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 Pigeon Point, CA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Overnight lodging available.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: The Carrier Pigeon, a 175-foot long clipper ship with a gilded pigeon as her figurehead, was launched from the shipyards at Bath, Maine in the fall of 1852 and left Boston on January 28, 1853 for her maiden voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco. On the morning of June 6, the vessel was spotted off Santa Cruz, but visibility worsened and shrouded the ship in a thick blanket of fog as the day progressed. That evening, the captain, believing he was a good distance from land, steered his vessel shoreward. Before land was sighted, the Carrier Pigeon struck rocks and quickly began taking on water. 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.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
At least three more ships were lost near the point in the 1860s, prompting the editor of the San Mateo County Gazette to write the following in 1868. "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."

After a struggle to secure property at the point, Congress appropriated a sum of $90,000 for the Pigeon Point Lighthouse in March of 1871. The fog signal and Victorian fourplex were completed first, and the steam whistle, with four second blasts separated alternately by seven and forty-five seconds, was fired up for the first time on September 10, 1871. Torrential rains and difficulty in assembling the spiral staircase, which had been fabricated by Nutting & Son in San Francisco, contributed to delays in completing the tower. After the lantern room was in place atop the tower, the delicate lens was assembled inside, and the light was exhibited for the first time on November 15, 1872, over fourteen months after the fog signal was completed. At sunset that evening, Keeper J. W. Patterson started the brass clockwork ticking, ignited the lard oil in the lamp, and soon the lighthouse according to Patterson was "exchanging winks and blinks with its neighbor of the Farallones."

Pigeon Point's 115-foot tower shares the title of tallest west coast lighthouse with California's Point Arena Lighthouse, and is similar in design to those at Bodie Island and Currituck Beach in North Carolina, Morris Island in South Carolina, and Yaquina Head in Oregon, though the heights of the towers differ. The first-order Fresnel lens used in the Pigeon Point Lighthouse was manufactured in Paris by the firm of Henry Lepaute and is made of 1,008 separate prisms. Revolving at a rate of one revolution every four minutes, the lens' twenty-four flash panels produce a characteristic of one flash every ten seconds. The jewel-like lens was not introduced to lighthouse service at Pigeon Point. It first served in the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (an older tower, not the current tower) until it was extinguished during the Civil War, removed from the tower, and later recovered and transferred to Pigeon Point. 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. In the early 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.

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Buy at Art.com
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."

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 in October of 1924. One of these daughters, Jessie, recalls her father helping her with homework at a small desk in the watchroom as the giant lens slowly rotated just overhead.

In the spring of 1933, 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.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
In 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. The audible fog signal was discontinued in 1976, when modern navigational aides made it unnecessary.

In 1960, the original fourplex, though still in good condition, was razed, and four ranch-style houses were built by the Coast Guard, clearly an aesthetic compromise. A rotating aero-beacon was placed on the balcony outside the lantern room in 1972, and the Fresnel lens was covered. The station was automated in 1974. In 1980, the four generic houses were leased to American Youth Hostels, Inc, for use as economical, dormitory-style accommodations.

In 2000 just as 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.

In December of 2001, two large sections of a brick and iron cornice located high atop the tower fell to the ground, prompting the closure of the tower and the area immediately around its base. The following year, the lighthouse was listed for transfer under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. California State Parks and Peninsula Open Space Trust filed a joint application for ownership of the lighthouse and received the National Park Service's recommendation in 2004. Two non-profits appealed the decision, but Pigeon Point Lighthouse was officially transferred to the state in May 2005. The California State Parks Foundation is currently spearheading a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign, in partnership with State Parks and the San Mateo Natural History Association, to restore and reopen the historic Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

In the summer of 2011, 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 was disassembled and removed from the lantern room on November 12 and 13, and then cleaned and reassembled in the fog signal building, where it is now 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 will be interrupted for a few years, but California State Parks promises the lens will be returned to the lantern room in the future.

Head Keepers: J.W. Patterson (1872), Richard H. Fairchild (1873 – 1875), M. P. Giles (1875), Edward Leedham (1875 – 1877), C. H. Howard (1877 – 1878), H. T. Holbrook (1878 – 1879), George H. Cook (1879 – 1896), John McKenna (1896 – 1901), John E. Lind (1901 – 1910), Carl E. Reit (1910 – 1915), John Nixon (1915 - at least 1930), Gerhard W. Jaehne (at least 1932 - 1945), David L. Nimmo (1955 - 1960).

References

  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.

Location: 50 miles south of San Francisco and 26 miles north of Santa Cruz, next to Highway 1.
Latitude: 37.18171
Longitude: -122.39411

For a larger map of Pigeon Point Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Pigeon Point Lighthouse is located 26 miles north of Santa Cruz and 20 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Clearly visible from Highway 1, the lighthouse is reached by a short drive down Pigeon Point Road. Note that the tower itself and the immediate area around the tower have been closed since December 2001, when two massive chunks of cornice broke loose and fell from the tower.

The grounds of Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park are open to the public during daylight hours, and docents are available Fridays through Mondays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to provide informational talks. An anniversary lighting celebration is held every November, typically on the Saturday closest to the 15th. For recorded information on the lighthouse, call (650) 879-2120.

Reservations at the hostel located next to the lighthouse can be made online or by calling (650) 879-0633.

The lighthouse is owned by California State Parks. Grounds open, dwellings open to hostel guests, tower currently closed.

Find the closest hotels to Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
In recent years, the first-order Fresnel lens has been lit for a two-hour period during the weekend closest to November 15th, the anniversary of the original lighting. During a visit to the event in 1997, they even fired up the old diaphone fog signal, and its booming voice once again rolled out over the waves. The highlight of the evening was the moment when the lens was first illuminated. At that time, a spontaneous, collective "Ahhh" issued from the crowd, as the beams of light from the lantern room penetrated the darkness.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse can be seen in the movie Final Analysis.

Marilyn writes:
If there ever was a seacoast designed for a beautiful lighthouse setting, this is it! Nestled along scenic Highway One, this lighthouse is one of America's tallest. It's a lighthouse made for California!

See our List of Lighthouses in California

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.