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 Point Arena, CA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Overnight lodging available.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: When traveling north from Point Reyes, the next prominent point along the California coast is reached after sixty-eight miles. Known by early explorers as Punta Barro de Arena, Spanish for Sand Bar Point, the feature is now known simply as Point Arena. Here, the coast changes from running in a northwesterly direction to more of a northerly direction, and as ship traffic carrying redwood lumber from Northern California to San Francisco increased in the 1850s and 1860s, so did the need for a light to mark this critical turning point.

Original Point Arena Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
On May 1, 1870, the Point Arena Lighthouse became the first of three tall coastal towers in California to commence service during the 1870s. The other two towers, built in a similar style, were constructed at Pigeon Point and Piedras Blancas.

To construct the lighthouse at Point Arena, three kilns were built at the point to fire roughly 500,000 bricks needed for the tower. An additional 114,000 bricks of superior quality were shipped from San Francisco to build the outside courses of the tower. The height of the tower was 100 feet, and a fixed, first-order Fresnel lens was exhibited from the lantern room. Near the base of the tower, a large two-and-a-half story, brick dwelling was built to house four keepers and their families.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1883 noted that the station was "located on a projecting point, the outer face of which is on an almost perpendicular bluff, made peculiarly dangerous by the liability of sudden caving near the edge of the earth overlying the sand-rock. One of the laborers fell over this bluff and was drowned. A picket-fence 1,400 feet long was built around the structures to prevent further accident."

In 1896, the present fog signal building was constructed to replace one built in 1870, which was being threatened by erosion. The fog-signal apparatus was relocated to the new structure, and the former characteristic of a five-second blast of the whistle uttered at intervals of twenty-five seconds was retained.

During the lighthouse's tenth year of operation, the first occurrence of an earthquake was recorded in the keeper's log on June 7, 1880. With the San Andreas fault lying just east of the point, the lighthouse was subjected to several more quakes including one in 1888 and another in 1898. Although the earthquake of 1906 is known mostly for the destruction it caused in San Francisco, the area north of the city also experienced significant damage. A keeper recorded the following account of the damage caused by the April 18, 1906 quake.

A heavy blow struck the tower from the south. The blow came quick and heavy, accompanied by a heavy report. The tower quivered for a few seconds, went far over to the north, came back, and then swung north again, repeating this several times. Immediately after came rapid and violent vibrations, rending the tower apart, the sections grinding and grating upon each other; while the lenses, reflectors, etc., in the lantern were shaken from their settings and fell in a shower upon the iron floor.

The earthquake also frightened a black bear, which ran into the station and had to be shot. Both the tower and the dwelling were damaged beyond repair and had to be razed. All the brick and other material that could not be used in reconstructing the light station were simply pushed over the cliff into the ocean.

After just a couple of months, makeshift buildings had been constructed to house the keepers and the workforce during the reconstruction. A temporary short, wooden light tower was built first, and the lantern room from the original lighthouse was placed on top of it. Outfitted with a second-order lens, the tower began operation on January 5, 1907.

Now cognizant of the affect an earthquake could have on brick structures, the Lighthouse Service decided to use reinforced concrete for the new tower. The Concrete Chimney Corporation of San Francisco, whose specialty, as implied by their name, was building industrial chimneys, was tapped to erect the tower.

Point Arena with radiobeacon towers
Photograph courtesy Coast Guard Museum Northwest
The new tower was built on the site of the original tower. Iron bars were woven together, surrounded by wooden frames, and then covered by concrete to create the tower. As the tower grew, so did the wooden scaffolding encircling it. Contained in the scaffolding was a mule-powered elevator used to raise the numerous wheelbarrows of concrete to be poured into the forms. After the tower was completed, a doughnut-shaped buttress was built around the base of the tower to give it additional support and create a circular workroom. The staircase from the original tower was reassembled in the new tower.

The beams from a new first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne, were cast out to sea from the completed 115-foot tower on September 15, 1908 at 1800 hours. The new lens rotated atop over five gallons of mercury to produce a unique pattern of a double flash every six seconds. A 160-pound weight suspended in the tower and attached to a clockwork mechanism caused the three-sided lens to revolve once every eighteen seconds.

After the tower was finished, work began on housing for the keepers. Rather than a single, subdivided dwelling, four separate bungalows for the keepers were built in a row south of the lighthouse. The keepers and their families must have enjoyed the privacy and extra space the new houses afforded.

Keeper Bill Owens served at Point Arena for fifteen years from 1937 to 1952, during which time control of lighthouses passed from the Bureau of Lighthouses to the Coast Guard in 1939. The daymark of the tower was slightly changed as part of this transition. As can be seen in the historic black and white photograph on this page, the gallery around the lantern room was formerly painted black, but the Coast Guard decided to paint the entire cement portion of the tower white when they took control.

