website stats
Interview with Dennis Powers
on Sentinel of the Seas

1. How did you become interested in writing this book?

My last book, Treasure Ship, was about the loss, search for 125 years, and eventual discovery of the gold-bearing steamship 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 peacetime maritime accident, 225 people perished within hours. The front-page newspaper accounts across the country headlined the news of the great loss and personalities onboard. This story included that a remote lighthouse, St. George Reef Lighthouse, somehow had to be built there and operated in seas that unexpectedly rose stories high within a few hours.

As I was working through the historical files on Treasure Ship, I found myself spending as much time pouring through whatever existed on St. George—the distant, dangerous station built in response to that tragedy on a desolate wave-washed rock hit by the ocean on all sides. I discovered that the two stories intertwined about the courage shown, hardships, and changing of eras. It was an easy decision to write Sentinel of the Seas.

2. What was the construction like of this lighthouse? 

When Alexander Ballantyne built Tillamook Rock Lighthouse off the Oregon coast, he proved that building on a challenging, wave-washed site twelve miles from the closest port was feasible. The U.S. Light-House Board then 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 that first winter in 1883, 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 finally complete the lighthouse, a massive medieval-looking structure that towered above the rocks. It was the most expensive, remote, and dangerous lighthouse built. Over the years, men died in its operation.          

3. What was the researching and writing like?

I poured over the Del Norte County Historical Society’s voluminous files in Northern California about St. George Reef Lighthouse, including its historical, one-of-a-kind records. This information was added to the accounts over time of newspapers from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco and Los Angeles. From the San Francisco Maritime Museum and National Archives in Washington, D.C. to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on the East Coast, marine historians and librarians added to my growing stacks of information. I searched for all that I could find about lighthouse life, the risky construction of St. George, and the station’s history.

As with Treasure Ship, I found the anecdotes from those associated with this story to be quite interesting and gave balance to the story. Coast Guardsmen who lived and operated St. George told their tales of what life was actually like. From trying to survive the tumultuous storms that swept in and isolated this reef to the antics of young crewmen, the lives of these keepers were not for the weak of heart. I then found and worked in stories about what life was like on other lighthouses, the courageous accounts of women and these “keepers in skirts,” and the tales of the ghosts that haunted the sentinels.

4. You mentioned the role of women with lighthouses.  Could you comment more on this aspect of your book?

Women lighthouse keepers were far more numerous than is commonly known. Where families were allowed, the wives of keepers always assisted or took over responsibilities and duties. More than 250 female wickies over time either worked alone running a station or were officially appointed as an assistant keeper with their spouse.

The first woman to serve at an American lighthouse was Hannah Thomas, whose career at the Massachusetts Gurnet Point Light lasted for ten years from 1776 to 1786. During this time period, she tended to four flat-wick lamps, each having four large wicks. The lamps burned whale oil, which required replenishing them up to three times a night, not to mention the daily wick trimming, cleaning, maintenance, and emergencies—day and night, week after week, without relief. 

From Katie Walker (Robbins Reef Lighthouse in New York Bay) and Ida Lewis (Lime Rock Lighthouse on Rhode Island) to Harriet Colfax (Lake Michigan) and Emily Fish (Point Pinos on the Monterey Peninsula in California), many others followed her lead in manning lighthouses on both coasts and the Great Lakes.  Fascinated by these accounts, I set down their stories in Sentinel of the Seas. 
5. And you included stories about ghosts?
Every lighthouse has its own mysteries, strange stories, and peculiar ghost in residence. No other structure built creates the strange sounds, sights, and experiences of a lighthouse, especially when on a long, spiraling staircase at night, a moaning breeze whirls around your face and you hear the sounds of the surf crashing far below. Howling winds in lonely towers by the ocean create weird noises by themselves, not to mention shadowy nights with a full moon shining through windows, as you walk alone up a creaking stairwell. Echoing voices and squeaking window frames, slamming metal doors, flashing lights, and unexplained reflections all create their special effects—especially when isolated for hours in a dark place—even if at first someone doesn’t believe in ghosts. After researching and writing about these stories, it became hard for me to disbelieve them or explain away how these strange happenings actually occurred.   
6.  What stands out to you about St. George?
I became entranced by the stories of the men who built and then operated the lighthouse on this dangerous wave-washed spit of rock—and the risks of that work. The construction was difficult enough, but then St. George had to be operated and maintained against the onslaughts of typhoons and Nor’westers. Marooned with others in tiny rooms for weeks at a time, a keeper had to be mentally strong to overcome the close quarters, shrill 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 the men held captive inside. 

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 freshwater, food, and supplies 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 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. During one storm, a monstrous 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 above the reef.


© 2005-2014 Dennis Powers All rights reserved.
Maintenance & Development: iOR Consulting & Design
Music: Justin R. Durban