St. George lighthouse basks in spotlight

April 03, 2002 12:00 am
The newly refurbished dome will soon be refastened on top of the St. George Reef Lighthouse. (Stephen M. Corley).
The newly refurbished dome will soon be refastened on top of the St. George Reef Lighthouse. (Stephen M. Corley).

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

The majesty and history of St. George Reef Lighthouse - and the perseverance of the local crew restoring it - is bringing national attention to Crescent City this month.

A History Channel presentation called "American Lighthouses" profiles the preservation effort along with eight other of the country's most spectacular shoreline beacons. The show airs at 8 p.m. April 18.

St. George's story begins the show with dramatic film footage, shot from the air, of the granite lighthouse standing on a small rock island six miles off the coast of Crescent City.

"In doing our research, the interesting thing is that St. George Lighthouse was the most unique and fascinating," said film producer Matt Shelley, who headed up the project.

Shelley's film crew spent two days here filming and interviewing for the hour-long show.

The fact that it's so far offshore and in the throws of sometimes 60-foot seas is enough to make it unique, Shelley said. And the fact that it took 10 years to stack the two-ton granite pieces into its unique design makes it remarkable, he added.

"Most lighthouses are unique in some way, but St. George is different," Shelley said.

The lighthouse was constructed between 1882 and 1892, after the steamer, Brother Jonathan, struck the unmarked reef in 1865 and sunk. Old black-and-white movie footage depicting the wreck of the Brother Jonathan is featured in the program.

During an interview, Sean Smith, president of the Del Norte County Historical Society, shows the interior of the Crescent City museum and artifacts from the shipwreck, which is still known as the worst maritime disaster on the West Coast.

Because so many lives were lost on the Brother Jonathan, Congress released $700,000 to build the light, making the St. George Reef lighthouse the most expensive ever constructed.

About halfway through the hour, the story of St. Georg e's current restoration project was highlighted.

One of the film days was spent on the lighthouse itself while the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society members were doing restoration work.

Guy Towers, Terry McNamara and a handful of other local citizens volunteering for the restoration project were interviewed and filmed last October.

Towers is the president of the preservation society. His underfunded mission to rekindle St. George's life is his life passion, and that point is made clear in the film.

Film footage is also included of the dramatic effort two years ago to remove the beacon's lantern room.

A large helicopter is shown lifting the rusted metal-framed room from the top of the lighthouse, carrying it toward shore and an aerial view of the room crashing and crumbling on South Beach. The pilot came in too low, causing the room to drag on the beach.

Since then, Towers and his group raised money to rebuild the room with a stainless-steel frame and bulletproof glass.

"My hat's really off to Guy Towers. It's just a mind-boggling project and I think the end result will be a great payoff," Shelley said.

"He's not restoring it to be a tourist attraction. He's restoring it as a piece of art," said the narrator of the program.

The program is part of a yearly series called "Save Our History.?"

"The series is a campaign for historical preservation," said History Channel spokesperson Jim Dowd.