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One day in May 1888 (during the construction), everyone took notice of the darkening skies, higher waves, and increasing winds; even when an occasional patch of overhead blue opened up, the angry billowing clouds quickly swallowed it. When Alexander Ballantyne felt the first splattering of cold salt spray against his checks from a crashing wave, he scanned the reef to see how his workers reacted. They were now somewhat used to this, and the men gave quick furtive glances at the ocean and then at Ballantyne. Seeing no reaction from the superintendent, they went back to their work. Ballantyne walked in his usual confident pace to the workers quarters, hands in his pocket, and entered the building. He strolled into the make-shift kitchen and told the cooks to prepare the evening meal a bit earlier than usual. He said there was something about this “blow” that would come sooner and be meaner.

The winds and crashing seas began to pick up, and Alexander noticed that the last inserted rock had masonry pushed out from the sides. He yelled at the nearby workers to remove the excess and protect the concrete seals by anchoring tarps around the cracks, then bracing them with beams and heavy rocks. One particular wave crashed loudly against the reef, and its dark, streaked saltwater and white spray cascaded underneath the worker’s quarters. He shouted out to those still working, “Time to quit,” and told them to relax and enjoy their time off as this day was over. Underneath better conditions, the men would have certainly worked until midnight or later.

All of the door openings were closed after Ballantyne—the last one in—strolled inside. The light of the oil lamps illuminated the building’s stark, rough-hewed timbers, beams, and wood interiors. After the men had eaten their meal of fried meat, beans, hard bread, and coffee, some headed to their upstairs bunks or took out a deck of playing cards. Others joked in small groups or talked about the work they had completed. Lit with fiery matches, the tips of cigarettes and cigars glowed inside the shadowy confines. The stale air from the captured burning whale-oil, cigars, and men’s sweat had a sharp smell, and the haze made it difficult to see clearly. 

Ballantyne stayed at his desk to one side and talked to a few of his confidants about the next day’s work. John Olson had been working closely with the superintendent, and his ability to translate orders to the men brought him to the leader’s side. Although John E. Lind had just started in 1887 on the rock, his steadiness and “quick read” abilities also brought him to Ballantyne’s attention. Men could come to Alexander and talk to him, alone or with others, because the men trusted him and his advice.

The large building thudded occasionally from the crashing surf outside and shook from the howling winds. Despite the smells and smoke, the flickering light from the burning lamps stayed on, because darkness did not sit well with some. Ballantyne and his trusted men walked among the others telling jokes, asking about their work, and telling them that this one would soon blow over.

Alexander was the unquestioned leader of these tough, hard-bitten, grizzled laborers. These men weren’t college-educated “Dandies” with trim beards, a three-piece suit, gold watch, shined shoes, and a bowler hat—but instead unwashed, sunburned, crude-speaking, at times angry, immigrants who could only find this type of excruciating, lonely, dangerous work to earn their living…

As to St. George Reef Lighthouse on this night, no one could sleep or relax.  The deep resonating slams of huge swells shook the entire structure from its walls to the ceiling. Seawater seeped in through roof and window cracks and then drained in rivulets of ocean that ran across the floor. As time trickled agonizingly slow into the early morning, the pounding and shaking from the outside intensified. The deep-resonating thuds of raging seas slamming against the rock kept everyone awake. A surprising silence then pervaded inside, and the walls started to vibrate from the outside. A massive explosion of sounds suddenly surrounded the men, as one man screamed, “It’s here.  We’ll all drown!”

The rushing sounds, vibrations, and sea spurting inside from every crack gave no doubt that a huge wave had engulfed the entire structure. The seething sounds of a great surf withdrawing from the reef sounded from all sides, followed by another strange silence. A huge roar filled the air as if numerous locomotives were exploding past them, and a giant mass of saltwater blasted in through two side doors. Men watched in horror for split seconds as the ugly waters surged toward them. The rushing violent sea was like a five-foot tsunami, sweeping inside and washing men, bunks, bedding, clothing, and furniture in one swirling mess against the large building’s far side. The ocean blew out that doorway and carried several of the workmen—some dumbfounded, others petrified—into the darkness of rocks, while the waters rushed around the reef as if a swollen, salty river had burst its banks.

The men outside held to rock handholds, and the ocean circled down in swirls to the sea. Another large wave washed in, but luckily this one didn’t take any workers along in its swirling rush back. Even though the solid quarters were set against the concrete foundation and pier toward the high end of the reef, these rollers had smashed through the entire building.

Ballantyne’s strong shouts that the worst was over and to get back inside became a rallying cry.  As men staggered back, Olson and Lind started their count. Time passed as the workers came in, one by one. They were lucky this time.

With the news that all were accounted for, the doors were shut and barricades of beds and broken wood held against them. The sounds of frantic nailing and slamming of hammers against wood quickly came, as men secured beams and lumber against the doors. A spare oil lamp was lit, and under its flickering light the superintendent continued to assure his lieutenants and men.

Ballantyne made the following note about this inundation in his journal: “The men’s quarters, although strongly built, was smashed in during a gale about two o’clock one morning in May.” He was impressive with his lack of fear and downplaying of events that ordinary people would find terrifying.  Although some decided that “enough’s enough” and didn’t return the next year, most did—if their bodies weren’t too beaten up. 


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