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 Punta Gorda, CA    
A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.
Description: A defining feature of the northern California coast is a large bulge that protrudes westward into the Pacific Ocean. Along this bulge are two points, separated by roughly eleven miles, which extend farther west than any other points along the Golden State's lengthy shoreline. The northernmost of these points is Cape Mendocino, and the southernmost is Punta Gorda, Spanish for substantial point.

As ships hugged the California coast traveling northward, it is understandable how several ran aground on Punta Gorda. Between 1899 and 1907, at least eight ships met their end in the area. The initial request for a lighthouse to mark Punta Gorda was made in 1888, but it wasn't until after a fog-induced collision between the SS Columbia and the San Pedro on July 21, 1908, which claimed 87 lives, that congress appropriated funds for the Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

Punta Gorda Light Station
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Materials to build the station arrived at the point by schooner in 1910. After being highlined to shore, they were loaded onto horse-drawn sleds, and dragged less than a mile south to the construction site. Within a year, three substantial dwellings, a blacksmith/carpenter shop, three storage sheds, a barn, and the fog signal building were completed. The fog signal began operation on June 22, 1911, but it would be approximately seven more months before the small 27-foot-tall lighthouse with a 23 by 12 foot base was completed. The flashing light from the lighthouse’s fourth-order lens was first exhibited on January 15, 1912. F.A. Harrington, Paschel Hunter, and W.E. Greer were the first three keepers to serve at Punta Gorda.

The light station sits on a narrow bench bordered by hills rising abruptly to the east and the ocean spreading out to the west. The station was far from civilization. It was an eleven-mile journey by horseback or wagon to the small town of Petrolia, and the trip was only possible when the weather and tides permitted. The first oil wells drilled in California that produced crude to be refined and sold commercially were near Petrolia, hence the name of the town.

Wayne Piland, accompanied by his wife, a son, and a daughter, was transferred to Punta Gorda in 1934. Piland had served at three offshore stations, but he rated the task of getting supplies to Punta Gorda as “the toughest job you ever saw.” During the summer months, a team of horses could pull a supply wagon to Petrolia, but when winter set in, rushing streams and high surf limited travel to horseback.

For several decades, “Old Bill” served as the stations four-footed link to the outside world. Old Bill was well acquainted with life at a lighthouse. He was born at a light station, served at Point Reyes, and arrived at Punta Gorda aboard a lighthouse tender. Wayne Piland’s daughter Nancy described Old Bill as “mean and ornery.” The horse also had a quirk that made him difficult to ride. Whenever he approached a puddle, no matter the size, he would try to jump across it. Fortunately, keeper Piland was experienced with horses, and after he braided a small whip, Piland and Old Bill got along just fine.

Like many other light stations along the California coast, Punta Gorda was used by the military during World Ward II. Several Coast Guard recruits were sent to patrol the beach south of the station towards Shelter Cove. The station's population was increased for a few years, but at the end of the war, the beach patrol was discontinued.

The Coast Guard eventually built a road from the Mattole River along the foot of the bluffs to Windy Point and another section from Windy Point to the lighthouse. Outfitted with a jeep and a tractor, life at the station seemed much easier, but then the winter storms arrived. After heavy rains, water would stream down the canyons, severing the road in several places, and powerful, storm-driven surf would deposit large logs and other debris on the roadway. It was a good thing that Old Bill was still on hand for an occasional supply trek to civilization.

Electricity eventually did reach Punta Gorda, but the power line was unreliable and multiple generators had to be kept on hand. The remoteness of the station made it one of the more costly to maintain, so when improvements in navigation lessened the need for a manned lighthouse in the area, the Coast placed a lighted buoy offshore, removed the Fresnel lens, and boarded up the structures. After having spent more years at Punta Gorda than any keeper, Old Bill was sold to a lady in Ferndale.

When the Coast Guard left in 1951, control of the station passed to the Bureau of Land Management. During the 1960s, a counter culture group took up residence in the dwellings. After chasing them off several times, the BLM decided to burn down all of the wooden structures at the station. All that remains of the station are the concrete lighthouse and oil house, and a few concrete pads where other structures once stood.

The lighthouse and oil house were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and shortly thereafter the Honeydew volunteer fire department spent time at the station repairing cracks in the masonry, welding breaks in the lighthouse's staircase and railings, and sandblasting and painting the structures. The station received further attention in 1989 when the California Conservancy Corps restored and painted the structures.

Hikers along California’s Lost Coast are a bit surprised to encounter a couple of rustic cabins near Fourmile Creek. Had all of the picturesque structures at Punta Gorda remained standing, one can only imagine what a contrast the craftsman-style buildings would be to what is otherwise very remote and unspoiled territory.

Head Keepers: Frederick Arthur Harrington (1911 - at least 1915), James Dunn (at least 1919 - at least 1921), Charles W. Lindley (at least 1930), George C. Lee ( at least 1940).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5

References

  1. Lighthouses and Lifeboats on the Redwood Coast, Ralph Shanks, 1978.
  2. The Keeper's Log, Winter 1997.
  3. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.

Location: The lighthouse is located roughly seven miles southwest of Petrolia, site of California's first oil well, and is part of the King Range National Conservation Area.
Latitude: 40.24941
Longitude: -124.35021

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


Travel Instructions: From Highway 101 in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, take the Honeydew/Dyerville Exit, and go west, following the signs, for just under 30 miles to Honeydew. In Honeydew, continue northwest on Mattole Road until just before Petrolia (14 miles), where you need to turn west on Lighthouse Road. Follow Lighthouse Road for five miles to its end at Mattole Beach. Park your vehicle and hike south along the beach for just over three miles to reach the Punta Gorda Lighthouse, the interior of which is open to visitors.

This is a strenuous hike, a good portion of which is through loose sand or pea-sized rocks. We found that hugging the hillside as much as possible is easier than walking on the beach. Access around one outcropping (Wind Point, which is roughly two miles into the trip) may not be possible right at high tide, so consult a tide table before you set out on the adventure. During the winter, you may need to cross several creeks that stream down from the canyons. Most of these are quite small, but we had to wade through chilly Fourmile Creek. You can call the King Range Bureau of Land Management office at (707) 986-5400 to check on trail conditions.

The lighthouse is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is part of the King Range National Conservation Area. Grounds/tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Punta Gorda Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Still visible in the surf in front of the station are pieces of the St. Paul, which was lost near the point in 1905 before the station was established. Be aware that poison oak is present along the trail. I thought I was being quite cautious but somehow managed to brush against it. A few days later, I was fighting an intense desire to scratch and had to seek medical help to get the weepy sores under control.
Marilyn writes:
This is a flat hike, but one that separates the men from the boys. The photo is deceptive in that it shows a path on hard ground which is true the last few hundred feet. Be prepared to tax your body a little as the sand on the rest of it is not the packed down kind that you run on along the beach. It is more of the "my-foot-sunk-down 12 inches-and-now-I-have-to-lift-it-back-out only-to-do-it-again kind of hike. I would recommend taking water and a lunch for a picnic at the lighthouse as you will need the break and the restored energy. It is worth the effort.
Steve writes:
Take a lunch and maybe a dinner, too. It takes a while to hike out there.

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