Saturday, July 24, 2010

Point Piedras Blancas

Location: Piedras Blancas is located on California's central coast, just north of San Simeon. Piedras Blancas Light Station
15950 Cabrillo Highway
PO Box 129
San Simeon, California 93452
(805) 927-2968

Directions: highway 1, 7 miles North of San Simeon and can be seen very easily from the road. Meet at the former Piedras Blancas Motel, located 1.5 miles north of the light station, at 9:45 and depart promptly at 10:00. am Tues, Thursday and Saturday

Latitude: 35°39′56″N
Longitude: 121°17′3″W
Status: Active
Year 1st Constructed: 1875
Year established: 1879
Automated: 1975
Tower Height: 74 ft, 142 ft above sea level., originally 110ft
Tower Shape: Conical with flat top
Original Optic: 1st Order bivalve, Fresnel,
Current Optic: VRB-25
Light characteristic: Flashing white 15s. Visible 25 nautical miles,
Original construction: Brick, Masonry foundation, Classical Revival, Gothic, Romanesque
Color: White
Fog horn: Twin sirens powered by an air compressor ran by 2 18-hp engines housed.
Admiralty number: G3982
ARLHS number: USA-598
USCG number: 6-0265


My Journey began on a Friday evening after work. I left around 5:30 and followed the directions from the GPS. It was a long drive and the weather was bad, rain most of the way. I travelled Highway 101 for the best part of the trip, before heading towards the coast. Foolishly I had not booked a hotel before I left; I was looking for a cheap motel to stay the night. When I arrived in San Simeon I spotted the Best western and thought this would be my best choice. It cost me $269 for the room and in these impoverished times it was one of their last suites available, no recession in this part of the world. Not in the mood to go hunting for a hotel, I took the room.
The luxurious room was situated next to the beach; it had fire place, robes and a great view of the surf on the beach. I slipped off my shoes and made myself as comfortable as possible, retrieved my netbook and made a post on facebook. Opened a nice bottle of Merlot and settled down on the King size bed watched Glenn Beck perform his antics on fox. The glimmer of dancing fire, the warm yellow glow and the background sound of crashing waves in the near distance lullaby me into a light slumberous sleep, every so often disturbed by the sound of the sea as it crashed upon the sandy shores of San Simeon.
It was about 9:00 am when I awoke; I made some coffee and was on my way to the lighthouse. I drove up the coast highway to the Piedras Blancas Motel; which was about 7 miles north of San Simeon. As I drew close to my destination, I observed the lighthouse from my vehicle; it appeared as grand beacon on a cliff edge, its grandeur not diminished, even though head of the lighthouse appeared to be chopped off. I pulled into the motel parking lot and saw that a group of people had already arrived before me. They where waiting for the docent/park ranger to arrive. Around 9:45 am the ranger arrived and gave us a mini lecture about the cold, and harming the Eco sensitive environment. She split us into 2 groups and led us in our vehicles as a caravan to the parking lot of Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.

I decided on using my Canon 5d mounted with a 24-105mm lens and strapped on my knee pads. The air was brisk and fresh and good to breed. After hearing some of the tales involved in restoring the Eco system of this area, I had a great appreciation for the work these volunteers had committed to doing. This area had become a base point for ecological recovery. Manually they pulled by hand plants that were not indigenous to the area. They where protecting the artifacts left by the Indians and did not bring big machinery to disturb any signs of the historic past. As they had replanted the original plants, you got a feeling of what it was like in the 1870’s. Slowly they are restoring the buildings, and even though some of the buildings had been razed or moved, with existing plans they are trying to reconstruct then. Also their work involved in providing a safe haven for the marine life in the area. Many of the coastal areas located in Point Blanca’s region are off limits to the general public.
The tour of the area is circular in nature, bringing you around the surrounding bay, White Rock on one end and the sister rocks at the other end. Beside the plant life we got see sea otters and some elephant seals, the bones of a beached whale, and a walk up the hill to the light station itself. A quick tour of the gift shop with very friendly volunteers and finally we made our way into the lighthouse. The outside structure of the lighthouse was strange in appearance, it had a Romanesque look on its tower, which I had not seen before and the tower looked quiet odd without its lantern tower mounted on top.

Inside the tower is a number of artifacts the keepers used for maintaining and cleaning the lens and for general duties around the grounds. These are contained in glass cases. On display is a variety of lanterns that’s used in the lens and a model of the light keeper in his uniform. We where not allowed to climb the stairs to the top, I got a good view of the ascension to the top of the tower, The stairs was not as steep or as cramped as places like Point Arena. What is missing from the station is the original lighthouse keepers quarters, I hear some of them are in San Simeon and the locals don’t want to sell them back. There is an effort underway to reconstruct the building from the original drawings. I have mixed feelings about mixing original with the newer buildings, its not like you are renovating or preserving something from the past. It could become too superficial.

I did not engage too many people in conversation, I spoke with the person in the gift shop, and she told me the Fresnel lens was located on the Main Street in Cambria. When the tour of the lighthouse came to an end, I made my way back to Cambria and sought out the lens, it was housed in a Lantern tower at the end of Town on the right hand side heading south;The veterans building:  it appeared to be under construction or some form of renovation.

Cambria is a nice small town, has lots of quaint shops and places to eat. From Cambria I headed North and stopped at the Sebastian winery, it also has a place to eat if you don’t mind the wait and a place for some wine tasting. A little further north a good place for viewing Elephant seals, plenty of signs to point you in the  right direction. When I stopped I got see Pelicans, Seals, Squirrels, Pelicans and cranes and a rabbit, plus a nice view of Piedras Blancas. From there my journey carried me North along Highway 1, ragged point a yuppie hangout with good coffee and viewing area, 5 miles North of that is a spot with a garage, restaurant a few whaling boats outside. The people look a bit on the rough side, with their bandannas, blue jeans and rugged appearance. I continued north a long the windy highway 1, at times being scared ½ to death by people coming around the bends on the wrong side of the road.