When World War II broke out, the keepers at Point Arena were required to report all sightings during their watch. During one of Owens' watches, he thought he saw a submarine off the point, but when reporting it was told that there were no enemy submarines in the area. Unfortunately, Owens' report proved accurate as the lumber schooner Ameilia was torpedoed just north of Fort Bragg shortly thereafter.

In 1960, the keepers' bungalows were razed and four modern, nondescript, ranch-style houses were built in their stead. The station was automated in 1977, when a rotating beacon was placed on the tower's balcony, leaving Point Bonita Lighthouse as the only staffed lighthouse in California. Although not used, the Fresnel lens remained in the tower. A nonprofit group, the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers, obtained a twenty-five-year lease to the light station in 1984, and was awarded ownership in 2000. The four keepers dwellings can be rented for overnight stays. A good museum is housed in the fog signal building. Adjacent to the tower, is the lintel from the doorway of the original tower that was found in the surf by keeper Owens.

In 2008, renovations costing 1.6 million dollars were carried out on the public restrooms, fog signal building, and the tower, whose concrete had begun crumbling in recent years. As part of the work, a new copper roof was installed atop the lantern room, and the first-order Fresnel lens was relocated, along with its pedestal and drive mechanism, to the fog signal building. Fresnel lens expert Jim Woodward was brought in to oversee the dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling of the lens. The tower was reopened to visitors in February of 2009 but remained unpainted due to a lack of funds until November 2010. A metal floor has been installed in the lantern room, and this large space, formerly filled by the Fresnel lens, makes for a great observation room. Click here for a live view of the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: Thomas Blackmore (1870 1874), Ruxton H. Pooles (1874), Willard B. Perry (1874 1878), George P. Brennan (1878 1883), G. Polk Young (1883 1886), John C. Ryan (1886 1887), George P. Brennan (1887 1892), Harley A. Weeks (1892 1895), Seth W. Webb (1895), Jefferson M. Brown (1895 1901), Thomas H. Butwell (1901 1902), Richard H. Williams (1902 1919), Samuel Sutton (1919 - 1920), Peter S. Admiral (1921 - 1926), Winfred R. Kane (1926 - 1934), George Cobb (1934 - 1935), Elmer R. Williams (1935 - 1937), Bill Owens (1937 1952), John B. Smith ( - 1977).

References

  1. "Point Arena," Gregory W. Coan, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1993.
  2. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.
  3. Annual Report of the Light House Board, various years.

Location: The lighthouse is located at 45500 Lighthouse Road, one mile north of the city of Point Arena and 135 miles north of San Francisco.
Latitude: 38.9546
Longitude: -123.7406

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


Travel Instructions: From the town of Point Arena, proceed one mile north on Highway 1 then turn left onto Lighthouse Road and follow it two miles to its terminus at the lighthouse.

The Point Arena Lighthouse is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend and from 10:00 to 3:30 the rest of the year. Visitors are welcome to climb the tower, and there is a gift shop and museum in the fog signal building. For further information on visiting the lighthouse or to make a reservation in the keeper's quarters next to the lighthouse, call (877) 725-4448.

The lighthouse is owned by the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers. Grounds open, dwellings open to overnight guests, tower open during tours.

Find the closest hotels to Point Arena Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Scenes for the movie Forever Young were filmed on the grounds near the lighthouse from March 29 through April 2, 1992. The shell of a house, a garage, and a gazebo were constructed during the filming, but the gazebo, located in the field east of the tower, is the only structure left standing after the filming. A fun activity is watching the movie during an overnight stay in one of the keeper's houses.

When I first learned that the Fresnel lens had been removed from the Point Arena Lighthouse, I was a bit saddened, as no museum piece can compare to a Fresnel lens atop a tower casting its beams into the night sky. Since the lens at Point Arena had not been active for years and there is reportedly a good chance the tower could fail in a large earthquake, the lens may just be better off in the fog signal building. However, Marilyn pointed out that due to the proximity of the tower to the fog signal building, if the tower did topple it could still destroy the lens. The lens is a beautiful sight to behold in its new environs, and hopefully in the future the paint that was applied by the Coast Guard to its metal framework can be removed.

Marilyn writes:
Incredible lighthouse to visit and even better to spend the night. Just beware of the aggressive & scary raccoons if you decide to stay over. I still have nightmares from the first visit of them walking towards us up on their hind legs. That experience alone took them off the cute and cuddly stuffed animal list forever in my book!

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