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 Farallon Island, CA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: Thirty miles west of San Francisco a collection of small, rocky islands is found. Discovered by Spaniards, the islands were given the name Los Farallones, which means small, pointed isles. The name of the islands has now been Americanized to Farallon Islands. The largest and tallest of the islands is southeast Farallon, which rises to a height of 358 feet. It was atop this island that the Farallon Island Lighthouse was constructed.

Farallon Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Like most of the early California lighthouses, this light was to be of the Cape Cod design, with the tower protruding through the roof of the keeper's dwelling. However, due to narrowness of the island's summit, only a tower was placed atop the peak, while the keeper's quarters was built on a large plateau on the eastern side of the island. After the tower was complete, it proved too small to house a first-order Fresnel lens, and the tower had to be torn down and rebuilt. Hauling the building supplies up the crumbling slopes was an arduous task. After staging a sit-down strike, the construction worker's pleas were answered and a seasick mule named Jack arrived on the island to help pack the supplies up the steep slope. The lighthouse was lit for the first time in December of 1855.

Even with the light, in 1858, the ship Lucas foundered on the island during dense fog, prompting the call for the establishment of a fog signal. Hartman Bache, who had supervised the construction of the lighthouse, returned to the island and proceeded to build a novel fog signal. Intrigued by a large blowhole, Bache harnessed this natural source of forced air, by placing a whistle atop a chimney constructed over the blowhole. Unfortunately, the high surf needed to power the signal did not always coincide with the periods of dense fog. In 1875, a powerful storm produced a strong surge, which blew the chimney off its foundation and ended the days of the ingenious fog signal. In the early 1880s, a more predictable steam siren was put into service on the island. The signal now required human intervention to produce the blasts of compressed air, and two Victorian duplexes were constructed near the original dwelling to house the increase in keepers, who came to the island with their families.

Farallon Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Life on the islands was difficult. To provide drinking water, a large cistern was built to catch rainwater collected from the roofs of the dwellings. As a storm approached, the keepers would scramble up on the roofs to remove the bird guano and salt residue that would contaminate the water. At various times, trees were planted to spruce up the island, but few of them survived for long in the harsh conditions. Strong gales would pick up small pieces of granite on the island and sandblast the buildings, requiring gallons and gallons of touch-up paint.

On Christmas Day, 1898, Royal Beeman, the eleven-year-old son of Keeper William Beeman became gravely ill. By the next day, it was clear the child was not suffering from simply too much Christmas dinner. Royal’s mother, Wilhelmina, recalled “He was in constant pain, moaning and crying pitifully until I could hardly stand it.” A violent storm had been lashing the island for days, but since no supply vessel was scheduled for some time, Royal’s parents decided the only chance for his survival was to attempt to get him to a hospital in San Francisco aboard the station’s fourteen-foot rowboat that had been rigged with a homemade sail. Royal was wrapped in blankets and oilskins and placed in the bottom of the boat. Assistant Keeper Louis Engelbrecht volunteered to accompany Royal’s parents, and the two-month-old, still nursing Isabel Beeman was the fifth passenger in the tiny ship.

Wilhelmina gave the following description of the passage: “A rain squall came up and rain drops as big as ten-cent pieces beat down on us . . . then the rain changed to hail, and the hailstones clattered down on us as if someone were shoveling pebbles. The sea washed in on us several times and we were all shivering and wet.” Eight hours after leaving the island, they reached the San Francisco Lightship, and the vessel’s pilot boat rushed the company to San Francisco. Despite the heroic trek and the best efforts of a team of doctors, Royal passed away on January 3rd.

In the early 1900s, a radio station was established on the island by the Weather Bureau to relay meteorological data to the mainland. Realizing the prime location of the islands for monitoring ship traffic, the Navy also came to the island and set up a radio station in 1913. In 1939, the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse and when World War II started just a few years later, the population on the island grew to over seventy. After the war, the Navy left the island, but the Coast Guard maintained a presence until 1972. A plaque affixed to the workroom adjacent to the tower notes that the lighthouse was reconstructed in 1969. By that time, the top of the tower and the Fresnel lens had been removed, and an automated aero beacon was placed atop the shortened tower.

Farallon Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy San Francisco Public Library
The Farallon Islands have long been a haven for several species of wildlife, which, for various reasons, have always attracted man to the islands. During the early 1800s, Russian and Aleutian seal hunters established a camp on the island where they harvested hundreds of thousands of seals for their fur and meat. By the mid 1800s, the seal population had been reduced to the point that the venture was no longer profitable, and the hunters left the islands. About this time, the population of San Francisco experienced a growth spurt due to the influx of gold seekers. A few entrepreneurial men set out from San Francisco to again exploit the wildlife on the Farallons. This time the plan was to collect the eggs of the murre, a small seabird, and sell them back in San Francisco as a food source. A dozen of the eggs, which reportedly taste quite similar to chicken eggs, could fetch over a dollar. This enterprise proved quite profitable, and egg pickers were found traversing the island in search of eggs during the egg-laying season, which ran from May to July. Competition for the eggs was fierce, and two men were killed in an armed conflict between rival groups, which has become known as the Egg War.

