About thirty miles west of San Francisco stands the remains of one of America’s most rugged lighthouse outposts, one that most likely will never be saved.
Built in 1855, the once proud Farallon Island Lighthouse was constructed at the highest point of land that rises to a height of 358 feet atop the largest of the Farallon Islands.
From its early beginnings through its last days of serving as a staffed light station, the people who lived at the Farallon Light Station were a hearty breed who experienced everything that life could throw at them. But along with their tragedies and hardships they also had good times, and amazing memories that stayed with them through their lifetimes and, in some cases, were passed down to other generations.
Building a lighthouse at this location, especially back in the mid 1800s, was no easy task on this rocky mountain island. Just getting the men and supplies upon the island was often a nightmare unto itself, a task that fell under the direction of Capt. Henry Halleck of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. There were no safe places to build a landing site, so men and material had to be hoisted upon the island.
Amazingly as well as unfortunately, when the tower was completed in 1853 it was discovered that the first order Fresnel lens destined for the tower’s lantern was too large for the structure and it would be impossible to make modifications. The only solution was to tear the tower down and start over again.
By that time, Capt. Hallack had moved on and the task of rebuilding the lighthouse fell to Major Herman Bache, a man who was familiar with building lighthouses. However, Major Bach faced his own set of problems in building the second structure. At times the construction project was so overwhelming that he often believed the project would never be completed, as did the men of the work crew who had to lug materials up precipitous inclines, some as steep as 65 degrees.
At one point the men working to build the light station got so exhausted from the back-breaking work that they staged a sit-down strike. The strike was resolved when a mule named Jack was brought to the island to lug the equipment up the steep incline to the lighthouse site.
Tragedy and Triumph
The early keepers had a rough and hard life on the island station. Although conditions improved over the years, danger lurked its ugly being at every keeper who ever lived here. As the light station grew in importance, more keepers were needed for the expanded duties, especially with the fog signal system. These keepers brought their families with them, and before long the population of the island expanded.
Probably the most dangerous aspect of life on the island was getting people on and off. In the early years of the light station, two children of the keepers were drowned in two separate incidents while crews tried to get them onto the island. But, this was just the beginning of tragic events that would strike the island settlement.
On Christmas Eve of 1898, Royal Beeman, the eleven-year old son of Head Keeper William Beeman, became gravely ill. With no large vessels in the area and one not due for days, coupled with the fact that a savage storm was smashing the island, there was little the family could do - they were stranded. As the boy’s condition worsened, the family had little choice but make an attempt to get the boy to shore for medical care. At a point when the storm seemed to ease up somewhat, the family made a gamble, one that would not only risk their lives but that of the boy who they were trying to save. The decision was made to launch the lighthouse boat and row to shore, some 30 miles away. However, the boy’s mother, Wilhelmina, who had a two month old child who required nursing, did not want to leave her son’s side.
Louis Englebrecht, the first assistant keeper, volunteered to go with the boy’s father to help row the boat. But the boy’s mother was still insistent that she go, and go she did, taking her two month old daughter, Isabel, with her. Their other two children were left with the families of the other keepers. As the three adults and two children departed the island, the sea conditions were described as rough and windy. Under any other normal conditions, the lighthouse boat would never have been launched in this type of weather.
The two men faced rowing in seas of almost insurmountable forces. During the several hours of rowing, they encountered high seas with heavy rain end everyone on board the tiny vessel was totally soaked and shivering from the cold. But the men continued to row, using every bit of strength and stamina they could muster. Finally and amazingly, after eight long hours of rowing and suffering from near exhaustion, miraculously they reached the site of the San Francisco Lightship. Here they were spotted by the crew of the Pilot Boat No. 11, America, which quickly pulled the five soaked people from the Farallon Island Lighthouse on board their vessel and proceeded at full speed to the mainland. Although the efforts of everyone were valiant, to say the least, the unfortunate child passed away on the 3rd of January.
