Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pigeon Point,San Mateo Coast

Location: Southern approach to San Francisco Bay, California,on the coastal highway (State Route 1), 5 miles (8 km) south of Pescadero
Coordinates: 37°10′54″N 122°23′38″W / 37.18167°N 122.39389°W / 37.18167; -122.39389
Year first constructed :1871
Year first lit: 1872
Automated: 1974
Keepers dwelling:  
Foundation: Stone
Construction: Brick
Other Structures:
Tower shape: Conical attached to workroom
Markings: pattern white with black trim
Height: 115 ft (35 m)
Focal height: 148 ft (45 m)
Original lens: First order Fresnel lens 1872
Range: 24 nmi (40 km)
Characteristic: Flashing white 10s, Emergency light of reduced intensity when main light is extinguished.
Admiralty number G4006
ARLHS number USA-499
USCG number 6-0320
Managed By


This was the first of the lighthouses I visited with my brother Eddie. I had been here many times before. It was one of my favorite places to photograph. The first time I came with Eddie, Jamie and Catherine, we had a fun time looking around, admiring the coast and generally taking in the sights. We had used it to break away from the mundane world of cares and sorrows. For me this part spiritual. To ignore creation and its beauty is really to ignore the great Artist God is. We are granted the ability to see color of blue in the sky, green in the ground, aqua in the waters. To feel the rush of air, or to hear the crashing cymbals of the waves as they rush headlong into the rocks upon the seabed.

Pigeon Point was the catalyst, as I said to Eddie lets photograph the lighthouses in California. His youngest daughter Jamie was excited. I watched as her interest grew. She started to collect shells, observe seals, and recollect stories from what she had learnt on filed trips for school. Each trip she became a treasure trove of information.

This trip we where least prepared for. No Coffee or picnic basket. We had to drive down the coast to find a restaurant. We found one a few miles away. We got back, spent sometime wandering about. Went into the gift store and spoke to the lady behind the counter. She said I should comeback in Nov 15th for the lighthouse lighting, she maintains its a special event. There is a nice hostel on the grounds of the lighthouse and a place to look out at the sea. Plenty of places for good photography. Anyway that's an early splurb about how we began this adventure. I am also posting a few pictures on thecareyhouse.net

