A former keeper and a husband-wife photography duo will be among the first to tour St. George Reef Lighthouse this season.
Thirty-six people will be ferried to the lighthouse via helicopter on Sunday and will have about an hour to explore the building, said Guy Towers, founder of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society. This includes John “Gibbie” Gibbons, a former keeper who is returning to the lighthouse after 60 years, Towers said, and Sacramento-area photographers Robin and John Redman.
Robin Redman said she and her husband hope to capture “some awesome clouds” and waves as well as aerial and on-the-ground shots of the lighthouse itself.
“We’re really very blessed where Guy has given us carte blanche,” Robin Redman said, adding that she and her husband will be taking Gibbons’ portrait. “We’re going to be doing his portrait up where the beacon is.”
Lighthouse tours will only be offered one day in November, but according to Towers, they will resume again in February, March, and April. The tours pay for the ongoing refurbishing of the facility, which sits six miles off the Del Norte County coast.
“The first trip we weren’t able to organize a work party, but normally we spend three days out there,” Towers said. “Once a month we take a work crew out on Friday and then they work Friday and Saturday and then we have the tours on Sunday.”
Conceived in the wake of the 1865 S.S. Brother Jonathan shipwreck, the St. George Reef Lighthouse warns sailors away from the dreaded Dragon Rocks. It took nearly 10 years to build, was the most expensive lighthouse in 19th century America and saw the deaths of one construction worker and five keepers. Its lantern was lit for the first time in 1892.
Keepers with the U.S. Lighthouse Service manned the facility until 1939 when it merged with the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard operated the station until 1975 when the lighthouse was declared surplus government property and was put on the auction block.
Towers founded the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society as a non-profit organization in 1996. When its members visited the lighthouse that same year, Towers said they found a “complete disaster.”
“The lantern room was cracked, the windows were leaking badly, peeling paint and plaster all over the floors and junk — just stuff that the Coast Guard couldn’t have gotten rid of when they left there,” he said. “We had to go through a bunch of red tape to get to the lighthouse and we have completely taken care of 90 percent of the cleanup.”
The preservation society was kept from working on the lighthouse for about six years, Towers said. This was first due to concerns about potential impacts to Stellar sea lions and other marine mammals and then by the state of California over concerns that the area wasn’t large enough for a commercial helicopter to land, he said.
However, in addition to having lights, electricity and working water, volunteers with the preservation society have repainted some of the rooms and completely rebuilt the lantern room, Towers said.
“We had to tear the original lantern out and had another one airlifted and put in place so we have a functioning light out there,” he said. “The room’s pretty comfortable. The crew sleeps in the keeper’s quarters; we have a fully-functional kitchen.”
According to Towers, the largest project preservation society volunteers are currently undertaking is putting new mortar between the granite slabs that make up the lighthouse.
“Tours are our main source of funding,” he said.
Redman said she didn’t know St. George Reef Lighthouse actually existed until she and her husband visited Battery Point Lighthouse. She said she and her husband will be taking pictures there as well.
Redman said her hope is their photography of the St. George Reef Lighthouse will help the preservation society raise money for the facility’s refurbishment. She said she and John Redman will leave a full set of images with Towers and turn them into greeting cards as well as limited edition prints.
“We’d love for Guy to be in a position to get enough great images for him to do maybe an art auction or some kind of a fundraiser,” Robin Redman said.
Lighthouse tours take off from the Del Norte County Airport in a four place Raven R-44 helicopter. According to Towers, it takes about 15 minutes to get to the lighthouse from the airport. Tours are led by docents throughout the tower.
Flights cost $300 per person, cash or check only. Tours will be offered in February, March and April, weather permitting. To book a tour, call Bill O’Donnell at (707) 442-7873 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the lighthouse, visit stgeorgereeflighthouse.weebly.com.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com .