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 Point Cabrillo, CA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.A hike of some distance required.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Overnight lodging available.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Lighthouse appeared in movie.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: On the night of July 25, 1850, the sailing brig Frolic misjudged its distance from shore and ran aground just north of Point Cabrillo, which is located between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The brig had been employed in the lucrative opium trafficking from Bombay, India to Canton, China, but steamships were quickly displacing sailing vessels in the trade, so the Frolic was loaded with household goods and sailed for San Francisco to capitalize on the gold rush boom.

Edward H. Faucon, captain of the Frolic, abandoned his vessel after she ran aground, landed his lifeboats near the mouth of Big River, and ten days later turned up in San Francisco. The following year, Jerome Ford attempted to salvage the vessel, but found the work impractical. Besides, Pomo Indians had already recovered a good portion of the ship’s cargo as evidenced by the brightly colored silk shawls their women were wearing. Although Ford was disappointed in the salvage venture, he was impressed by the mighty stands of redwoods along the coast and talked Henry Meiggs, his associate, into building a sawmill at the mouth of Big River.

Newly constructed Point Cabrillo Light Station in 1909
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Others followed, and the Mendocino Coast was soon home to hundreds of sawmills. The demand for lumber became even greater after the 1906 earthquake and conflagration in San Francisco, and that same year Congress authorized the expenditure of $50,000 for a lighthouse on Point Cabrillo.

The Lighthouse Board had requested a lighthouse at Point Cabrillo in 1904 based on the following reasoning:

[A] light-house near Point Cabrillo would be of great assistance to navigation between Point Arena light-house and Cape Mendocino light-house, California, a distance of 115 miles, which is without a light or fog-signal for that entire distance. The large vessels which traverse the coast usually keep well out, using Point Arena and Cape Mendocino or Punta Gorda as points of departure, but the smaller craft that transport the commerce of the small landings along the coast to the northward of San Francisco, which has now assumed quite large proportions, must feel their way as best they can close along inshore. During northerly and easterly weather it is to the advantage of all vessels going up the coast to keep well in under the lee of the land. For the benefit particularly of these a light and fog-signal here is desirable.

The establishment of this light and fog-signal station, for the erection of which many petitions have been received, would enable vessels bound for Mendocino City to lie off the shore and hold on to the light or fog-signal, instead of running the risk of entering that harbor at night or in foggy weather. After a careful examination of various sites that at Point Cabrillo is considered the most advantageous.

A deed for a 30.43-acre parcel on the point was obtained in January 1908 from David and Margaret Gordon, and the lowest bid of $21,985 was accepted later that year for construction of a combination light and fog-signal building, three keeper’s dwellings, a barn, pump house, and a carpenter/blacksmith shop. Work on the station, which was considered one of the most desirable assignments in the district due to its proximity to supplies and a school, was completed on June 10, 1909.

The combination lighthouse and fog-signal building resembles a small church with a forty-seven-foot octagonal tower attached to the eastern end of the small, one-and-a-half-story, fog-signal building. Two eighteen-horsepower engines housed in the building ran an air compressor that powered twin sirens protruding from the western end of the roof. A third-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in England by Chance Brothers, was installed in the lantern room. To produce a white flash every ten seconds, the four-sided lens was revolved three times every two minutes, using a weight suspended in the tower.

Aerial view of station in 1952
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Wilhelm Baumgartner was appointed the first head keeper of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, transferring to the station from the offshore St. George Reef Lighthouse. The light and fog signal were activated at midnight on the evening of June 10, 1909, and Baumgartner sent invitations to the neighbors living near the station to participate in the lighting ceremony. Between thirty to forty guests showed up on that foggy evening and were treated to a midnight supper, prepared by Ethel Bassett, wife of First Assistant Keeper George E. Bassett.

Baumgartner was single when he arrived at Point Cabrillo, and the Lighthouse Service strongly hinted that it would be prudent for him to marry seeing as how he was now in charge of a family station. It wasn’t too long before Lena Seman, daughter of a Mendocino blacksmith, caught Baumgartner’s eye, and the couple wed in 1911. The Baumgartners lived at Point Cabrillo for roughly fourteen years before Wilhelm passed away at the station in 1923.

