Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cape Mendocino Light

Location: off Shelter Cove near Point Delgado,Humbolt County, California.
Directions: Cape Mendocino’s Lighthouse tower can be seen in the coastal community of Shelter Cove, 24 miles west of Garberville. Take the Redwood Drive exit from Highway 101 and look for road signs to Shelter Cove, the King Range National Conservation area, Redway or Briceland. In Redway turn west onto Briceland Road to Shelter Cove Road. Follow Shelter Cove road to Upper Pacific, it’s a tee junction. Turn left onto Upper Pacific, then make a right onto Machi Road. You will see the lighthouse from the road. The journey is very rugged and isolated. Set aside about a 90 mins to 2 hours for the journey from Garberville and back again. The lighthouse is open to public, when I visited on the Sunday it closed around 4:00 pm. I read that if you call (707) 986-1611 you can your lighthouse passport signed if no one is at the lighthouse.

Year first lit: 1868
Automated: 1951
Deactivated: 1970s (Old)
Foundation: Concrete
Construction: Cast Iron
Tower shape: white 16-sided Pyramidal
Original lens: 1st order Fresnel lens (Ferndale)
Characteristic: white flash every 30 s.
ARLHS number: USA-129H
USCG number: 6-0515
Markings/Pattern: White
Relationship to Other Structure: Separate

This part of the journey commenced on Sunday after my return trip to the Table Bluff lighthouse. It was also my part of my long drive home. I was somewhat satisfied and also dissatisfied with crop of pictures I took. Knowing I had not got the best of shots and yet with the weather conditions as grey as they where, I accepted the limitations of my environment. My mind had reached a peaceful state, not encroached upon by the pressures of the world. I wondered if I could have lived the life of a monk. I felt I could live without people, how sad is that, Barbara Streisand had a song that had a line “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world”. Strange thoughts when you are alone with yourself, almost as if you where high on drugs. All this natural beauty was so intoxicating, I could feel myself being overwhelmed. At times I just had to pull to the side of the road and snap a few pictures. This Gods country and I have no doubt about it.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse was relocated to Shelter Cove, a small community on the California coast. Garberville is probably the closest town of descent population size; it was a fair journey from Eureka. I drove South 101 to Garberville. Saw the last of the old town in Eureka in my rear view mirror, worth the visit just for the quaintness of small towns. Played my iPod and listened to a wide variety of music as I travelled south. I argued with myself about visiting Punta Gorda, but with a troubling knee and being on my own, reason won out and it was unto Cape Mendocino. The big trees and the vastness of the mountains constantly assailed my vision, to my left, my right, in front and behind, I was buried in green, my favorite color and lost in nature. I felt I was in Gods hand, and He was loving on me. I took the Garberville exit to which is the turn to the ocean and Shelter Cove from 101 and headed towards Briceland. I made a small stop on the edge of Garberville, pulled out my netbook, posted on twitter & Facebook, sent an email or two, had a cup of coffee and continued my journey.

Small Towns are wonderful and picturesque, artistic building from the past, main streets well defined and locked in an endless time zone. Could I live up here, not sure, definitely need to spend more time travelling these back roads. It could be the beginning of a new adventure. What I am now aware of people in the suburbs lock themselves in their homes and don’t venture out. This is like living in a luxury prison. Big Stores, fine dining and even appreciating the finer things of life is not where fulfillment is at. I know when I came back from this expedition I had a tough time adjusting, my heart longs to travel here again.

The Avenue of the Giant Redwood trees, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, every turn in the road, the road narrowed, and the trees grew larger and larger, at times the sky was blocked from view. Every so often, my eye would catch a glimpse of some animal; I was never sure what it was. After Briceland I came to a junction that put me on the road towards Shelter Cove. I was no sooner on this road when I crossed a small bridge and came to a clearing that was breath taking. I pulled my SUV into the clearing and grabbed my camera and started to take some shots. God was painting in light before my eyes, and my camera could not catch the range of light. After 20 mins I got in my SUV to resume my journey. It took me about 90 minutes driving on these mountainous roads with uncertainty and 45 minutes on my return.

