Elmer R. Williams had a long and illustrious lighthouse career that started in the days of the old United States Lighthouse Service and continued into the days of the Coast Guard after it took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939.
It seems that Elmer R. Williams started his lighthouse career in 1920 as a 3rd assistant keeper at California’s Point Arena Lighthouse where he was promoted to 2nd assistant keeper in 1921. In 1922 he was transferred as a 2nd assistant keeper to the Table Bluff Lighthouse where he served until 1923 when he was promoted to 1st assistant keeper to serve at the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse where he served until 1925 when he was transferred back to the Point Arena Lighthouse as the 1st assistant keeper and promoted to head keeper in 1935. In 1940 the Coast Guard transferred him to the less desirable Lime Point Lighthouse where he served as the head keeper until the mid-1940s.
In 1976 Jean Rose Williams, daughter-in-law of lighthouse keeper Elmer R. Williams, wrote about the family’s lighthouse life. Following is most of that story now published 40 years after it was originally written, now accompanied by historic photos, some that were recently shared with us by Helen Mauck, granddaughter of Elmer R. Williams.
The job of an old-time lighthouse keeper was a hard, rather thankless one. My husband, Charles Williams, was raised at various lighthouses along the rugged coastline of northern California where his father, the late Elmer R. Williams, was keeper.
Due to the extremely rugged terrain along the Pacific Coastline, some of the stations were accessible only by boat, such the old Humboldt Harbor Light Station where Chuck’s family lived and worked in 1923. Here the Williams children had to walk the seven miles along the spit to attend school in Samoa when the breakers weren’t rolling across the spit. At Humboldt Light, the family was able to get the use of the lighthouse launch, a boat Elmer Williams described as being “a four-knot boat to use against an eight-knot tide” (which meant that, if the tide were moving the wrong way, travel was mighty slow!) to go to Eureka once a month for groceries. And Mrs. Williams got seasick on every trip! They got their mail once a week when a fisherman dropped it off on his way out to sea.
In the spring of 1925, the Williams family moved from Humboldt Light Station to Point Arena Lighthouse Station where they then thought they had it made; Mr. Williams was drawing $600 per year, and they only lived five miles by land from town!
They didn’t have electricity in the station then. The light in the beacon was made from kerosene; this kerosene came to the station by shiploads of five-gallon cans. These cans had to be carried up the steep circular stairway to the top of the 155-foot high tower. It was really tricky to get the kerosene lighted without smoking up the prisms of the beacon. If this happened, a king-sized job was in store for the keeper, cleaning and polishing 1,800 glass prisms on each of the sides, plus the bull’s eye in the center.
In 1928, the government put in electricity for the beacon light only, not for the housing or the Radio Direction Finder (RDF) beacon. Point Arena was one of the first (of four) RDF stations on the Pacific Coast.
“The radio sending set,” Mr. Williams stated, “was automatic.” The government had installed banks of batteries which were used for the foghorn and to operate the RDF in the daytime, and they were recharged at night while the generator was running to operate the beacon light. We could always tell when the RDF was sending, because we lived so close to it that it blocked out everything else on the old battery radio at home. We lost one minute out of every three during the first fifteen minutes of each hour. Can you imagine listening to the radio when, at each third minute, all you got was the letter “G” in Morse Code?
Like in the military, the old lighthouse stations were “spit ‘n’ polish”! “When I was growing up,” Chuck exclaimed, “it seemed like everything in that station in housing as well as in the tower had to be polished: the doorknobs, the plates around the keyholes, the keys, all the faucets in the house, the lamps, and even the oil cans that were made of brass. When we weren’t polishing brass, we were polishing glass, because each house had a sun porch with 168 panes of glass in it. We had to be ready for inspections at all times because, besides the weekly inspections, the District Captain often made surprise inspections. When this happened, the lighthouse tender was flying his pennant, and between then, we had one hour to prepare for him; in this time, even the cookstove (coal burner) had to be polished.”
Electricity was installed in the housing at the Point Arena Lighthouse Station a year after the Williams family had transferred to the Lime Point Lighthouse Station underneath the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Many of the lighthouse stations along the Pacific Coast no longer have personnel manning them; they are on automatic beacons and the ones still manned have taken on a new look: that old familiar row of houses has been replaced with apartment-style housing, but most of these old stations have some real history connected to them.
Contrary to quite common belief, the life of a lighthouse keeper was anything but an easy one. Before the days of radar equipment, there were numerous shipwrecks along the Pacific Coast, and it was not uncommon for the keepers’ children to come upon bodies of sailors along the beaches. It took a certain type of person - of devotion – to be a keeper.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2016 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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