Some lighthouse keepers, trying to enhance their meager earnings, moonlighted as egg pickers on their own account, which added to the struggle over the eggs. Keeper Amos Clift penned the following to his brother in October of 1859: “The egg season is in the months of May and June, and the profits of the Company after all expenses are paid, is every year from five to six thousand dollars. Quite an item. And if this Island is Government property, I have a right to these eggs and I am bound to try and get it.” The next June, Clift wrote, “We are now in the midst of the egg season, and the Egg Company and the Light Keepers are at war.” An armed group of eggers soon tried to force the keepers from the island, assaulting an assistant keeper in the process. Keeper Clift was removed shortly thereafter by the Lighthouse Service for trying to monopolize “the valuable privilege of collecting eggs.” Clift probably didn’t miss the island too much as the previous year he had written, “I’m getting awful tired of this loneliness; it is almost as bad as the state prison.” In 1881, the government declared sole-ownership of the island, evicted the egg company, and made egg collecting illegal.

In 1950, census taker Helen Mabbott traveled to Farallon Island where she made $2.31 for counting the island's thirty residents - seven cents a head and seven cents for each of the island's three dwellings. Even with a free trip provided by the Coast Guard, Helen lost $2.88 on the outing after paying for a new par of nylons, a new hairdo, and a cleaner's bill for her coat. If that weren't enough, she suffered two bouts of seasickness and had to climb to the top of the island to interview a coastguardsman at the lighthouse.

Farallon Island Lighthouse was automated on September 1, 1972, but Coast Guard personnel remained on the island for three months to ensure the automated light functioned properly.

Today, the wildlife on the Farallons attracts a friendlier group of visitors to the islands. Resident researchers, who occupy one of the keeper's dwellings, study the bird life on the island, while others man a lookout at the lighthouse and boats offshore to study and observe the great white sharks and giant blue whales that frequent the waters. Since the island lacks a good harbor, a large crane is used to launch a small boat to retrieve visiting biologists brought to the island aboard larger vessels. Just getting out to these remote islands is adventure enough, but couple that with a crane ride and one would have quite the journal entry.

Head Keepers: James Powers (1854 – 1855), Nerva N. Wines (1855 – 1859), Amos Clift (1859 – 1860), Jacob Decker (1860 – 1861), Thomas Tasker (1861 – 1871), James McCumber (1876 – 1873), S. H. Morse (1873 – 1874), E. R. Barnum (1874 – 1878), William Windsor (1878 – 1880), W. C. Partlow (1880 – 1881), Andrew W. Livingston (1881 – 1883), Thomas Owen (1883 – 1886), W. H. Rugg (1886 – 1887), Henry W. Young (1887 – 1890), William A. Beeman (1890 – 1900), Cyrus J. Cain (1900 – 1905), Charles S. Kaneen (1905), Henry Rosendale (1905 – at least 1912), John Kunder (1915 – 1920), John Kunder (at least 1930), F. W. Ritchie (at least 1935), Oliver R. Berg (at least 1940).

References

  1. The Farallones, Sentinel Publications.
  2. The Farallon Islands, Sentinels of The Golden Gate, Peter White, 1995.
  3. The Devil’s Teeth, Susan Casey, 2005.
  4. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.

Location: Located roughly thirty miles west of San Francisco atop Southeast Farallon Island, one of many islands which comprise the Farallon Islands in the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
Latitude: 37.69915
Longitude: -123.00179

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


Travel Instructions: The Farallon Islands are part of the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and landing is restricted. The lighthouse can be seen from whale watching and wildlife tours offered by the Oceanic Society. Trips typically run on Saturdays and Sundays from late May through November and depart from the San Francisco Yacht Harbor/Marina Green, near Fort Mason. Call (415) 474-3385 to make reservations.

The Fresnel lens from the Farallon Lighthouse is on display at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park Visitor Center. The California Academy of Sciences operates a webcam on the island.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard, while the island is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Grounds/dwellings/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Farallon Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Although these rocky islands are light in color naturally, they receive a continual white washing from various species of wildlife. The resulting smell is almost overpowering, and coupled with a long boat ride makes it difficult to consume even the best of brown bag lunches.

The opportunity to see blue whales is an added bonus during the trip to the Farallon Islands. Watching earth's largest animals surface for air was an incredible experience. Their backs seem to go on forever as they rise to the surface.

The islands are also known for the great whites that feed in the surrounding waters each fall. Susan Casey's book, "The Devil's Teeth," is a great way to learn about the island and the great white research conducted there.

Marilyn writes:
This is a once in a lifetime trip -- meaning that you do not need to make it more than once. I was excited to go and am not normally seasick from boating, but the trip was nauseating to say the least with a 30 mile boat ride one way in high waves. Our boat was very large, but several people on our boat were seasick including myself who gagged a couple hundred of times. The highlight was definitely the opportunity to see blue whales in abundance. You must truly love lighthouses to make this trip. Even the Coast Guard people told us that they helicopter out there if they can.

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Pictures on this page copyright Tim Pozar, Kraig Anderson, Lee Donehower, used by permission.