At the beginning of our tour through Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City, Calif., docent Bonnie Tichenor asked us to be silent and listen to the wind roaring outside. The world has changed in so many ways since the first oil lamp was lit at this coastal station in 1856. But the sound of the wind connects yesterday to today.
On this gusty June day, I wondered how all the former lighthouse keepers at this site were not driven mad by the persistent furor. Did they wear earplugs? How often did they ask themselves why they had taken a job at this wind-blown outpost?
What: Battery Point Lighthouse planning a visit to the Crescent City
Where: Crescent City, Calif.
When: April through October, when tides permit
Cost: Tours cost $3 for adults, $1 for children
For more information: 707-464-3089
"They definitely didn't do it for the money," remarked Tichenor, noting that the first keeper at Battery Point earned a paltry annual salary of $1,000 from the U.S. government. The pay was reduced in later years to $600 because of federal budget cuts.
Kept company by some wind-gnarled trees, the lighthouse sits atop the small island called Battery Point. It is accessible only at low tide, when the receding surf exposes a bed of rock and sand suitable as a walkway.
A tour of the facility takes visitors through the parlor, a bedroom and the kitchen — each room furnished and decorated according to Victorian taste. Of course, no visit to the station would be complete without climbing the spiral staircase to the tower for a panoramic view of Crescent City and the ocean, as well as a close-up look at the Drumm lens. An older and larger fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display on the main level of the lighthouse.
Fifteen different keepers were assigned to this station prior to automation of the light in 1953. Arriving at their new home with their possessions in tow, they faced the challenge of having to lift their bed and dressers up to the second storey and through their bedroom window. The narrow stairway made it impossible to carry large furniture through the house.
The keeper lived close to his work. He could simply open his bedroom door and climb the stairs up to the big lamp. Tending the light meant supplying it with oil, cleaning soot from the lens and keeping the lamp rotating properly so it beamed its signal every 15 seconds.
Because he could reach the light without stepping outdoors and braving the elements, the Battery Point keeper had it easier than some of his fellow watchmen up and down the Pacific coast, who lived in separate quarters from the lighthouse itself. Also, unlike those who manned very remote stations, he enjoyed the advantages — a social life, neighbors, a nearby school for his children — of working within a populated area.
His kids, who probably did not consider themselves so fortunate, were tasked with chopping wood, as well as feeding and milking the goats. When they left for school in the morning, they realized they might have to stay in town overnight if the tide came in.
"Imagine the girls trying to walk across the rocks and sand in their long dresses," Tichenor said.
The longest-serving keeper at Battery Point, John H. Jeffrey, began his tenure in 1875 and stayed until 1914. He and his wife, Nellie, raised four children while living at the lighthouse.
Jeffrey was there, in 1879, when a ferocious wave jumped the point, crashed into the kitchen and knocked over the stove. The fire that ensued was extinguished a few minutes later by another rogue wave. That was the good news. The bad news: that second surge of ocean water was so powerful that it carried the kitchen away with it.
Jeffrey also was there in 1907 when a bathroom was added to the house. Before then, the keeper and his family used outhouses, which periodically got toppled by waves.
Jeffrey had passed away long before the most famous event in Crescent City history struck: the deadly tsunamis of March 28, 1964, which killed 11 people while wiping out 29 city blocks. Remarkably, the lighthouse was untouched by the raging waters, though the volunteer keeper on duty that night reported looking out the window and seeing mattresses, parts of houses and cars being swept into the ocean.
"In case of a tsunami, the residents know to go to high ground — or to the lighthouse," Tichenor said.
These days, volunteer keepers apply up to two years in advance for a month-long stay. They live in the lighthouse while maintaining the grounds and conducting tours. The light still functions as a navigational aid, but the Coast Guard has turned stewardship over to private hands.
When planning a visit to the Crescent City beacon — the closest lighthouse to the Rogue Valley — be sure to call ahead (707-464-3089), because hours vary. The lighthouse is open only when the tide permits, April through October. The tour costs $3 for adults, $1 for children.
Don't forget to bring your windbreaker.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.