Letters From Home
June 18, 2014
Thanks to modern technology those of us living out here on this isolated rock are surprisingly well connected to the mainland. Internet beamed 26 miles across the Gulf of the Farallones from San Francisco provide us with access to phone, email, news, weather, entertainment, and even a handy web cam perched atop Lighthouse Hill. So long as the lichen layer on the dishes are kept in check and the gulls don’t block the signal we can keep in touch with family and friends with the click of a mouse. In the nascent years of those who first occupied the Farallones however, communication with shore required significantly more effort than simply opening a web browser.
With the discovery of Californian Gold in 1849, San Francisco was transformed from a sleepy fishing port to a major hub for vessels flooding into the region from all over the world hoping. Hundreds of ships carrying thousands of men were tasked with navigating the many hazards that guard the entrance to San Francisco Bay, specifically the Farallon Islands to the west. Without modern GPS, radar, or navigational aids, these vulnerable vessels were literally sailing blind at night. The solution, lighthouses, a series of them erected all along the west coast during the mid-1800.
The Farallon Light and its subsequent living quarters were completed in 1853, and became operational with the installment of a first order Fresnel lens in 1854. Lighthouses were anything but automated back then. Lighthouse keepers who lived on the island with their families worked in three hour shifts to ignite, monitor, and extinguish the oil lamp, clean soot off the magnifying prisms, maintain working order of the weight and gears that rotated the lens, and above all guard government property from the irritable and often mal tempered ‘eggers’ who cohabitated the island at the time.
Unlike other stations along the mainland, working the Farallon Light had the potential for a rather lonely existence for some. `Written letters were the only form of communication available on island at the time; and with infrequent visits by boat together with a difficult landing, news from home arrived few and far between. The following is letter from a former lighthouse keeper to his brother in 1858, providing a glimpse into what life was like back then.
Farallones Light House Aug. 15th 1858
Dear Brother Horace,
Your letter of July 1stwas sent out to me a few days ago by Sodowick and I can assure you I was glad to hear from you, as I always am to hear from home.
Since I wrote you last I have been to town spending the Fourth with Sod. and setting up the accounts of the Light House for the last fiscal year. The late keeper was a very ignorant man and the accounts were all hurly burly but they are straight now, and correct up to the close of the fiscal year (30th June). We have been having beautiful weather (for the Farallones) for several days past… We are considerably bothered about getting news here as it is very difficult to land. The Island as you are perhaps aware is a high, rugged, and barren mass of rocks in the open ocean. There are but two places where you can land at all, and then only with a small boat in smooth weather. There has never been regular communication with the city except by the boat which brings out our provisions once in 3 months, and the reason has been that the late keeper in the first place could hardly write an intelligible letter, and furthermore if he asked for anything more than the regular supply of oil etc. for the light, he was afraid he would be blamed for being too expensive, but the case is exactly the opposite…Maj. B. told me that he took a great interest in our light etc. (as it is the best and most important on the whole Pacific coast and also the most isolated) and would do all in his power to make us as comfortable as possible, so I hope in future we shall not be bothered so much about getting our letters.
My eyes have not got well yet, but they are much better and I hope they will not plague me much longer. I do not think it is from hereditary causes, and am inclined to believe it is caused partially, if not wholly, from an impure state of the blood. I am now taking some syrup for my blood (which I know is impure) and also using Thompson’s Eye Water. I reduce it one-half and put a few drops in my eyes every night when I go to bed, and it has helped me much, but I expect one great reason why yours are so much inflamed, is looking at the “female form divine”. I presume my eyes would be worse than they are now if I could be at home this winter and go to a few parties and school exhibitions. A great trouble for us, are they not, these women…
Give my love to all the family, and particularly to little Lydia, and believe me, as ever,
Your affectionate brother
Despite our easy access to the digital world, there’s still something special about receiving a hand written letter or care package from a loved one back home. So thanks to everyone who has sent us letters in the past, and please keep them coming.