Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Building St. George Reef Lighthouse: "The Dragon"

Left: St. George Reef, from California & Hawaii Lighthouses: Illustrated Map & Guide, coming in summer 2012.

St. George Reef Lighthouse, in the Pacific about 8 miles NW of Crescent City, CA , remains a marvel of engineering. The construction superintendent was Alexander Ballantyne, who in late 1880 completed the light station at Tillamook Rock, OR (aka "Terrible Tillie") in just 575 days. He brought the job in under budget, which must have brought great joy to the perpetually underfunded Light-House Board.

Perhaps the Board and Congress thought Ballantyne would repeat his performance at Northwest Seal Rock, as the site was originally called. (Later it became known as "The Dragon.") Instead the project ground on from April 1883 to November 1891, delayed by storms and rough seas; but most of all by Congressional penny-pinching.

From Ancient & Modern Light-Houses by David Porter Heap: View from the South-West, showing the Rock as it appeared at the end of the Working Season, and the Method of Landing Men from the Schooner “La Ninfa”.

In a final report dated Jan. 1, 1893, Ballantyne wrote:
In four years only one working season of about one hundred working days was utilized advantageously on the rock. During a part of this four years other attempts were made to work on the rock, but on account of small and insufficient appropriations expensive plant had to lie hired, property and plant which we had and which for lack of appropriations could not be used, deteriorated by exposure, rot, and rust, all of which combined to make the first four years of the work unduly expensive.
Ballantyne also reported:
The weather this season [1889] was more severe than in 1888, but rather an improvement over 1887. The men's quarters, although strongly built, were smashed in during a gale about 2 o'clock one morning in May. No one was injured, but some of the men were washed out of their bunks.
To get a further idea of the horrendous working conditions, here are passages from
Ancient & Modern Light-Houses by Major David Porter Heap, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army (Ticknor & Co., Boston, 1888):
There was much parting of lines and tackle, and the men often had to be taken hastily off the rock just after they had been put on, but in spite of many narrow escapes and some dangerous accidents, there was no serious injury to any one. Work on the north low bench was the most difficult, though it was twenty-five feet above the sea; the men there were almost constantly drenched with spray, and hardly a day passed when the sea did not break upon it at high water.

During a gale on the 29th and 30th of September [1883] stones, over a ton in weight, which had been rolled overboard from this bench, were swept like chips up along its whole length and over again on the east end. On September 10, while two quarrymen were drilling a hole on the lee side, just below the top of the rock, a tremendous sea swept completely over it, washing them down the steep south slopes nearly thirty feet, where they fortunately lodged on the south bench, none the worse save for a few bruises.

Breeches buoy, from Ancient & Modern Light-Houses

At first the men were hauled to and fro singly in a breeches-buoy, but the cage was found much more convenient as it permitted the transport of at first four, and later of six men at a time, and allowed them to easily extricate themselves should any accident happen. The whole arrangement worked perfectly, and by the aid of the engine a round trip, taking off six men, and return, could be made in three minutes. The shore end of the cable being some sixty feet above the sea, and the lowest point of its curve not over fifteen feet, the cage, when released from the rock ran down this slope with great speed. Taking advantage of this, and standing by to haul in with the engine, the men were often taken on board dry, when every sea went over the low part of the cable; such confidence did they gain in this moans of retreat that they did not think of leaving the work till the sea began to run continuously over all the working levels; then, lashing their tools to ring-bolts prepared for the purpose, the cage was put in use and in twenty minutes all hands would be in safety. But one accident occurred with it, and that was the parting of the traveller-rope in a heavy sea just as four men were being swung off the rock, but, luckily, they had only started, and so fell unharmed on the east bench. Whenever the sea would permit, the men were taken to and from the rock in a surf-boat to save the costly item of water and also time. It was extraordinary to see how, little by little, they became more venturesome, till, at the end, they would jump out one by one from the boat, holding to a life-line from the rock, with the sea rising and falling fully fifteen feet on the nearly vertical east face.

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