Eventually I arrived at Shelter Cove, I was famished. It looked so tranquil and had the feeling of being in a resort town of Ireland, Ballybunion or KilKee. The people looked so laid back as if they where separated from this mad world and did not care if it existed outside of their community. The lighthouse is located near the southern end of the cove and is clearly visible from the road. I drove straight to the parking lot in front of the lighthouse. Sitting outside the entrance to the lighthouse was 2 ladies, manning their chairs while sunbathing and chatting about the local events. It was around 3:00 pm and I was informed if I wanted something to eat I better do it now, a younger woman, a daughter of one of the ladies worked in the café, just a stone throw from the lighthouse, introduced herself and said she was on her way back to the café. I followed her and ordered myself a cup of coffee and fish and chips. I said outside in the glaring sunlight, with a small breeze, watching a lazy old dog sleeping under a table. The fish and chips tasted great, it was probably the best fish and chips I ever had.

After I finished eating I made my way around the harbor, watching the boats coming in and the people cleaning their catch for the day. I made my way back to lighthouse, spoke to the two female docents and they gave the rundown on the lighthouse and how it wound up in shelter cove. They also informed me that during the winter they get cutoff from the outside world, and even with an SUV you cannot get in or out, and at times you are without electricity and communication. One of the ladies informed me that her husband was from the west of Ireland and had immigrated to United States, and how they retired to this cove. Its amazing what people is willing to share and how friendly they are. I must record some of these conversations and start taking names. She was very interested in my lighthouse blogs and who knows she might be reading this. But I did envy her way of life that day in the cove. Beach front property, green rolling hills, warm blue waters, a gentle breeze and as she basked in the hot sun, what a day to relax. I took my pictures and with a melancholy heart made my way back to Garberville and the long journey home. My weekend trip had ended, but I will be back, planning my next trip in October.

You can not help but enjoy the fabulous 360 degree panorama of, fir trees, deer, mountains, beaches and surf. Not to mention the Pacific Ocean. The area is an eco-tourists dream.


Mid 1800’s Navigating the Californian Coast was quite treacherous. At the westernmost point on California coastline lays Cape Mendocino, it is considered to be one of the most deadly areas for ships. It was evident that a lighthouse was needed to guide merchant ships up and down the hazardous coast.

1867, Sept 14th, the Shubrick a lighthouse tender was heading north with building materials for Cape Mendocino when it was shipwrecked near Punta Gorda, 30 miles to the South. The captain ran her a ground saving lives but loosing supplies. A few months later the building materials and men where successfully delivered and had to be hauled up a steep slope to the site where the lighthouse was to be constructed.

1868 The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Station was quite large, comprising 171 acres. a 2 story brick light keepers house, a barn, and a carpenter’s shop where completed at the site. At a height of 422 feet above the sea, and 200 yards down a steep cliff, level plateaus had to be carved out to provide a site for a concrete slab to hold the light tower. The tower panels was constructed in San Francisco by Joseph Bein, 16 iron panels where put together and bolted to a concrete pad at the platform in Cape Mendocino, The 43ft tower with its double balcony (design was like Point Reyes) was one of the highest lighthouses in the United States. It was the highest after the light at Point Loma was moved. The roof of the tower is rounded like an umbrella, The first-order Fresnel lens, which had been sent to Eureka by sea was loaded on wagons and moved overland 40 miles south to avoid the risk of damage to it by landing at the risky cape.

1868,Dec 1, the 1st order Fresnel lens cast its proud beacon 25 miles out to sea, sending out its beam of light, one white flash every 30 seconds, a new sentinel was born.

1870 earthquake brought down the first dwellings and over the next 40 yrs they had to be rebuilt several times due to earthquakes in the area. Battered by winds which often blew down chimneys and broke windows and shaken by earthquakes made life as a lighthouse keeper extremely difficult. Keepers and their families occasionally stayed in the tower or the oil house when their dwellings were damaged by storms. Sleeping quarters were built near the tower so that keepers could remain in the tower if weather conditions were too dangerous to return to their regular quarters, as the winds where strong enough to easily blow a person off the cliff. Due to the nature of steep cliffs enclosing the station, frequent landslides occurred during the wet season. Dwelling floors warped and ceilings cracked. It took 3 light keepers to maintain the lighthouse station.

1873 an earthquake opened the ground just 15 ft from the lighthouse tower. The light keepers repaired the opened crack with concrete.

