by Pam Ripling
It's Day Two of my 2010 Blog Tour! I'm really mixing it up this year, in an effort to reach all sorts of readers and like-minded people. Here is an updated article about how I discovered the setting for my latest book.
I don’t remember the first time I saw or heard about St. George Reef Lighthouse. I was likely looking at Battery Point Lighthouse (in photo at left) on-line, since we have a funny family memory of staying at the Curly Redwood Lodge in Crescent City many years ago. It was a foggy night, and, well, the foghorn at Battery Point was very efficient. Not only at warning the ships at sea, but at keeping us awake all night long. To this day, my husband mimics the horn with a deep, throaty hum whenever I talk about lighthouses. Which is often.
So Battery Point leads us to St. George Reef. Off shore, six miles off the nearest point of land, the lighthouse sits perched on a wave-washed rock it shares with a large family of seals. Like the similar French lighthouse “Phare de la Jument”, St. George has seen some magnificent waves it its day as well. As I looked at photo after photo, and read about the tumultuous history of this extraordinary beacon, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be out there, all alone, abandoned in that water-locked tower.
Thus began the imagery for my romantic mystery, CAPE SEDUCTION, set for publication this winter. Once research began, I ran across a wonderful resource, SENTINEL OF THE SEAS by Dennis M. Powers, which is the history of St. George Reef Lighthouse. Powers did extensive digging, came up with great stories and photos retelling the life of this mysterious light station.
As my novel required lots of details about the interior workings and accommodations, I contacted Mr. Powers for more information. He kindly referred me to one of the last U.S. Coast Guardsmen to man the lighthouse. John “Gibby” Gibbons was delighted to hear from me, and spent a long time on the telephone describing the engine room, the galley and sleeping quarters. He answered all my questions, then asked for my address. He later sent me this wonderful photo of SGRL taken from a helicopter in the 1950’s, and several snapshots from his years in residence. I am incredibly grateful to this generous man.
St. George Reef Lighthouse has some interesting stats. It’s largely considered the most expensive American lighthouse ever built—$700,000.00—and the most dangerous as well. This direct quote from Powers' SENTINAL says it all: “St. George Reef was the peak of a submerged volcanic mountain six miles off the northern extreme coast of California. Rough weather with howling winds and crushing waves could create mists that obliterated the peaks with great risks for mariners. In 1792 the British explorer George Vancouver had dubbed the reef-strewn area “Dragon Rocks,” and over time the reef became known as St. George Reef, in the hopes “that the dragon might one day be slain.” This is a must-have book for lighthouse enthusiasts.
My novel takes place partly in 1948. I had to know if it would be plausible for a person, a woman in particular, to live alone in a place such as St. George Reef Lighthouse back then. What challenges would she face? Was there electricity? Telephone? Radio? For these answers I turned to former keeper Gibbons, who explained that the station generated its own electricity, both for the living quarters and the light beacon. Large diesel fuel tanks, located outside on the catch deck, were refilled every six months. These tanks were used to fill smaller tanks located in the engine room, which fueled massive generators, keeping the batteries charged. All part of an intricate system for keeping the lights going. Steam engines powered the foghorns.
Gibby mentioned that a bunch of the guys pooled their money for a small television, only to discover that there was no reception at sea. He also described for me the treacherous procedure for gaining access to the rock; small launches would arrive and endeavor to position themselves at the appropriate spot—amid rollicking waves—to be plucked from the sea by the lighthouse’s 50 foot boom. As the waves crested, lifting the boat to its highest level, the mariners had to quickly snag the boom hook with a huge O ring. They typically had 20 to 45 seconds. If they missed, they were at risk of being dashed against the rocks. At best, it took countless, dangerous minutes to reposition for the next wave. Once connected, the boom would swing the launch to a concrete boat deck. The process was repeated in reverse to return the boat to the waters which was even more dangerous. In 1951, a rogue wave slammed into the launch just as it was reaching the water. Three men died.
The keepers at SGRL were clearly at the mercy of the weather. Savage storms and typhoon force winds battered the rock, sometimes for weeks on end. Despite a schedule that provided for ten-day stints at the lighthouse, the men couldn’t count on getting off the rock when high waves blew in and swept against the tower. During the winter of 1955, Coast Guardsmen were shut in for four weeks. Christmas dinner consisted of a can of Spam and crackers!
In the end, I decided that my heroine could, indeed, survive at St. George, but it would be harrowing and dangerous. Just the kind of drama that makes a mystery story a page-turner!
Be sure to leave a comment below and get entered into my celebration contest drawing! You could win a $25 gift card from Barnes & Noble, or 5 ebooks + flash drive from Echelon Press!
Tomorrow's blog stop: Wednesday, Sept 1: Enjoying the Waves with Susan Griscom!
Pam Ripling, who also writes as Anne Carter, is a self-proclaimed Lighthouse Nut and the author of Beacon Street Mysteries CAPE SEDUCTION and POINT SURRENDER, in paperback or for your Kindle; also for your nook, iPhone, Sony eReader and other formats at Omnilit. Visit Pam/Anne at Beacon Street Books.