Very Important Passengers
December 13, 1908, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.
It was the first rattling southeaster of the season, and the rain beat heavily against the resounding panes of the lighthouse which towers above the grim military prison on Alcatraz. Although there was no sun to be seen in the leaden sky, the sundown gun on the fortress bluff below had boomed out the fact that it had set.
in a few minutes night would be settling down over land and sea, and the head keeper, George W. Young (editor's note: cq.), a tall, square man, with a snow-white beard, who, in his seventy years, has wandered to every part of the globe excepting the Poles, was taking up his nightly labors.
It as the first rattling southeaster of the season.Someone famous San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1908.
He ascended the winding stairs of the tower with a step that was wonderful for his age, reaching the topmost point, where the light is, by climbing an iron ladder through a trap door. There is just room enough for one man to move about. The keeper first raised the yellow curtains which cover the octagonal windows of the tower. This action displayed the apparatus which figures its message of warning out over the bay waters at night. Technically it is called a fourth-order light. With its resplendent brass and glittering crystals, which curve in semi circles on either side of two central bull's-eyes, it would seem to be more of an object for admiration than of practical use. In the center of this canopy of crystals sets the lamp.
Removing a covering which shields the apparatus when it is not in operation, the keeper took a small brass lamp from a sideboard and lighted it. "This lamp," he said, as he placed it within the circles of glasses, "ordinarily has the power of a dining-room lamp, but when it gets inside its intensity is increased to 2000-candle power."
"That crystal structure you see," continued the keeper, as he began to wind a small crank, as one might a phonograph, "is operated by seventy-pound weights, which are regulated by clock work. It makes one revolution every thirty seconds, and, as it has two faces, the flare can be seen from any point once every fifteen seconds. The light of the lamp within strikes the concave sides of the crystals, which throw it through the bullseye."
The crystal faces began to revolve slowly around the lamp. A little gleam stole out and then a blinding flash as the bullseye passed squarely before the lamp. Out through the Golden Gate it shot its piercing rays, then swept over in the direction of Meigg's wharf, where the lights of the city were struggling through the gathering murk. As the rays flared off to the Marin side they took in a lonely sentry who was pacing the prison walls in the rain, and beyond a ferry-boat which labored toward the city.
"There are three keepers here," explained Young, when he saw that everything was working properly, but still keeping a watchful eye on the mechanism. "The watches of the night and day are divided, each keeper being responsible for four hours. The apparatus has to be wound up every four hours. The watches are from 6 to 10, from 10 to 2, and from 2 to 6 again, following throughout the day and night. In addition to that, we start our daily work at *:20 o'clock in the morning. There is lots of work to be done around a lighthouse, cleaning, painting and repairing, and the light has to be kept as carefully as a jeweler looks after his precious stones. The man who has the evening watch from 6 to 10 lights the lantern at sundown. The man on the morning watch cleans up, trims the wicks and brightens the lens.
"In thick weather the light is of very little use. No light has ever been invented that will penetrate a thick fog. It is sometimes hard for us to tell when the thick weather sets in because we are so high up here. 164 feet above the water, and the lights of San Francisco and Oakland may show clearly, while below the bay is wrapped in fog. When the fog sets in we put the two bells on either end of the island in operation. They are regulated by electricity and each has a different sound, so that they can be distinguished by navigators.
"The light is of more assistance to deep-water vessels and strangers entering the Golden Gate. Unless the weather is very thick the ferry-boat captains can make their courses by the lights of the island below, and also those on shore.
"When a strange vessel arrives off port at night the captain looks over his chart and studies the entrance. First, he picks up the light at the Farallones, then shapes his course for the Heads. By that time, he can see one light, which carries for nineteen nautical miles. After leaving the Farallones light he makes the lightship light, then he is on watch for the Point Bonita light or the fog signal. When he gets away from the Point Bonita light he has this light to guide him to a safe anchorage in clear weather or relies on the siren at Lime Point in thick weather."
Keeper Young has been in the lighthouse services for twenty-two years. Before taking charge of the light on Alcatraz he was located at Point Reyes, the Farallones and Port Harford. He was with admiral Turner in the Pacific fleet during the Civil War, and served nineteen years in the United States Navy.
"It's a pretty slow life here," said the old keeper in parting, "but when you've wandered around the world for over half a century, it's good to have a snug, quiet berth, and then there are the pleasant memories of the past, which come to you in the silence of the night, out of the twinkling lights of the cities beyond."