There are not too many 16-year-olds in today’s world that would take a summer job for $1/hour to move a 150 ton lighthouse, but in 1955, Ron Smith did.
Ron spent his entire summer vacation working with owner Robert Hubert to prepare and move the Carquinez Strait Lighthouse from its original position offshore of Sandy Beach Road in Vallejo, California, upstream two miles to its present location at Elliott Cove, or Glen Cove Marina as it is known today.
The lighthouse, operational with its 4th order lens in 1910, served as an important navigational aid at the junction of the Napa River and the Carquinez Strait. To increase its visibility, it was built offshore at the end of an extended pier on a platform supported by approximately 80 pilings. The two and a half story lighthouse was an all-in-one building that boasted a three-story tower and fog signal building, both attached to the graceful keeper residence that housed three keepers’ families in its 28 rooms. It was considered a preferred duty station, and many keepers sought to be assigned there.
Over the course of the next 40 years, the lighthouse served its purpose well until it was decided that it was in need of modernization. In 1951, the pier was extended out further and a simple beacon along with a fog signal was put in place. The Coast Guard additionally built new keeper dwellings on the top of an overlooking bluff, and the unused lighthouse was consequently put on the market for sale, with the provision that it be moved to a new location. But who would want to deal with moving a 150-ton lighthouse?
Robert Hubert was described as a true frontiersman by those who knew him – wild and wooly, a free spirit, and a wide open character 100 years behind his time. He didn’t have a college education, but was gifted with mechanical common sense and good improvisation skills. He also did not dream small. He owned a junk yard in San Francisco, and while not wealthy, had enough money to purchase over 80 acres of land in Elliott Cove with the idea of eventually creating a marina resort there worth $150,000, or the equivalent of $1.3 million today. He also owned heavy equipment, such as a derrick with a boom and a D8 Caterpillar tractor, which he would need in his grandiose scheme. His application was accepted by the Coast Guard, and, for the large sum of $1, he became the new owner of Carquinez Strait Lighthouse. But he still had to move it, and he could not do it alone.
So, in June of 1955, Robert enlisted the help of young 16-year-old Ron Smith, a 10th grade student at Hogan Jr. High who would be entering Vallejo High School the following September. In a recent interview at his home in Napa, California, Ron recalled that he was very capable of doing the strenuous work necessary for the move. “I could lift 300 pounds over my head. I was as strong as I’ve ever been in my life at that time. We were lifting steel railroad iron and railroad ties. We would cut the piling on the lighthouse and then layer the wood ties crisscrossed. We also used 12” x 12” long cedar beams with large wood rollers that rested sandwiched between the beams and railroad steel railing on top of a platform. We would then put a jack and jack it up and go onto the next one. When all the pilings were cut with the chainsaw, it was just hanging in the air.”
The marina at Elliott Cove also had to be prepared. Robert dredged it out and leveled the land base where the lighthouse was to rest. He sunk 54 new pilings and bank supports at the water’s edge. He had already removed the tower and the lantern by the time Ron started, as he knew that the entire lighthouse structure would not fit under the bridge with it attached. Robert showed Ron the disassembled Fresnel lens stored in a shed on the property, but Ron never knew what became of it after the move. Between both locations, it took the two of them most of the summer to have everything in place for the move.
So the next task was to actually find someone to do the transporting. Robert asked several house-moving companies in the area, but most thought him a trifle crazy. He finally happened upon Archie Hanna of Hanna’s House Moving, who agreed to undertake the project. Due to the changing tide height in the river and needing to be able to make it under the Carquinez Bridge with the lighthouse on top of the barge, the move had to happen within a very short period of time at low tide.
On Saturday, August 6, 1955, Hanna and his crew came, and using all of the heavy equipment available plus some that they additionally brought, they pulled the lighthouse across the rollers, off the beams, and slid it onto a 130’ x 40’ flatboat where it was secured with mooring ties for the trip. The barge was then towed by a 600 horse-power tug under the Carquinez Bridge to its new home. Robert later commended San Francisco barge operator, Les Peterson, who handled this part of the operation. The only incident during the actual move happened when a large freighter passed by after the first mile and its wake caused the barge to rock rather dangerously. However, the bay itself was very calm that day, so it settled back down and the trip was completed without incident.