The light source in the lens was originally an oil lamp but was upgraded to an oil-vapor lamp in 1911. Electricity reached the station in 1935, allowing the use of an electric bulb to light the lens and electric motors to both rotate the lens and power a new type F diaphone fog signal.

A couple hundred yards inland from the lighthouse, three spacious two-story keeper’s dwellings were built. The middle dwelling is the largest and was used by the head keeper or the officer-in-charge. The dwellings are still framed by a windbreak of trees, but the splash of color provided by the keepers’ flower and vegetable gardens is long gone. Cora Owens, who relocated to Point Cabrillo in 1952 from Point Arena with her husband, Keeper Bill Owens, described her battle with a pesky animal that threatened her plantings.

There was a goat that kept jumping the fence onto the light station and eating anything and everything that grew. The men kept putting him back into the field until they got disgusted and shot him in the leg. He just lay in the grass unable to walk. I felt sorry for him and kept a pan of water near his head. There was plenty of grass beside him that he could eat. After four or five days he got up and started walking, and he was put over the fence again. He stayed there after that.

The point on which the light stands is nearly an island as the ocean has cut channels into the land both north and south of the lighthouse. One storm, which caused significant erosion to the bluffs around the lighthouse and damaged the lighthouse itself, occurred in February 1960. As the storm approached, the waves increased until they were striking the cliffs and going over the lighthouse. Keeper Owens turned the light on early, and then sought refuge with the others in the easternmost dwellings, hoping the water would not reach that far. Cora Owens gave the following description of the storm:
Lighthouse in 1955 with diaphone fog signal
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Late in the evening, after dark, I heard a sound that reminded me of cattle or horses stampeding. I wondered what it was but had to wait until morning to find out. … On the south side of the property, I found that a great many rocks had been thrown up by the waves a great distance from the edge of the bluff. One huge rock was at least fifty feet back from the cliff.

The men found the large door of the fog signal building broken off, pieces of siding ripped off and windows broken. The big diesels and the Kohler generator were ripped from their foundations and scattered around the engine room and several inches of mud was on the floor. However, the big lens in the lantern room was not damaged.

On February 28, 1963, a retirement ceremony was held at the lighthouse for Keeper Owens, the last civilian keeper on the west coast. The Coast Guard manned the station until the 1970s, when the lens was covered and a modern rotating beacon was mounted on a metal stand on the roof just west of the lantern room. In 1989, the Coast Guard announced plans to remove the lens to a museum in Virginia, but fortunately public outcry kept the lens in place. The California State Coastal Conservancy purchased Point Cabrillo Light Station in 1991 and partnered with the North Coast Interpretive Association, a non-profit group, to manage the preserve.

Starting in 1995, a major restoration of the station was undertaken. The blacksmith shop and oil house were restored first. The LORAN Coast Guard equipment, formerly housed in the lighthouse, was then relocated to the oil house so work on the lighthouse could begin. In August 1998, the Fresnel lens was dismantled and removed from the lantern room for cleaning and refurbishing. The lantern room itself was lifted off the tower by a crane in November of that year. By the following spring, the restored lantern room and lens were replaced, and, after being dark for many years, the Fresnel lens was illuminated once more, just months before the ninetieth anniversary of its first lighting.

In 2002, California State Parks purchased the light station for four million dollars, following the passage of a bond measure in 2000. The Coastal Conservancy awarded the purchase price to the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association, a non-profit entity formed to continue the restoration of the facilities and protect the surrounding wildlife habitat. By 2005, the easternmost keeper’s dwelling was completely restored and opened as a museum. Work then commenced on the head keeper’s dwelling which opened in 2006 as the Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo. A caretaker lived in the westernmost dwelling, which in 2009 was just partially restored. The inn operated until early 2010, when it was decided to offer the accommodations as vacation rentals.