1853: June 6th. The Carrier Pigeon clipper, a 175-foot long clipper ship with a gilded pigeon as her figurehead, was wrecked on the rocks. The captain and crew made it safely to shore, but the ship was a loss. After offloading a good portion of the supplies, the vessel, valued at $54,000 and still stranded on the rocks, was sold for $1,500. Since the time of the wreck, the point of land closest to the rocks that claimed the Carrier Pigeon has been called Pigeon Point. Previously, the point had been known as Punta de las Ballenas (Point of the Whales) as a whaling station was located nearby or due to groups of gray whales which passed offshore during their migration periods. Several other ships also sank in this area around the late 1860's. Three major wrecks - the American clipper Sir John Franklin in 1865, the British bark Coya in 1866, and the Hellespont in 1868. Forty-nine lives were lost in these three wrecks
1868: the editor of the San Mateo County Gazette wrote. "Pigeon Point is the most extensive promontory on the coast south of the Golden Gate, and which point seems especially adapted for a light-house. No other one place on the Pacific Coast has proved so fatal to navigators as this locality, and it behooves those most interested in maritime affairs on the coast as well as in the East to bring their influence to bear immediately upon the government officials, and never relax their efforts until a light-house is erected at Pigeon Point."
1870, the government purchased the Pigeon Point and Año Nuevo sites for $10,000. The owner, Loren Coburn, was a "shrewd, unscrupulous businessman whom many people disliked." (Perry, p. 26) He and his brother-in-law, Jeremiah Clarke, tried to sell the land for $40,000, but settled for $10,000 when the government threatened to condemn the land
1871: March, after a struggle to secure property at the point, Congress appropriated a sum of $90,000 for the Pigeon Point Lighthouse
1871: The construction of the lighthouse at Pigeon Point began; the nine-foot first-order Fresnel lens used at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was shipped to Pigeon Point. The concrete tower stands 115ft tall and appears as a brave sentinel looking out to sea. The walls of the tower are 4.5ft thick. It has a separate inner and outer wall; this provides insulation for the interior ironworks against corrosion. Pigeon Point is one of the tallest lighthouses in America. In early morning, midday or late evening the tower exhibits its glory against the blue skies of the San Mateo coast.
1871: September 10th.The Victorian fourplex building for four families and the fog signal station was completed, The steam whistle, with four second blasts separated interchangeably by seven and forty-five seconds gaps, was fired up for the first time. The steam whistle operated an average of 900 hours per year. The whistle required large quantities of water, collected in nearby rain sheds, to maintain pressure. 500,000 bricks were used to build the tower. it took over a million, the builders rejected the first batch of 500,000 for poor quality. Torrential rains and the struggle in assembling the spiral staircase, which had been put together by Nutting & Son in San Francisco, added to delays in completing the tower. After the lantern room was in place atop the tower, the delicate lens was assembled inside. The small building attached to the base of the tower contains an office on one side and an oil storage room on the opposite side of the central hallway..
1872: Nov 15th Construction was finished and the light was first lit On the top of the Tower.  The The Lens was manufactured by the company Henry-LePaute in Paris, France. The lens was placed in a lantern room that had been constructed at the Lighthouse Service's general depot in New York before being shipped around the Horn. ."Curtains were drawn during much of the day to protect the lens from sunlight, which can yellow the prisms. Pigeon Point has a tradition lighting the light every Nov 15th. 2012 this was discontinued for repairs, the Lens can now be viewed in the foghorn building.
first order 1000 watt Fresnel lens, which has 24 panels composed of 1008 prisms (had to be hand polished), had a 5 wick lard oil lamp. The lens stands 16 feet tall, 6 feet in diameter, and weighs 8,000 pounds.
To create Pigeon Point's given light characteristic of one white flash of light every ten seconds, the lens weighing one ton had to rotate a complete revolution once every four minutes. Once detected from a remote distance, this resulted in the lights appearance of one white flash every ten seconds. The rotation was mechanical, powered by clockworks and forty five lb. weight. As a proud Sentinel Pigeon Point was one of the first lighthouses to guide ships and mariners safely on their journey up and down the central California coast, it was located 50 miles south of San Francisco. Head Keeper: J.W. Patterson,
1873 – 1875 Head keeper Richard H. Fairchild
1875 – 1877 Head keepers M. P. Giles , Edward Leedham ,
1877 – 1878 Head keeper C. H. Howard,
1878 – 1879 Head keeper H. T. Holbrook,
 1879 – 1896 Head keeper George H. Cook,
1883: Besides looking after the light and fog signal, keepers at Pigeon Point also served as tour guides several days a week for visitors who came to get a look at the lighthouse. At least one keeper found some entertainment in this distraction as evidenced by a reporter’s account of his visit to the station recorded in an 1883 edition of the San Mateo County Gazette. "Our escort was of a very talkative disposition and took great pride in dilating upon the wonders of the establishment. As we stood inside the immense lens which surrounds the lamp, he startled us by stating in impressive tones that were he to draw the curtains from the glass, the heat would be so great that the glass would melt instantly, and that human flesh would follow suit; we begged him not to experiment just then, and he kindly refrained."
1888: The lard oil lamp is replaced with a mineral oil (kerosene) lamp.
1896 – 1901 Head keeper John McKenna,
1896: Ships were still sometimes lost near the point even after construction of the light. The liner Columbia ran aground. Residents salvaged materials from the lost ship, including copper wire and white paint. "Soon, every house in the area had copper clothes lines and a fresh coat of paint." (Perry, p. 61)

1900s, a separate oil house, which now contains an historic display on the lighthouse, was built away from the tower as a safety measure for storing the volatile kerosene fuel then used as an illuminant. About the same time, the original signal house was replaced by the fog signal building, which stands today.
1901 – 1910 Head keeper John E. Lind,
 1910 – 1915 Head keeper Carl E. Reit,
1911: The original fog horn ran on steam and was replaced by air compressed siren. The German schooner Triton was lost,
1913: The Point Arena was dashed on the rocks.
1915 - 1930 Head keeper John Nixon,

