Point St. George Reef Lighthouse

July 31, 2007 12:00 am
 (Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard Service Historian's Office and U.S. National ArchivesPhoto Illustration/ Bryant Anderson).
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard Service Historian's Office and U.S. National ArchivesPhoto Illustration/ Bryant Anderson).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Ashland, Ore. author Dennis Powers' latest book, "Sentinel of the Seas" goes on sale tomorrow.

Two years in the writing and five in the researching, the book details St. George Reef Lighthouse's history. Powers pays tribute to the men who built and operated it, called "wickies" in reference to the lamps they had to light, trim and clean as part of their duties in lighthouses.

He also discusses the women who are part of the nation's lighthouse history.

"I was interested in the roles of women and lighthouses," he said. "They had a role."

Powers is especially proud of his research for the book, noted by Kirkus Reviews in an advance review of the book.

"The old documents were hard to find," he said.

His five-year info-digging endeavor took him from one side of the nation to the other: from Del Norte County Historical Society to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

"I was lucky enough to find people who pointed me in the right direction," he said. "That's why I feel as proud of this book, if not a tad more, as I did of "Treasure Ship."

"Treasure Ship" details the wreck of sidewheel passenger steamer Brother Jonathan.

The earlier novel led him directly into writing "Sentinel of the Seas."

The link is obvious: the steamer sank 45 minutes after taking a direct hit through its hull from one of the Dragon's Teeth—sailors' name for the submerged volcano whose jagged edges comprise St. George Reef. North West Seal Rock, the lighthouse location, is part of the reef.

As the vessel steamed north from Crescent City, a rough North Pacific storm surprised her captain and crew.

The ship, heavily laden with cargo, began rolling in the heavy waves. Seeking a calmer route back to Crescent City Harbor, Capt. Samual J. DeWolf steered his vessel east of St. George Reef.

With no lighthouse to warn him, and no hazardous rocks depicted on his nautical charts, DeWolf had no idea he sailed directly toward the Dragon's Teeth.

Of the 244 aboard, only 19 survived. When the vessel wrecked in 1865, her loss was the nation's worst maritime disaster.

That the tragedy could have been prevented by marking the reef with a lighthouse called out to Powers. He wanted to know how Point St. George Reef Lighthouse came into existence.

"The files and information at the Historical Museum whetted my appetite as I was going into ‘Brother Jonathan,'" Powers said.

Front page newspaper coverage of the 1865 maritime disaster included mention of the need for a lighthouse on the reef. The need for its warning light and foghorn in waters that could rise many stories high in just a few hours was obvious.

And so "Sentinel of the Seas" begins.

Activated in 1892, Point St. George Reef Lighthouse was nearly 10 years in the making, the process hampered by sporadic Congressional funding. The reef's location and rough seas also posed an engineering nightmare.

Without stonemason Alexander Ballantyne, a master craftsman who had discovered how to build Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, the $704,633.78 Point St. George Reef Lighthouse would have been much longer in the coming—if it were built at all.

Scots-born Ballantyne developed a building technique of interlocking hewn stone blocks. It enabled workers to construct a solid caisson and then build a lighthouse tower above it.

Nothing less could survive the violent and unpredictable storms of the Northern California coast.

Ballantyne could not do the work alone. He had to assemble a crew of workers as tough as he was—people who could hack the climate as well as they could hew the stones.

Their living quarters were a vessel anchored to the sea floor near the building site. Simply going to work was perilous: boarding a platform that raced along a cable from vessel to rock, often hitting waves on their way.

The tale is one of human strength of character in adverse circumstances.

"It's a theme I am always attracted by: common people and tremendous valor," Powers said.

Besides finding the documentation he needed, Powers also had to find people who were stationed at the lighthouse, those not in the nearly 50 percent who immediately transferred to other places.

Two were John "Gibby" Gibbons and Don Nuss. Gibbons' two tours of duty totaling 39 months distinguish him as the U.S. Coast Guardsman who served longest at the lighthouse. Nuss, also a Coast Guardsman was assigned to a vessel that frequently landed supplies and personnel to Point St. George Lighthouse.

Powers and his wife, Judy, flew to North West Seal Rock during the research phase. Although a calm day, and accompanied by lighthouse restoration crew members, the place impressed them both.

"It's hard to imagine being in close quarters with the malevolent waters," Judy Powers said.

The couple could only imagine the loneliness and fear that would have gripped the wickies stationed there.

Being alone, hearing the structure's creaks and groans, and watching seas as large as buildings streaming toward the structure, Powers said, would have been different.

Although not inclined toward the supernatural, Powers has felt it touch him in lighthouses.

"I've seen and felt things that I can't explain," he said.

Many men stationed at Point St. George Reef Lighthouse bonded with the structure and its location.

Final lighthouse Base Military Commander, J.W. Sebastian, sums up the link in his final entry in the log book. Sebastian left Point St. George Reef after the lighthouse was de-commissioned May 13, 1975.

"In your passing, the era of the lonely sea sentinel has truly ended. May another nature show you mercy. You have been abandoned, but never will you be forgotten. Farewell, St. George Reef Light."

Perhaps the structure's ghosts live on at the remote location.

About the author

Originally from New Jersey, author Dennis Powers is fascinated with the sea and awed by its power. He changed careers, moving from the corporate world to teaching and writing after the success of several of his books. He and his wife, Judy, live in Ashland, Ore., where Powers has taught business at Southern Oregon University since 1995.

SOURCE: Dennis Powers

To purchase

a copy

•Del Norte Historical Museum, 577 H St.

•#1 Redwood School (at Del Norte Fairgrounds) will have advance copies for sale.

•The Bookcomber, 299 I St.

•Lighthouse Books, 387 M St.

SOURCE: Dennis Powers

To meet the author

•Aug. 11 book signing at Del Norte Historical Society.

•Sept. 13 book signing at North Coast Redwoods Writers' Conference at Del Norte Public Library.

•Sept. 30 book signing at Del Norte Historical Society.

SOURCE: Brian O'Callaghan, Del Norte Historical Society