The Frolic, which was indirectly instrumental in establishing the local lumbering industry as well as the lighthouse, has received much publicity recently. During a field trip to the Mendocino Coast in 1984, Dr. Thomas Layton, an archaeologist at San Jose State University, discovered fingernail-sized fragments of Chinese porcelain while excavating the site of a Pomo Indian hut with his students. Seeking an explanation for these incongruous artifacts, Dr. Layton visited the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino where he found large shards of Chinese pottery that he learned were recovered from a shipwreck near Point Cabrillo. Local divers were quite familiar with the wreck, which would soon receive much attention through Dr. Layton’s research. During two periods in 2003 and 2004, numerous dives were made on the Frolic, and a video on the shipwreck was produced by The History Channel. Visitors can see numerous artifacts recovered from the Frolic in the county museum in Willits and also at Point Cabrillo Lighthouse.

Keepers:

  • Head: Wilhelm Baumgartner (1909 – 1923), James E. Simonson (1929 – 1934), Thomas Allen Atkinson (1939 – 1950), Lester O’Niel (1950 – 1952), Bill Owens (1952 – 1963), Buck Taylor (1967 – 1972).
  • First Assistant: George E. Bassett (1909 – 1917), Frank Ritchie (1917 – 1918), Winfred R. Kane (1918 – 1923), Frank W. Ritchie (1923 – 1930), Clarence Snodgrass (1930 – 1932), George W. Petersen (1934 – 1935), Harry R. Miller (1935 – 1949).
  • Second Assistant: Charles M. Below (1909 – 1910), Bernard H. Linne (1910 – 1911), Albert J. Scott (1911 – 1918), William S. Sawdey (1918 – 1921), Martin C. Telgard (1922 – 1926), Lemuel C. Miner (at least 1930), Euclid H. Aston (1932 – 1937), Arnold G. Heard (1937 – 1940), William B. Moll (1940 – 1941).

Photo gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. “Point Cabrillo,” Cora Isabel Owens, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1990.
  3. The Keeper's Log, Summer 1999.
  4. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.

Location: Located roughly three miles north of Mendocino.
Latitude: 39.34868
Longitude: -123.82618

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


Travel Instructions: Traveling north from Mendocino on Highway 1, take the left turn lane for Russian Gulch State Park. Turn left across Highway 1 and then right onto Point Cabrillo Drive. Proceed just over a mile, and the Point Cabrillo parking area will be on your left. The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is reached via a 1/2-mile walk down an incline to the coast. Handicapped parking is available near the lighthouse.

The Point Cabrillo Light Station and Preserve is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to sunset. The lighthouse and an assistant keeper's home are open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The tower is not open for climbing, but visitors can now rent the head keeper's dwelling, an assistant keeper's dwelling, and two cottages behind them.

The lighthouse is owned by California State Parks and managed by Point Cabrillo Light Station. Grounds/dwelling/tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
During our first visit to the lighthouse in April 1997, we saw several grey whales spouting offshore during their annual migration. At that time, the modern beacon was still on the lighthouse. When we returned in October 2000, much of the restoration work on the lighthouse was complete. The airport beacon was gone, replicas of the original foghorns were in place, and dormers had been added to the roof once again. During a visit in 2005, the easternmost keeper's dwelling was fully restored, work had started on the head keeper's dwelling, and the westernmost keeper's dwelling was still awaiting restoration.

In 2009, we had a chance to stay in the Lighthouse Inn and considered ourselves fortunate to find the Lighthouse Room available. This room has a great view of the lighthouse and every ten seconds is swept by a beam of light from the lens. Though they stress the room has blackout shades, I didn't think a true lighthouse devotee would require them. Such was not the case for me, as after a few minutes of flashes I reluctantly lowered the shades for some sound sleep. If you spend the night, be sure and walk down to the lighthouse at night, even if it is raining like it was during our stay. The view from beneath the lantern room of the four beams sweeping across the sky is unforgettable, and rain and fog just enhance the effect.

The day after our stay we watched the movie The Majestic, as we knew Point Cabrillo Lighthouse was shown in the film. The two stars of the movie spend a romantic sunset on the catwalk just outside the lantern room, and later a celebration is thrown on the lighthouse grounds. The westernmost keeper's dwelling also serves as a residence in the movie.

Joanne writes:
I have been fortunate to visit Pt. Cabrillo twice, and each time was a different experience. This lighthouse has been renovated, and I was able to see it during and after the renovation. What a beautiful setting and little lighthouse. Hope you all can take a trip to visit.

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