The sea-going mansion was then rolled off the barge in similar fashion onto its new piling platform at Elliott Bay and all present in a congratulatory mood after having successfully completed the first moving project of its kind ever in the Bay area - all within a single day. The newspapers at the time lauded them for having accomplished a seemingly impossible task in giving themselves a “moving” experience.
During the week following the move, the lighthouse was then lowered down and set firmly onto its pilings. The next phase was to begin the remodel of the building, which included new paint both outside and inside, along with major renovations of the interior, but with the cost of the actual move being $5000 - $7000, Robert Hubert was now out of money. He would wait for another two years before starting again on his marina project.
Meanwhile, Ron Smith completed his schooling, and the year following his graduation in 1957 found himself back again in the employ of Robert Hubert to pick up where he had left off. This time he was joined by two other workmen: Juan Vasquez from Mexico and another fellow who Robert called “Slopey”.
Juan was described as being a nice guy and older family man. When Ron asked him why he was there, Juan said that if he had stayed back in Mexico, his family would just eat beans, but now that he was working there, he could afford to buy meat for them.
Slopey, on the other hand, was “a piece of work” according to Ron. He was a sailor who had just gotten out of the Navy and was a crazy driver. He boasted that he could drive from Vallejo to San Francisco in only 45 minutes, a journey that normally took over an hour and a half when the old bridge was in place.
One time he wanted Ron to ride with him, and as they were leaving Glen Cove, there was a side road that he decided to take at the spur of the moment. They were going around 65 mph, and when he made the sharp turn, they did a donut down the road. Ron never rode with him again and is convinced he must have died in a car accident at some point.
In addition to the crew of three workmen, Robert Hubert had drummed up some investors during the interim years. There were at least two Japanese men who Ron saw regularly now: Ittsei Nakagawa, who served as engineer and architect; and Hank Kiyoi, who regularly helped with the work by driving his D4 Caterpillar tractor while constructing the marina.
Ron fondly remembers that there was a slight disagreement over the actual proposed buildings and uses of the property. Officially, there was to be boat harbor, dance pavilion, fishing resort area, restaurant out on the pier, and the lighthouse was going to be used as a hotel. But unofficially, Robert had talked of having a cat house up in the valley behind the lighthouse hidden among the Eucalyptus trees. Ron said that the “old politicians” would come and try to convince Robert to get a liquor license, but because Hank Kiyoi was “straight”, it never happened. The Eucalyptus valley eventually was subdivided into lots and filled in with homes.
So, everyone just worked on completing the marina. There were pilings to be sunk for piers and four boathouses to be built. They used Styrofoam on the underside of the piers to help float them. The boathouses were constructed on a spit of land that extended to the left of the lighthouse and then were lifted up by the crane and set into the water where they were then towed into place on the other side.
Inside the lighthouse, the paint was peeling and it had been badly neglected, but you could still see the beauty from former days in the old tongue and groove wood ceiling. Robert sandblasted it at one point to bring the pattern of the wood grain out. However, he never did complete the plan to use it as a hotel.
After the marina part was finished, it opened for business and was known as Lighthouse Harbor, Inc. In 1961, there were 320 berths for boats from 22 to 54 feet in length. Robert kept it for a few years longer and then sold it. Meanwhile, Ron joined the Navy submarine reserve force in 1963 and served two years active duty on the USS Bream 243 as a cook. He eventually lost touch with Robert, though he said of those former years, “He was like a Dad to me. He was a good guy.” Robert passed away in 1988 in Napa, California.
As for the lighthouse, there was eventually a small restaurant at the corner and a gift shop and cafeteria along with the Harbor Master’s office in the lighthouse building. It was never really utilized nor restored until the present owner, Nima Gabbay, bought it in 2007 and spent the intervening years renovating and revitalizing the entire marina. This included a two-year restoration project that finally returned the lighthouse to its former grandeur, although it is still missing its lighthouse tower and light. As a result of his efforts, Gabbay won the 2014 prestigious national Marina of the Year Award. Glen Cove Marina’s Lighthouse Inn now functions as a wedding venue and the old harbormaster’s quarters have been transformed into a vacation rental. It would be wonderful if the lighthouse could eventually have its tower back so that a light could shine once again from the Carquinez Strait Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 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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