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 Point Conception, CA    
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Description: Most of the California coast runs in a general north-south direction, but along the Santa Barbara channel, it changes to more of an east-west direction. At the western end of this channel, the coast makes an abrupt 90-degree turn northward. This transition point, which some early explorers termed the Cape Horn of the Pacific and where mariners following the coast have to make a severe course correction, was the site selected for the Point Conception Lighthouse.

Original Point Conception Lighthouse
The history of the Point Conception Lighthouse has some striking similarities to the history of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. The original Point Conception Lighthouse was also a one-story, cape cod dwelling with a tower rising through the center. Likewise, it sat high on a promontory, 215 feet above the ocean, and would eventually be replaced by a light at a lower elevation.

Supplies to construct the Point Conception Lighthouse were freighted down the coast from San Francisco and then off-loaded through the surf at Cojo Landing, located just west of the point. From the beach, the construction materials were then hauled by wagon through deep sand that at points reached the hubs of the wheels. Originally designed to house the old-fashioned Argand lamp and reflector system, the tower portion of the lighthouse, which was completed in 1854, had to be torn down and reconstructed to accommodate the Lighthouse Board's decision to use a first-order Fresnel lens in the lantern room.

George Parkinson, picked to be the first keeper of the lighthouse, arrived on scene in 1855, before the tower had been modified and spent months at the lighthouse without any duties or pay. Work on the new tower began in August, the lens showed up in September, and Parkinson was finally able to activate the light on February 1, 1856, when Point Conception Lighthouse became the sixth operating lighthouse on the west coast.

Parkinson, who ended up serving at the active light for only six months before being dismissed, wrote a letter of complaint to the Lighthouse Service that included the following passage. "Point Conception lies some sixty-five miles by land from the little village of Santa Barbara, nearest point at which supplies can be obtained, the road to which place is only passable at very low water...the freight on goods amounts to more than my pay, and price rates at Santa Barbara are one-hundred percent over San Francisco rates. How to convey wood and water here I know not, the former being five or six miles off, the latter about 600 yards. That my situation here is truly distressing admits not of any doubt, cut off as I am from all communications and without means to live on. My pay has not been forthcoming in over four months."

Point Conception Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Over the years, numerous changes were made to the station. In 1872, a first class, steam fog signal was installed on a large flat area, over 100 feet down the bluff from the lighthouse, to replace an earlier fog bell. In 1875, the Lighthouse Board reported, "The old dwelling at the station is in bad condition, and the best plan is to pull it down, leaving the tower by itself, and to build for the accommodation of the keepers two more cottages similar to the one built last year." In 1880, after no appropriation was made to fulfill its 1875 request, the Lighthouse Board reported to Congress that the original tower required wooden supports to hold it up, and that it should be scrapped in favor of a new light to be constructed lower on the bluff, near the fog signal building, where fog would be less likely to obscure the light. The request for $38,000 was approved, and the new lighthouse, with an oil room and keeper's watchroom at its front, was constructed in 1881 on the lower bluff along with a cottage for an assistant keeper.

In June of 1882, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was transported to the point where it was used in the new tower, while the first-order lens was disassembled in the old tower. The fourth-order lens was then displayed from a temporary platform atop the old lighthouse, until the first-order lens was installed in the new tower and exhibited for the first time on June 20, 1882. With its tower removed, the original lighthouse, which had to have stabilizing iron tie rods run through it after an earthquake in 1868, continued to serve as a dwelling for several more years. In 1906, a large duplex with six rooms and a bath for each of the occupying keepers was built at the top of the 280-step staircase, which led to the lower level. In 1912, another dwelling was constructed to replace the original lighthouse, which was removed. The light station was automated in 1973.

The first-order Fresnel lens was still revolving in the tower in 1999. Originally, a 150-pound weight, which remains suspended in the lighthouse, was cranked up every four hours to provide the energy to rotate the lens. That system of gears and pulleys was replaced by a motor, when electricity reached the station. With sixteen bull's-eye panels and making a revolution every eight minutes, the lens produces a two-second flash every thirty seconds. Sadly, due to the expense of repairs necessary to keep the Fresnel lens revolving, a modern beacon is now used at the lighthouse.