1881, Inspector Charles McDougal boarded a boat to be rowed ashore from the tender Manzanita; large waves overturned the boat, throwing McDougal and 3 others into the chaotic waters. They drowned, including McDougal, who was allegedly weighed down by a bag of gold coins fixed firmly to his waist that was to be given as payment to the light keepers. The following year, McDougal’s widow was selected as light keeper of Mare Island Lighthouse near Vallejo, a position she would keep for the next 35 years.

1890's Progress eventually caught up to the Cape Mendocino station, a dirt road was built to the station.

1896, the Lighthouse Board said the oil house is "almost uninhabitable on account of its bad and unsanitary conditions”, It was too small to accommodate all of the keepers, an assistant keeper and his family were forced to live in the oil house. It was used as housing for keepers for several more years. During this time inspection reports stated the health of the occupants of the lighthouse station as "poor" or "fair." Due to its remoteness the light station was serviced by lighthouse tender

1905, the Blunt's Reef Lightship was stationed offshore to more clearly mark that deadly hazard.

1906 earthquake did more damage to the Cape Mendocino light station and 2 more buildings had to be added..

1908. The 2 New buildings were built, The head keeper’s house was located 300 ft SE of the lighthouse and 35 ft higher on the cliff. A duplex for the two assistants was built 50 ft farther up the cliff face, on a terrace that was roughly 150 ft north of the head keeper’s house.
Even though most of the land was steep, the bucolic hills did provide good feed, and several keepers grazed cows at the station. Assistant keeper P. Hunter raised ponies on the station for the stage line that ran near the station from Ferndale and Petrolia. Given the rising and falling nature of the landscape near Cape Mendocino, a change of horses needed to be made just 4 miles NE of the station in Capetown. Hunter supplied horses for the stage line until motorized vehicle was introduced. After his side income ceased, he transferred to Punta Gorda to be nearer to his hometown.

1916. The passenger steamer Bear ran aground, the steamer’s lifeboats were used to take people ashore, Due to the hazardous surf, 5 drowned, It was considered safer to head for the lightship. 150 people squeezed aboard the lightship. From there they where safely moved to land.

1926 October, The elevated station proved to be an ideal lookout post for Ships. Light Keeper M. M. Palmer saw the Everett a steam schooner, was on fire. From the Light station’s telephone, Palmer called for help. It was found that the crew of the Everett was overcome by the fumes of the fire’s, when the rescue crew arrived. Palmer was attributed with saving the lives of all aboard the schooner Everett.

1939 The United States Coast Guard took control of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse when the United States Lighthouse Service merged with it. by which time the new caretakers were able to drive vehicles to their remote residences

1951 The light was automated by the uscg a rotating aerobeacon was placed in the lantern room. and the Fresnel lens (1948 according to uscg) was sent to Ferndale, California at the Humbolt County Fairgrounds it was installed in a replica of the tower, During each night of the fair, the lens is lit and sends forth its sixteen beams of glorious light.

1960, the wooden structures at the site burned to the ground to prevent them from being inhabited by squatters.

1971 The rotating beacon was removed from the tower in and placed on a pole farther up the hill. The Light Tower remained - forlorn and abandoned to vandals and the elements. It appeared to be just a matter of time before the old tower would tumble off the cliff and into the sea.

1998, The abandoned lighthouse was slowly inching down the hillside and gradually succumbing to rust until a movement was initiated to save the tower the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society stepped in and moved the tower to Shelter Cove. 1st week of Nov, the Army National Guard helicopter lifted the lantern room off the tower and moved it 30 miles south to Shelter Cove. The lighthouse tower was dismantled numbered, and trucked to a construction yard for restoration. Shelter Cove, was home to a 3,340-lb fog bell, cast at the Navy Yard on Mare Island 1883, used at Alcatraz Island, Los Angeles Harbor, and Carquinez Strait. The Coast Guard finally donated the bell to Humboldt County Historical Society, who gave it to the College of the Redwoods, near Eureka, where the bell is currently on display

1999, the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society had the lighthouse, restored, painted, and fitted with new glass, The lighthouse tower was reassembled at its new location, Point Delgada, Mel Coombs Park, Shelter Cove.

2000 May, after 2 yrs of restoration, the tower was opened to the public. All that remains at the original site is the tower's foundation and a nearby plaque commemorating the lighthouse..

Lighthouses and Lifeboats of the Redwood Coast, Ralph Shanks, 1978.
Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.
Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses (2nd Ed.), Nelson pp. 154-156
California Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones p. 18
America's Lighthouses, Holland pp. 170-171
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