Northcoast Lighthouse Tour

February 27, 2007 11:00 pm

By Nicholas Grube

Triplicate staff writer

Like Dead Heads, sports junkies and big-wave surfers, there is another group that travels the county – sometimes the world – in search of fulfillment. But this particular segment of people's solace is not found in traveling with their favorite band, riding a gnarly wave or watching a game at every Major League Baseball stadium. No, these people are not searching for California's best burrito, either.

Rather, there is another obsessive group, one that frequently comes to Del Norte and Curry counties.

Following a path of light, these people are drawn to the edges of the earth, searching for a beacon that will guide the way.

"I know there are people that take their vacations for one purpose: to see as many lighthouses as they can see," St. George Reef Lighthouse keeper Glenn Williamson said.

"They'll ask you where you can get this stamp," he said, referring to lighthouse passports issued by the United States Lighthouse Society.

These passports, with a similar appearance to U.S. passports, have four panels on each page for stamps. The entire book holds a total of 60 stamps. When a person fills their book with stamps – retrieved from each individual lighthouse they visit – they can send them to the Lighthouse Society and receive a patch that states, "I have seen the light."

"There are us nuts all over the United States," local lighthouse aficionado and President of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society Guy Towers said. "There are people who travel just to visit lighthouses."

"I've been involved with lighthouses for more than 20 years now," Towers said, and he has visited 30 to 40 beacons. However, he will never "see the light" because he doesn't collect stamps.

He said he first encountered a lighthouse in 1968 while on a Lost Coast backpacking trip with his brother, when they stumbled upon the abandoned Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

"I discovered a whole world," he said. "The history, the architecture just fascinated me."

"One of the elements that personally appeals to me," Towers said, "is that lighthouses are the most altruistic structures ever built because they are designed to protect everybody. It doesn't matter your race or creed."

But Towers is definitely not alone in his passion for lighthouses.

"The more you do research, the more you'll find out that there are thousands of us around," Towers said.

Battery Point Lighthouse keeper Randy Ansley knows this first hand, even though he's only been the caretaker since October.

"There are definitely lighthouse groupies," he said, adding that thousands of people visit Battery Point over the course of the year, many of them lighthouse obsessed.

"People love to come in and tell us about all the lighthouses they've been to," Ansley said. "It's kind of like a fraternity."

Battery Point Lighthouse

This is perhaps the most visible lighthouse in Del Norte County, and it's not because 20,000 candle power lights emit from its lantern.

"It's an icon to the town," said Ansley, who's a volunteer caretaker. "Everybody in town loves the lighthouse."

Battery Point Lighthouse can be found all over town, he added, even in people's homes or on their desks at work, in a picture frame or as a miniature replica.

As one of the earliest lighthouses in California, Battery Point helped guide the way for the gold rush. Its light was first lit on Dec. 10, 1856 and has had an active lighthouse keeper ever since.

Ansley said a unique aspect of this type of lighthouse is that it's typically found in New England.

"It's called a Cape Cod," he said. "The advantage is that the light is in the house itself." It was a good design for coastal lighthouses, he added, because it kept the keepers out of the harsh elements while tending their duties — which proved to be quite an advantage in 1964 when a tsunami ravaged Crescent City and left the lighthouse and its keeper relatively unscathed.

To visit Battery Point, which is an island, people must wait until low tide to walk across a sea bottom path. The lighthouse is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. between April and September.

St. George Reef Lighthouse

"It's one of the most significant lighthouses in the world," Towers said, calling it an amazing feat of engineering. "Constructing a building like that in a spot like that is phenomenal."

St. George Reef Lighthouse is a 15-story tall granite beacon standing six miles from the Crescent City shoreline.

"The special thing about the St. George Reef Lighthouse is that it's an offshore lighthouse," said Towers. "These (offshore lighthouses) are very, very special because they have to stand up to the beating of the oceans."

St. George Reef is also the most expensive lighthouse ever built.

"It's quite a lighthouse out there," Williamson said. "It's the most expensive and it took 10 years to build."

Williamson said it cost only $400,000 to build the Statue of Liberty, but nearly $715,000 to build St. George Reef. Both were built around the same time, the 1880s.

You can view the lighthouse from Point St. George, which is north of Crescent City, or, if you have the money and the stomach, you can fly to the resilient structure on a helicopter. The St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society offers helicopter tours from October to June. Flights are $170 per person and must be scheduled through Towers. His phone number is 707-464-8299.

Pelican Bay Lighthouse

Driving over the Chetco River at night, you will see houses illuminated in the hills, but there is only one overlooking the Brookings Harbor that you can see from 12 miles away.

The Pelican Bay Lighthouse is in the private residence of JoAnn Cady – a widow whose husband, Bill, grew up in a lighthouse – and it is the newest lighthouse operating on the West Coast.

"It started because my husband loved lighthouses and was raised in lighthouses," Cady said. It was in 1990 that he did something constructive with his love, and added a lighthouse onto his home. In 1997, the Cadys moved, leaving their house behind but taking their lighthouse with them.

Since the lighthouse is a private residence it is not open to the public, but it can be seen 141 feet above the Chetco River from the Brookings Harbor. But this doesn't mean that no one will ever see the inside of Cady's home.

"Someday we'll probably do another tour, but because it is my home I can't do it all the time," Cady said.

Cape Blanco

The last lighthouse along the trek up Hwy. 101 is also one of the most scenic – and dangerous.

"Cape Blanco has a beautiful tall tower and is in a beautiful setting," Towers said of the Port Orford, Ore. beacon, the last you'll encounter in Curry County.

In a 30-year-span, 1889 to 1919, 67 people were killed near the cape, the most tragic being the J.A. Chanslor shipwreck that killed 36 people in 1919.

Cape Blanco also holds the distinction as the westernmost lighthouse in the Oregon and is the holder of three other state records for lighthouses. It has the highest focal plane at 256 feet above sea level and is the oldest continually operated light in the state. This structure also had the first woman keeper of a light, Mabel E. Bretherton, who began her work in March 1903.

People can tour the lighthouse Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. between April and October.