By late evening I made Big Sur where I stopped to take some pictures of a river, the light was right and I knew where to go. From there it was unto point Sur, where I wanted to photograph the lighthouse from the road, I got my picture. Now it was unto Pacific Grove to get a sunset picture of Point Pinos. I then sat in my MDX and watched the sun go down, looking out unto Gods Coast, I was filled with Peace and tranquility. Now it was time to head home.

1769: Father Crespi journal refers to the Playano's Salinas who lived in the area. Piedras Blancas was part of the Mission San Miguel.
1840: The Point is granted to Don Jose de Jesus Pico as part of the Mexican land grant.
1850: Mexican land owners had to patent their lands in US Courts.

1864: Whaling Station established near San Simeon.

1866 May 22nd Chairman of the lighthouse board wrote to the commissioner of the Land commission to reserve 20 acres on the point for a lighthouse. It worked its way to President Andrew Johnson who approved it
1868: Land surveyed by the US Goverment
1870 San Simeon is a substantial port for the export of Lumber, Mercury ore, Farm Produce,

1872 June 10th Lighthouse board was granted $75,000 by congress to construct a lighthouse to guide the marine traffic. The site picked was Piedras Blancas, named for 3 white rocks just offshore was chosen to fill a gap between Point Pinos and Point Conception.

1873 a complete survey of the site and a map is made

1874 Construction began with 30 workers to build the Tower. Captain Ashley is made superintendent of the site; he had worked on point arena

1875 Feb 15th The lighthouse Tower is completed and a new sentinel Beacon added to the Californian shore. The tower was the 3rd of its kind on the pacific coast. The tower rose 110ft tall and housed a 1st order Fresnel lens, made a Frenchman Henri lapaute. Its focal plane was 141ft above mean water height. A circular steel stairway reached the light and its base was 34ft in diameter. In the center of the lens was ardent vapor light consisting lard oil, later mineral oil with five wicks. The lens was rotated by a clockwork mechanism to flash every 15 secs; the lightkeepers wound a drum every few hours to rewind the weight. The timing had to be adjusted each evening by adjusting the feathering air vanes on the governor. In the same year a 2 story Victorian Building is erected for the light keepers. At first the keepers had to reside in the workers huts. The Lightkeepers building housed 3 keepers and their families. Stephen Morse was the first keeper. He served for 35 years. Supplies were brought to the light station by a lighthouse tender ship 3 to 4 times a year. Kerosene for the light, coal for the 3 families, flour and other station supplies were delivered at a wharf built against the steep ocean cliff on the south side of the point. In between tender visits, a supply ship appeared at irregular intervals

1879: Captain Lorin V. Thorndyke takes over as head keeper and serves for the 27 years
1887: Switch form Lard oil to kerosene. necessitate the building of a fuel house. Highly flammable kerosene had to be stored away from the tower. Kerosene was also used as fuel for the fog station.

1904: $15,000 was appropiated for a fog signal building
1906 An Additional Lightkeepers building is added. And a fog signal building. The fog signal building contained 2 air compressors, an air tank and a 10” dia air whistle
1907: First reinforced concrete building by the goverment for the fuel house.
1908 a concrete fuel oil station is built near fog signal building, it stored highly flammable kerosene. This was for the Kerosene lamp, it consumed 5 tons of kerosene per year, which to be hauled up the stairs to the lamp

1909 a barn/garage was built north of the tower
1916 the rotation and speed of the lens was modified to produce 2 flashes every 15 secs

1939 Coast Guard assumes control of the station; children go to school in Cambria

1949 Jan 1st : A storm damages the lantern room. The lens is removed and the top the tower is capped. A 36 inch rotating aerobeacon replaces the lens upon the decapitated tower. The height of the tower is 74ft. The local lions club rescued the Lens and reassembled it on a concrete pad, where  it remained for the next 40 years

1951 The lens is saved by the Cambria Lions association.

1960 The triplex Victorian house is razed and 4 ranch houses are built for coast personnel. The 1906 dwelling is sold for $1 and moved to Cambria as a private residence

1975 The tower is automated and the light station is unmanned. a 36 inch vertically stacked aero beacon that replaced the Fresnal lens is declared obsolete, The 36 Inch beacon was replaced by a 24 inch beacon. The station is now manned by environmentalists studying the plant life, sea otters, whales and other forms of animal life.

1978 Grounds Leased to the US fish & wildlife service

1990 Norman Francis ex CIA, son of head keeper from 1934-48 led a campaign to protect and restore the lens. The lens was taken to Monterey by the coast guard to be cleaned

1992. A modern lantern room was built in Cambria and now houses the restored lens.

1999 May 31st aerobeacon fails and is replaced with one of less intensity

2001 Oct 12th BLM receives transfer of Piedras Blancas Light Station.

2002 May 25th VRB-25 is illuminated, announces plans to restore the lantern room. And rebuild the lightkeepers building

2006 Students from Grover Heights Elementary school started a fund raising campaign to restore the lantern room

2010 Reconstruction of building next to fog building continuing

For a map of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, click Mapquest.


1. "Point Carbillo," Cora Isabel Owens, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1990.
2. The Keeper's Log, Summer 1999.
3. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.
4. Where the highway ends, Geneva Hamilton, 1874


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