Northern California Lighthouses

In April, 1999, Betty traveled by small plane along the Northern California coastline from Point Sur to Point Cabrillo, north of Mendocino. She took over 500 35mm Fujichrome and 6x7 Provia transparencies, on assignment for a tourism magazine called California Seasons. Below is the introduction to the article along with two images made with her 6x7 Pentax: Point Reyes (above) and Pigeon Point (below).

Article and photographs © Betty Sederquist. All rights reserved.

From the air, the shoreline of northern California presents a vivid profile. Wrenched and split by earthquakes, pummeled and carved by storms, fangs of rock and detritus from unstable cliffs along our state's fabled coastline await unwary ships. On a clear day, the rocks and reefs grab the eyes of airplane sightseers, but from sea level the hazards are more subtle. Especially on this coastline's frequent foggy days, those dangers can be invisible until the moment reefs shred a ship's hull.

Before lighthouses and ship-guidance tools like GPS navigation came along, ships' navigators guiding their ships in low-visibility conditions were forced to grope their way along the coast using dead reckoning, a nautical term for educated guesses that make use of compass headings, currents, winds and traveling times. Occasionally, guesses were off, with fatal results: shipwrecks have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives.
And so along came lighthouses. In 1853, the firm of Francis A. Gibbons and Francis Kelly was awarded the contract to build California's first seven lighthouses. The first West Coast light beamed in 1854 from the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. By 1858 16 West Coast lighthouses led ships to save haven. Eventually some 40 lights guided ships in California.

In the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, a Fresnel lens perched in the top of each lighthouse augmented the feeble light of candles or a kerosene or sperm-oil lantern enough so that the beam could guide ships that were miles away. Invented by French physicist Augustin Fresnel in 1822 and manufactured with the help of French laborers-including poverty-stricken Parisian children-each lens consists of more than a thousand pieces of glass. The largest, called first-order lenses, can spread six feet in diameter and loom up to ten feet tall; a sixth-order lens, the smallest, stands only 16 inches tall. Endless polishing of this glass was a huge task for old-time lighthouse keepers. Today, low-maintenance airport-type beacons have replaced nearly all the Fresnel lenses.

Lighthouses were of course built on the most inhospitable stretches of coastline, places where storms, fog and rocky shores traditionally do their worst to unwary seafarers. Veteran seaman and Point Pinos lighthouse keeper Bruce Handy says, "Lighthouse locations were chosen by sea captains. They were about 50 miles apart, and more frequent in congested shipping areas."

One of the state's most dangerous hazards to navigation is St. George Reef, summit of an underwater volcano six miles offshore near Crescent City. In 1865 the sidewheel steamer Brother Jonathan slammed into the reef in heavy seas. The ship sank in minutes, with the loss of nearly 200 lives.
Obviously the reef needed someone to stand guard, but for years building a lighthouse was considered impossible. Then, in 1882, master lighthouse builder M.A. Ballantyne was given the go-ahead to build a lighthouse here. Ten years and more than $700,000 later, the 134-foot-high lighthouse was completed. Not only was the lighthouse the most expensive ever built in America, it was considered the most dangerous as well; several lighthouse keepers were killed while traveling to and from the treacherous reef. In 1951 three Coastsguardmen drowned when waves swamped their launch. Finally, the Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse in 1972, replacing it with a buoy. The Del Norte County Historical Society Museum now displays St. George's Fresnel lens.

Storms do their best to obliterate lighthouses. Dating from 1856, Battery Point, also near Crescent City, sits about 45 feet above the sea. Battery Point now hosts some 10,000 visitors a year, says Larry Schnider, who shares the lighthouse keeper job with his wife Nancy. Captain John Jeffrey took over the light in 1875 and with his wife Nellie and their children lived there for 39 years. In 1879 a huge wave dislodged the wall of their kitchen and knocked over a lighted stove. Flames engulfed the room, but a second wave quickly put out the fire. The 1964 Alaska earthquake sent tidal waves that engulfed much of downtown Crescent City. Fortunately, the waves hit the lighthouse at such an extreme angle that the lighthouse was spared.

A huge wave, too, once slammed into 128-year-old Trinidad Head Light, about 50 miles south of Crescent City. On December 14, 1914, one of the largest storm waves ever recorded smashed into the lighthouse, situated on a cliff 196 feet above the ocean. The wave broke windows and, until the lighthouse keeper quickly intervened, briefly stopped the mechanism rotating the light.

Fortunately, however, the Pacific Ocean usually lives up to its benign name. On such golden days visitors marvel at the lighthouses' intricate lenses, soaring architecture and tales of hardy lighthouse crews. They learn-with the help of hundreds of dedicated members of local lighthouse preservation groups-that lighthouses have an importance much greater than that of little buildings with a light on the top. Lighthouse keeper Bruce Handy tries to explain some of the mystique from a seaman's point of view: "The lighthouse is the last thing you see of your home port. And it's the first thing you see when you return." Because of Handy and other folks who passionately care about our California lighthouse past, it's possible to tour some of California's great guiding lights.