Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is interviewing Dennis M. Powers, author of “Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous 제주독채민박 Lighthouse Ever Built.”Dennis Powers is an avid historian of nautical life. He is the author of “Treasure Ship” and “The Raging Sea.” His new book, “Sentinel of the Seas,” is about lighthouses and more particularly St. George Reef Lighthouse located off the California coast. He spent five years meticulously researching this subject.
Tyler: Hello, Dennis. Thank you for joining me today. I’d like to start our conversation by asking how you became so interested in writing this particular book.
Dennis: My last book, “Treasure Ship”, was about the loss, search for, and eventual discovery of the gold-bearing steamer “S.S. Brother Jonathan”. In 1865, the large sidewheeler struck a seething reef inside Dragon Rocks off the Northern California coast and sank in forty-five minutes. In the West Coast’s then worst maritime accident, 225 people perished in those raging waters. Newspapers throughout the country headlined the news of the great loss and famous personalities onboard when that vessel went down. A remote lighthouse somehow had to be built and operated there in seas that unexpectedly rose stories high within short hours.
As I researched the stories for “Treasure Ship”, I found myself spending as much time meandering through whatever files existed about St. George Lighthouse. This was the distant and dangerous station built in response to that tragedy, constructed close to the disaster site on a desolate wave-washed rock hit by the ocean on all sides. I discovered that the stories of courage, hardship, and the changing of eras of both were intertwined.
I became entranced by the stories about the men who built and then operated the lighthouse on this dangerous wave-washed spit of rock–and the risks of the work. The construction was difficult enough, but then it had to be operated and maintained against the onslaughts of typhoons and Nor’westers. Marooned with other men in tiny rooms for weeks at a time, a keeper had to be mentally strong to overcome the close quarters, shrill ear-piercing foghorns, and sense of isolation, especially when the whistling winds powered the ocean into office-building-high crests that battered the man-made structure and men held captive inside. It was an easy decision to write “Sentinel of the Seas”.
Tyler: That certainly is understandable. What an exciting if risky life, and you describe it so vividly. Could you describe for us what the construction of the lighthouse on St. George entailed?
Dennis: When Alexander Ballantyne built Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, another engineering feat located off the Oregon coast, he proved that building on such a challenging site twelve miles from the closest port was feasible. The U.S. Light-House Board next placed him in charge of building St. George. From his diary, detailed notes, and reports on the construction of these structures, I realized that he was one of the very few who was up to such a difficult task–and the hardships started at the very beginning. A howling Nor-‘wester with massive waves, shrieking winds, and stinging sheets of spray twice forced the first construction expedition to turn back to its San Francisco homeport.
After horrifying experiences with more monstrous storms during the first winter, Ballantyne and his crew learned to adapt to these deadly forces of nature. They had to. Each spring, the workers had to rebuild what the tumultuous ocean had later wrecked before they could restart construction. Storms and seas washed men away, whether they were working, sleeping in quarters eventually built on the rock, or running to avoid rogue waves. From the explosive showering of blasted rock bits and drizzling rains to running out of food and drinkable water, the conditions that these workers endured were hard and terrifying.
Ballantyne and his men had to be inventive in surmounting the elements–and they weren’t always successful. Years passed before their efforts could sufficiently overcome those hardship conditions and complete the lighthouse, a massive medieval-looking structure that towered above the rocks. It was the most expensive, remote, and dangerous lighthouse built–and men died in its operation over the years.
Tyler: What made the operation and construction of this lighthouse so dangerous?
Dennis: Owing to the ever-present dangers, the Light-House Board didn’t allow families to live there, as distinct from nearly every other lighthouse. Located miles off the coast, supply boats had to bring fresh water, food, supplies, and medical equipment to the rock, and the only way to land or leave St. George was by a derrick and a stories high, wind-swung ride. While the seas could be rising or falling as much as fifteen feet, the operator had to hoist small launches by a hook onto the reef or lighthouse. Danger was always present. In the early years, keepers died and others became seriously ill. Among the eighty men who served over a forty-year period between 1891 and 1930, sixty-seven resigned or transferred to another station.
Coast Guardsmen had to land on the reef to physically remove more than one keeper who suffered a mental breakdown. Accounts maintain that one or two lookouts simply disappeared after the seas crashed over the reef. During one storm, a monstrous 160-foot-high wave crashed over the lighthouse, totally inundating it and the men inside, pouring ocean inside while shattering windows in the uppermost lantern room that was fourteen-stories high above the reef.
Despite this precarious state of affairs, keepers returned to live on this station. They preferred this life, even to the less isolated sentinels that were on land. Life at lighthouses on the coast was easier, as wickies could have their families with them, school their children, raise sheep or cows, have pets, and tend to flower and vegetable gardens. The differences in these types of lives are interesting, and I was able to bring this into the book.
Tyler: You mentioned Ballantyne’s diary above. Did other men at the lighthouse keep diaries or other first person accounts of their experiences? What would a typical day be like for the men at the lighthouse?
Dennis: I was fortunate in tracking down the descendants of the old keepers, as well as interviewing Coast Guardsmen who served in the 1950’s, and their stories are in the book. The days at St. George were best described by one who said, “We could have days of routine or fun followed by the sudden appearance of absolute terror.” Depending on the weather, the men took shifts working on the equipment, maintaining the lighthouse lamp (or light), painting, refurbishing, repairing, and working to keep the sentinel in good order. It was difficult to have a social life, as the lighthouse was located miles from land and gales could storm in to cut off any contact with the outside world for weeks. Life on this lighthouse was very misleading:
A keeper could be preoccupied with his work, and then suddenly a stories-high rogue wave could be steaming towards him with only seconds of warning. Landing supplies and crews was also a dangerous undertaking and this required the lowering of boats into a maelstrom of tides and rip currents. Men died and were severely injured–or simply disappeared during a sudden storm. Despite this, some keepers stayed for years, preferring the savage beauty of the sea and this station’s isolation. “Sentinel” goes into details of these stories, ranging from the characters that lived there to what they enjoyed in this adventurous life at sea.