Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

The Hard Life of a Point Reyes Lighthouse Keeper

By Dewey Livingston · September 07, 2018

Visitors to the Point Reyes Lighthouse <span>&copy; Jack Mason Museum </span>

Visitors to the Point Reyes Lighthouse


Point Reyes Lighthouse in 1990 <span>&copy; Dewey Livingston </span>

The Point Reyes Lighthouse built in 1870 is currently undergoing long-needed repairs, and is closed while work progresses. In its honor, we publish here a short excerpt from Dewey Livingston’s upcoming book on the history of the Point Reyes and Tomales Bay areas. We join the story after much effort and time has been put into building and establishing the light station, with a look at life on the Point in the early days of operation.

 The lighthouse keepers’ routine involved tending, maintaining and repairing the light and fog signal, cleaning and painting, keeping daily logs, hauling supplies from the dock at Drakes Bay, traveling to the post office (initially at Olema, later on the much nearer F Ranch) and visiting neighboring ranches. Keepers worked double watches, one at the light tower and another at the fog signal; they endured battering winds, rain (and heavy fogs could be as wet as rainfall), and the constant blasts of the fog signal. Sometimes the weather made it impossible to climb the stairs back to the residence, so a sleeping room was built below. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that men “have occasionally to prostrate themselves during the passage [up the stairs], making the best of their way between gusts, so furious is the sweep of the wind.” Not surprisingly, there was frequent turnover.

Until the Service built two cottages for assistant keepers in 1885, for fifteen years the head keeper lived with his three assistants. The terrible weather—hard winds and long periods of fog—the incessant fog whistles and sirens, the hundreds of steps to and from the houses, and absolute isolation grated on many of the men, leading to difficulties in the household.

One particularly bad seed was third assistant J. D. Parker whose stay, in 1875, was marked with insubordination and neglect. He disobeyed his head keeper, William Wadsworth, misused and tampered with the fog signal, failed to start it on foggy days, and often didn’t even show up for duty. Perhaps the last straw was when the crew of the light station attended a Christmas Eve ball at a nearby ranch. Parker, according to historian Anna Toogood, “burst into drunken song to entertain the guests, and to Keeper Wadsworth’s disgust, vomited in front of the company.”

The next year a pair of assistants threatened Wadsworth with violence, refusing work they didn’t like.

Alcohol was prevalent, with one keeper rumored to drink the lamp alcohol when the booze ran out. A news item noted that “a familiar sight to the ranchman was this genial gentleman lying dead drunk by the roadside, while his horse, attached to the lighthouse wagon, grazed at will over the country.”

Work down at the fog signal was particularly hard. Beyond the hundreds of steep steps to the lighthouse were several hundred more to reach the signal building where the steam apparatus was quirky and dangerous. A visitor in 1887 wrote that the foghorn “made night and day alike hideous…. The blast alone, which lasts five seconds and recurs every seventy seconds, is enough to drive an ordinary man mad.” After 176 hours of continuous horn blasts during a foggy spell (the signal was not needed when the weather was clear), “the jaded attendants looked as if they had been on a protracted spree.”

Cases of insanity and violence were not unknown. Occasionally an assistant would disappear for days, or never return. However, some found solace in poetry; one keeper named Chamberlain composed a haiku-like verse in the official keeper’s log:

Fog fog and nothing but fog

had no mail since 9th instant

getting short of provisions.

Then he quoted from eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper:

O solitude where are the charms

   That sages have seen on thy face,

Better dwell in the midst of alarms

   Than reign in this horrible place.

Society friendship to love

   Divinely bestowed upon man,

O had I the wings of a dove,

   How soon would I taste you again.

A San Francisco Chronicle reporter visited the light station in 1887 and noted the hopeful strains of the Point Reyes poets:

It is a lonely vigil, disposing one to serious meditation. The various ways in which the different watchers beguile their time, the books they read, the impressions made upon them by the weird and awful nature of their surroundings, are matters of interest to the philosopher. The first assistant has embodied his emotions into verse. It was the writer’s good fortune to hear these poems read by the author under particularly favorable circumstances, and to the little group of listeners their quaint charm will long remain an impressive memory inseparable from the scene.

Despite the harshness, Point Reyes often enjoyed beautiful weather, sunny and still; the green season provided spectacular contrast between the fields and the deep blue of the ocean, and the views to the Inverness Ridge were fine. A man could forget his troubles fishing in the ocean or lagoons, or even hunt with permission of the landowners. Tourists began frequenting the lighthouse after the railroad reached Tomales Bay in 1875, and the connecting stage services found the lighthouse a popular destination. “A large crowd of Inverness campers paid the lighthouse a visit lately,” reported the Sausalito News in the summer of 1890. “They were all received at the beacon light, and were much pleased with the courteous treatment extended to them.”

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