are times when they are cooped up for a couple of days because they can’t get off the island.”
Kathie Hammer, a retired day care director, considers herself a nautical historian. She said she started a museum at a boat club at the Old Sausalito Ferry, which was founded in 1894.
Hammer said she first visited the lighthouse when permanent keepers still manned the building. When the historical society began allowing keepers to stay at the lighthouse on a month-by-month basis, Hammer said she filled out an application.
“I thought I would love to do that,” she said. “My husband (thought), ‘Oh my God, I’d go stark raving mad!”
The first July, Kathie Hammer said she had to talk Keith into the job.
“He wasn’t sure if we would like it. Turned out we loved it,” she said. “The second year, the people that were supposed to come heard it was haunted and didn’t want to come.”
Even though they are at the lighthouse by themselves much of the time — because of the tides, the Hammers often work with the public two to three hours at a time — other volunteers living in RVs help them daily with upkeep and tours, Kathie said.
“They’ll do the tower,” she said, referring to leading tours. “I’ll do the whole first floor … and then my husband does the gift shop.”
Battery Point Lighthouse was operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service until 1936, when it was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1965. The county took over ownership of the lighthouse in 1982 with the historical society operating the building. The light was reactivated and continues to serve as a private navigational aid for ships and aircraft.
For more information about Battery Point Lighthouse, visit www.delnortehistory.org.