In 1901 an outbreak of diphtheria occurred on the island. The lighthouse keepers flew distress flags and other signal flags asking for medical assistance, but none of the passing ships saw the flags. Again, the son of one of the keepers died. Later that same year, Diphtheria hit the island again, claiming the life of yet another child; this time it was four-year old Harold J. Cain, son of lighthouse keeper Cyrus Cain. Sadly, the disease struck the island again in 1915, claiming yet another child, Virgil Williams, son of the third assistant keeper. But none of this deterred the government or the lighthouse keepers from having families live on this remote island.
When the Coast Guard took over the duties of the Lighthouse Service in 1939, the tradition of having families live on the island continued. Although living conditions had improved by 1953 when writer John Wesley Noble visited the island, life was not without its incidents. At that time there were ten Coast Guardsmen living on the island – five with wives, two of whom had small children. In a story for the Saturday Evening Post., Noble described his visit.
“The tender Magnolia put me over the side, some 200 yards offshore in a small boat loaded with supplies, and we worked our way to the inlet. Then five sailors grabbed my up-stretched arms and hauled me in, between combers, like a clambering salmon. And though a visitor is worth his weight in gossip, they turned quickly this day to more important cargo. They had not had a boat in eleven days and everyone was “borrowing.”
It seems the most important food staple that was needed on that day was baby food. The Coast Guardsmen had radioed ahead to make sure there was some on board the next delivery ship.”
It had only been four days previously, while a Coast Guard tender sat offshore in rough water, unable to get close to the island, that a helicopter had to be summoned to rescue Joan Rodgers, the pregnant wife of one of the Coast Guard keepers, who had appendicitis and time was critical. No one complained on that day when the helicopter forgot to bring food or mail; saving a life was much more important.
In referring to the Korean War, Barbara Hosmer, the wife of another Coast Guard keeper, told Noble at that time, “Any time we think something like this is bad, we look out to the ships at sea with the young fellows on their way to Korea. We would rather have our husbands’ home, and live with them on an island than to be waiting in some port city for them to come back.”
Christmas time could be especially rugged for the lighthouse families, as was the case in December of 1945 when Christmas looked bleak for the families at the Farallon Island Lighthouse. Coast Guard tenders tried to get close enough to get supplies to the island, but rough seas stopped them with each and every try. Finally, at noon on Christmas day, a Catalina flying boat out of San Francisco flew low over the island and dropped 1500 pounds of supplies, mail, turkeys for the holiday dinner, and yes, even some Christmas trees.
By the 1950s the island had one television set that was shared by everyone in what was called the Barracks TV room, where they also showed films on a movie projector. Amazingly, TV reception on the island was excellent and the picture came in sharp and clear.
In 1903 the Weather Bureau built a station on the island, which was followed by the U.S. Navy that also built its own weather and radio station that, for a while, was the most powerful communication station on the Pacific coast. This was followed by a Navy radio compass station and even more people were assigned to live the island.
The Beginning of the End
Although the Weather Bureau eventually discontinued its station, the Navy began a steady increase of personnel and the building of structures for equipment and housing.
At one point there were so many people living on the island that they published their own newspaper, the Farallon Foghorn. However, as time went on, fewer and fewer people were needed, until eventually the Navy no longer required the use of the island. By the mid 1960s the Coast Guard no longer allowed families to live on the island and eventually automation and modernization caught up to the Farallon Island Light Station.
In 1969 the lantern room was removed from the tower. The original first order Fresnel lens had been disassembled in 1950 and shipped to the Treasure Island Museum; however it is now on display at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The last lighthouse keeper left the island in 1972. The Farallon Islands have reverted back to the wildlife under the overall care of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Since there is really not much left of the Farallon Island Light Station, some have wondered why we would even bother to include the lighthouse on the Doomsday List.
The answer is really quite simple; to help draw attention to lighthouse preservation and why it is so vital to save the history for future generations. But as we said at the beginning of the story, it is unlikely that what is left of the once historic lighthouse will ever be restored.
Additional photos and information about the Farallon Island Light Station can be found in the story “Books and Magazines Were Like Gold” in this edition of Lighthouse Digest and in the story “Old Jack the Lighthouse Mule” that appeared in our February 2003 issue, which can be found on-line at www.foghornpublishing.com in a search in the Explorer database. We would also recommend the 1995 book, The Farallon Islands, Sentinels of the Golden Gate by Peter White.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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