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The Most Expensive Lighthouse (Part 1)



In 1792 Captain George Vancouver, sailing north toward Alaska, gave the name "Dragon Rocks" to a reef six miles west of the nearest land, which he called "Point St. George" and which is now the site of Crescent City's airport. By the time the steam side-wheeler Brother Jonathan foundered on the rocks on July 30, 1865, three months after the end of the Civil War, navigation charts were identifying the hazard by its present name, "St. George Reef." The Brother Jonathan disaster, in which 225 lives were lost, prompted the Lighthouse Board to request funds to build a lighthouse on the reef. It took 17 years for the initial funds to come through and another 10 before the light shone for the first time.

The direct predecessor of the St. George Reef light was the Tillamook Rock lighthouse, which Scottish engineer Charles Alexander Ballantyne completed in 1881 off the northern Oregon Coast. The next year, supported by a $50,000 appropriation from Congress, Ballantyne surveyed St. George Reef and chose the one-acre Northwest Seal Rock as the best construction site for what would become the most inaccessible lighthouse in the United States. The very quality that made the metamorphic rock so desirable as a foundation, its toughness, would also make it a nightmare to drill. However, in one hectic summer season of work, drillers and dynamite-blasters completed the base for the pier. By October 1883, when winter storms forced a hiatus in construction, the previously smooth rock had been sculpted into a stepped pyramid core ready to receive the first granite blocks for the lighthouse base.

And that's where Humboldt County played its part. Ballantyne originally thought granite would have to be shipped all the way from San Francisco Bay. In December 1883 he heard of a source of first-quality granite on Bella Vista Hill, on the north bank of our Mad River, near present-day St. Maru Lane in McKinleyville.

The location of the rock could hardly have been more convenient. Lumberman John Vance had recently completed his Mad River Railroad, from Essex (between Arcata and Blue Lake) across the river to a wharf on the Mad River Slough, taking it right past the Bella Vista Hill. Ballantyne contracted with an ex-captain of the Army Corps of Engineers, A.H. Payson, to quarry great chunks of granite and skid them down the hill to be loaded onto railroad skips. From there they were shipped by rail to the Mad River Slough and then barged, skips and all, down Humboldt Bay to Paysonville.

A plaque (suitably set into a block of granite) at the Samoa Boat Ramp Park parking lot on the North Spit memorializes the site of Paysonville. It's pretty idyllic now, but it must have been a scene of wild activity starting in 1884. Payton employed a gang of Italian stonecutters to offload the raw granite blocks and cut them down to exact size, allowing a tolerance of no more than three-sixteenths of an inch (in tough-as-nails granite!). The finished blocks weighed nearly three tons on average, while the largest tipped the scales at twice that.

Construction on the lighthouse proper began in the spring of 1884. The first batch of a total of 1,339 dressed granite blocks was winched from a ship to the freshly hewn Northwest Seal Rock, where workers anchored the stones to bare rock with brass dowels that measured 2½ inches in diameter. By the end of that construction season, 13 rows had been set in place with sturdy mortise-and-tenon joints.

The saga of St. George's Reef light continues next week.



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