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Toolin’ Around Town: Colin MacKenzie keeps the lights burning

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There is an allure that draws people to lighthouses, those towering conical structures built on rocky outcroppings, coastal bluffs and entrances to bays and inlets worldwide — warning mariners of danger or marking safe passage. Visitors to those historic seafaring monuments often have questions that can’t be answered by docents. But if more of them knew about Petaluma’s resident expert on the subject, Colin MacKenzie — and his lighthouse library stocked with an extensive collection of historical publications relating to lighthouses — they could find the answers to every query.

We learned in school that lighthouses were intended to help prevent shipwrecks, and that their powerful bright light came from a system of focused lamps known as a Fresnel lens. Modern technology has moved beyond the Fresnel lens and the storied lighthouse keeper, to automated lighthouses and GPS. Many of them are preserved as historical landmarks.

In MacKenzie’s research library, I learned Boston Harbor Lighthouse, dating to 1716, was the first lighthouse built in what is now the United States, and that hundreds of lighthouses ringed the country and the Great Lakes area. Locally, despite its lengthy coastline, Sonoma County has never had lighthouses. Marin County has them at Point Bonita and Point Reyes, and Mendocino County has Point Arena and Point Cabrillo.

“I started out by buying everything I could find on lighthouses, a lot of them rare books that are not available anymore,” said MacKenzie, 93, and a 47-year resident of Petaluma. He first became interested in the structures in the early 1960s and has visited and photographed nearly every lighthouse on the west coast.

Because many of his books are rare publications that are practically irreplaceable, he does not loan them out, but visitors may comfortably read them on site. To create his set of books, he borrowed from other libraries, universities and individuals. He produces copies of rare and out of print works by copying the non-copyrighted material and binding it using century-old sewing methods.

His catalog lists over 200 publications available for purchase.

Canadian by birth, MacKenzie’s father belonged to the First Nations of Canada, the predominant indigenous peoples in that country, equivalent to the American Indian, and his mother was Scottish. His family lived near Georgian Bay on Lake Huron where Colin, also known as Growling Bear, began working as a trapper when he was a child. His earnings went to pay his family’s taxes, because most of his father’s work, building houses and boats, was through bartering.

MacKenzie ran away from home when he was 8, heading to Nova Scotia. From there he shipped out as a cabin boy. In 1939, three days after he was accepted into the Highland Regiment of the Scottish Army by lying about his age, war broke out in Europe turning the then 14-year-old into a combat soldier who fought in many European and North African battles. He was discharged after serving for 21 years.

After moving to the Bay Area, MacKenzie, who’s comfortable on water or land, lived on a sailboat on Richardson Bay while working at a Scottish products store. He later bought a sunken military landing craft that he refloated and lived on until he met Harriet, his wife of 45 years, an accountant for Bechtel Corporation. The couple, along with Harriet’s daughter, Mychalene, moved to Petaluma in 1973.

While his wife commuted to San Francisco, MacKenzie became a stay-at-home parent and began accumulating material for his library. He joined the U.S. Lighthouse Society, whose mission is to educate, inform and entertain those interested in America’s lighthouses, past and present. A founding member of Nautical Research Centre and the United States Life-Saving Service Heritage Foundation, he helps preserve the stations, boats and history of the brave men who risked their lives to save shipwreck victims. Many of his clients are involved in the preservation or restoration of old lighthouses.

“This whole operation has kept me alive,” said MacKenzie, motioning toward his neatly arranged compilation of 1,100 volumes. “I’ve never learned to relax. I’ve got to keep busy. It drives my wife nuts.”

An expert who possesses a vast knowledge of the historical structures, MacKenzie’s private collection contains information on every lighthouse in the world. His favorite is in Halburn, Scotland, and his only regret is that he didn’t become interested in lighthouses at an earlier age.

He can be reached at librarian@nrclib.org.

(‘Toolin’ Around Town,’ by Harlan Osborne, runs every other week. You can reach him at harlan@sonic.net)