1924: October. Jesse Mygrants requested a transfer from Point Arguello to a station where his daughters could attend school. The Lighthouse Service complied and assigned him to Pigeon Point. One of his daughters, Jessie, recalls her father helping her with homework at a small desk in the watch room as the giant lens slowly rotated just overhead.
1926: The lighthouse was supplied with electricity. The kerosene IOV lamp was replaced by a 1000 watt bulb. The mechanical clockworks rotational system was replaced by an electric motor.
During prohibition, the isolated coast south of San Francisco became a popular area for bootleggers. They often used Pigeon Point's derrick at night for hoisting crates. A chain was flung over the telephone wires to short the lines and cut off the station - making the keeper's powerless to stop them. Keeper Jesse Mygrants was once forced at gunpoint to drive a rumrunner to town.
1933. Early. Mygrants and the other keepers were using blowtorches to remove old paint from the exterior of the Victorian dwelling when Jesse noticed that one of the nails in the dwelling remained hot long after the removal of the blowtorch. Putting his ear to the wall, he alarmingly heard the crackle of fire. Smoke soon started to issue from the dwelling, and its many occupants began scurrying to remove their prized possessions. The keepers bravely fought the fire until a fire truck summoned from Redwood City reached the station in a record forty-five minutes – a mighty fine time even with today’s improved roads. The damage from the fire was limited to the eastern side of the dwelling, that used by the Mygrants, and though they were inconvenienced for some time, a crew of workers patched up their apartment during the summer.
1932 – 1945 Head keeper Gerhard W. Jaehne,
1935: The siren is replaced by a diaphone.
1939, the Coast Guard assumed control of the station
1943: A radio antenna, which emitted a Morse code signal unique to Pigeon Point, was erected near the tower. The radio signal was eventually synchronized with the fog signal so that a mariner, by measuring the delay between receiving the radio signal and hearing the fog signal, could calculate his distance from the point. Before synchronization of the signals, a ship would use radio signals from multiple stations to triangulate its position.
1955 – 1960 Head keeper David L. Nimmo.
1960: The old Victorian fourplex, though still in good condition, was razed, and four ranch-style houses were built by the Coast Guard, clearly an aesthetic compromise.
1972: the United States Coast Guard attached a 24-inch aerobeacon on the front of the tower and the Fresnel lens was covered up. Seaman Albert Tucker served as the station's caretaker during the late 1970's. He and his wife kept an 800 pound pig named Lester, which proved sufficient to ward off would-be vandals.
1974: The station is automated.
1976: The system is superseded by a silent directional system such as radar.
1980: Four generic houses are leased to American Youth Hostels, Inc, for use as economical, dormitory-style accommodations.
2000: The Lighthouse Inn, a bed and breakfast located adjacent to the lighthouse property, was nearing completion, the Peninsula Open Space Trust purchased the inn and surrounding property. The inn was promptly dismantled and the property returned to a natural state. Thanks to this "undevelopment" project and other purchases by the trust, the area around Pigeon Point Lighthouse should remain in a natural state for years to come.
2001: Dec. The tower was closed to tours due to the breakdown of brickwork supporting outside access metal walkways at the top of the tower. Two large sections of brick and iron fell to the ground. Cast iron was used instead of steel, cast iron soaks up water instead of repelling it like steel, and the walkways became severely rusted, as are the major binding ring bands at the base of the tower! The California State Park system has promised repairs, but it is estimated that even if funds were available, it would be seven to ten years before the repairs would be completed.
2002: The lighthouse is listed for transfer.
2005: May: Pigeon Point Lighthouse was officially transferred to the state.
2010: July, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) through the Fiscal Year 2011 Interior and Environment Appropriations Act, $250,000 will be allocated to restore the upper portion of the lighthouse.
2011: Summer. California State Parks announced that thanks to a $175,000 grant from the Hind Foundation the first phase of restoring Pigeon Point Lighthouse would begin later that fall. The first-order Fresnel lens would be disassembled and removed from the lantern room on November 12 and 13, and will be cleaned and reassembled in the fog signal building, where it will be on display for the public. The $325,000 first phase of the restoration also includes coating iron on the tower with rust inhibitor, repairing broken windows and some other repair work. A complete restoration of the tower, estimated to cost $11 million, will occur when additional funds have been raised. The popular annual lighting of the Fresnel lens is interrupted for a few years, but California State Parks promises the lens will be returned to the lantern room in the future.
2011: Nov. The lens was removed from the top of the tower. The lens on the Veranda at the top of the tower is still an active aid to navigation for ships.
Pigeon Point perched on the cliffs of California, continues to be a tourist attraction. Photographed by hundreds of thousands of photographers, it still exhumes the breathe of days gone by. A rawness lays in its surrounding, one cannot deny the isolation the keepers felt, yet its only a short drive on highway one.

1.      The History of Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Frank Perry, 1986.
2.      Legacy of the Carrier Pigeon - A History of the Pigeon Point Light Station, Frank Perry, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1999.
3.      Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Perry pp. 24, 26, 28, 37-39, 61
4.      Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Nelson p. 79
5.      The Lost Light - The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel Lens, Duffus p. 161-167, 185
6.      The Keeper's Log Summer 2005

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