Those who have served at historic Pigeon Point Lighthouse often return. Somehow, the lofty beacon calls them back, allowing us to share their stories. These “portraits in time” shed new light on what life was like in bygone eras.
Born in California in 1931, James “Bud” Stevens joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1952. After boot camp, he was assigned to the buoy tender Willow which was responsible for servicing all buoys from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. While lighthouses are the most recognizable aids to navigation, a safe system of buoys or floating markers are vital guideposts for mariners too. Those who tend them do some of the toughest work in the Coast Guard.
The tender was also responsible for supplying necessities to lighthouses at remote locations such as California’s Farallon Island Lighthouse. Lying about 27 miles outside the Golden Gate, the stony outcropping was extremely difficult to serve. “We couldn’t land, so we put supplies in a basket, which was lifted by a crane,” Bud declared. “We went out weekly to deliver food. Sometimes we took dogs, and once we even carried a baby.”
The tender also serviced Mile Rock Lighthouse which sits on the southern side of the entrance to the Golden Gate. Perched atop a 30 by 40 foot rock, Mile Rock looks somewhat like a steel wedding cake. “We delivered fuel and water and it was very dangerous to navigate. We had to jump onto the little landing, then climb up a straight ladder to the top,” Bud shrugged. “There was no safety net, so we had to be pretty surefooted.”
Bud remembers seeing the remnants of a World War II vessel that sank near Mile Rock. The Willow was called to spot the area before the sunken ship was dynamited in 1952 as a hazard to navigation. The vessel was the Benevolence, a Navy hospital ship that was rammed by the freighter Mary Luckenbach on August 25, 1950. Eighteen people lost their lives in the collision. “It was eerie. You could see the big red cross on the ship, just under the surface of the water,” Bud recalled. “After she was dynamited, she sank down into 50 feet of water.”
Bud’s next assignment was at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which marks the southern entrance to San Francisco Bay in Pascadero, California, where he served from November 1952 to February 1954. “It was different than being on a ship where we were always on the move,” Bud explained. “We stood watch in shifts and did plenty of maintenance.”
On one occasion, orders were given to prepare for an upcoming inspection of the light station. Bud was sprucing up the lantern room with paint when he slipped on the canvas and dropped the paint can. “It spilled on all the wrought iron steps. It was a real mess. We used kerosene to clean it up,” Bud groaned. “Then, after all our hard work, the inspection was cancelled.”
Bud’s wife, Kay, has her own recollections of Pigeon Point. “We did laundry by starting a fire outside in a wood stove to heat water for the washing machine. There was no dryer so clothes were hung on a line extending down the hallway of the Victorian triplex,” she said. “Since we lived right by the ocean, nothing ever dried fully. Even the car stayed damp. Bud had to wash it down with water and kerosene so it wouldn’t rust.”
Bud and Kay’s first child, a daughter named Deborah, was born at the lighthouse. “We had a lot of good times with the other families who had children about the same age. At low tide, we’d go abalone hunting among the rocks. Once, we found counterfeit printing equipment in a small cave,” Kay smiled. “For fun, Bud would build little balsa wood airplanes and fly them from the top of the lighthouse, but only when the Chief wasn’t there.”
When the couple ventured into nearby Pescadero, Kay shopped for groceries while Bud went for a haircut. “The barber was also a bartender,” Bud laughed. “If he was cutting your hair and someone came in for a drink, he’d go serve him, then come back to finish your hair.”
Perhaps their most unusual experience occurred in 1953. The military had invented a new experimental amphibious craft called the BARC I which sank off Pigeon Point on March 17. Bound from Monterey to San Francisco, the vessel was under tow by an Army tug when it was swamped by heavy waves and towed beneath the sea. Three crew members drowned. “The tires washed up on the beach,” Bud revealed. “They were huge, over nine feet. We couldn’t get over big they were. At the time, we didn’t know that anyone had been hurt.”
Fortunately, most of Bud’s memories of his days spent aboard a lighthouse tender and stationed at Pigeon Point lighthouse are happy ones. At times, he faced his share of danger, but insists he was only doing his duty. “It was a special time,” Bud concluded. “I’ll never forget it.”
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2015 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.