The lighthouse has always been an isolated place, evoking strong emotions in its caretakers. The first keeper, George Parkinson called it a "dreadful promontory of desolation." The following excerpt from a Coast Guard report on the Point Conception Lighthouse describes the mood produced each evening at the point. "When the sun nears the swirling horizon and the sudden cold descends at dusk, ...[the keepers] begin to stir against the night. Loneliness comes down like a shade, and the light goes on."

Aerial view of Point Conception Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Cliff Graham
The railroad was eventually extended to the area, and a depot and telegraph office were established about a mile from the lighthouse, but the station was still considered remote.

Ron Rutkowsky, who was stationed at Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard, made several visits to the Point Conception Lighthouse during his years of service. The following is his description of the unique feeling Point Conception produced in him.

The eerie sound of the fog horn and crashing waves against the cliff and the often foggy days gave the place a ghostly feeling. Of course no lighthouse worth its salt would be without a ghost story or two, and Point Conception had its stories too. I chose to heed the stories, given the overall feeling that the area gave out. On one occasion we had to replace the chimes on the light. These are brass wheels that the base of the light rotates on. Over time they wear and need to be replaced. The job isn't difficult but you have to be careful. It entails jacking up the base of the light, removing the old wheels and installing new ones. On this given day, everyone was in a happy mood and the jokes were flying. Soon the crew started to joke about the Ghost at Conception. This, I guess, didn't sit well, because our tools started to go missing. We would put a wrench down then go to pick it up again only to not be able to find it. After searching high and low, it would later turn up at the bottom of the stairs. This happened several times during the day, making a half-day replacement job last all day. Needless to say, the jokes stopped. After that, whenever I would enter the lighthouse, I would knock on the door first and announce that we were there to service the light.

With a red roof, sea green lantern room, a skirt of granite around its base, and wood paneling inside, the lighthouse is still in good condition and is an impressive building. Today, the lighthouse is surrounded by a huge private ranch and is far from any public road. Unfortunately, due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of the lighthouse, few are the people who get to enjoy the beauty of this location with its ice-plant-covered hills and incredible views, but perhaps it is the isolation that makes this spot so magical. Around 1999, a modern offshore oil rig, easily seen from the lighthouse, was dismantled, returning the area to what seems like a former century.

The Fresnel lens was secured in March 2000 to prevent further damage to the lens, and an emergency backup light was used until September 2001, when a VRB-25 was activated atop the lighthouse. In 2012, the Coast Guard announced that the first-order Fresnel lens would be removed from the tower and placed on display at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Three lampists arrived at the lighthouse on June 3, 2013 to begin removing the lens, and a grand opening for the museum's lens exhibit was help on September 21, 2013.

Head Keepers: George Parkinson (1854 1856), James P. Meacham (1856 1857), John Scollan (1857 1861), Robert W. Smith (1861 1868), James Rogers (1868 1869), Asa B. Bates (1869 1872), Thomas L. Perry (1872 1895), Harley A. Weeks (1895 1913), George A. Hussey (1913 1915), Charles F. Allen (1915 1930), Richard Harris George (1930 1940), Max Schederer (1940 1944), Charles E. Hellwig (1944 1955).

2009 Aerial photographs by Bruce Hamilton: 1 2

References

  1. "Point Conception Light Station," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log, Winter 2001.
  2. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.

Location: Located at the western entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel.
Latitude: 34.44872
Longitude: -120.47072

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


Travel Instructions: The land surrounding the Point Conception Lighthouse is part of the huge, privately-owned Cojo Jalama Ranch, and is thus not accessible to the public. The closest publicly accessible point is reached by taking Jalama Road from Highway 1, approximately three miles south of Lompoc. Jalama Road ends at Jalama Beach County Park. From there, the lighthouse is over five miles down the dirt road which starts behind a padlocked gate.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Point Conception Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
I guess Monster of Piedras Blancas must have sounded better as a movie title than Monster of Point Conception, but the movie Monster of Piedras Blancas was actually filmed at Point Conception Lighthouse, not Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The movie features great views of the lighthouse's interior, spiral stairway, lantern room, and Fresnel lens.
Marilyn writes:
One visit and there is no doubt as to how it got its name. We've been lucky enough to be able to visit it twice albeit with much persistence and determination to obtain permission. It is worth whatever you have to do to just go. It is so amazing that even spending several hours there each time was not enough for us. Optimal time is to be able to be there for both the gorgeous sunsets and stay long enough to see the light on and rotate its beams. Once you have experienced both of those events, you will literally have to be dragged away.

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