Solitude, where are thy charms
that sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms
than reign in this horrible place.
So city, friendship, and love
Divinely bestowed upon man,
Ohad I the wings of a dove,
How I would taste you again.
In 1595, the Spanish galleon San Agustin sought shelter from a storm. Thinking Point Reyes was an island rising from the sea, the captain ran his ship aground in Drakes Bay, becoming the first recorded shipwreck on the west coast. Despite many subsequent shipwrecks, the point would remain unmarked for 275 years.
Point Reyes was named by Sebastian Vizcaino, who sailed along the California coast in 1603. On January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, Vizcaino passed the peninsula and called it Punto de los Reyes, for the Feast of Three Kings.
A lighthouse was authorized for Point Reyes in 1855, but construction was delayed for fifteen years while the Lighthouse Board wrangled with landowners over a fair price for the land. Fourteen shipwrecks occurred in the years the price was under dispute.
In 1869, legal proceedings were filed in the State of California for the condemnation of a lighthouse site at Point Reyes, as the Lighthouse Board was weary of haggling with the owners of the surrounding rancho for a spot of land that was valueless for any other purpose. Once the proceedings commenced, the landowners offered to sell the necessary land for $6,000. As the cost of condemnation would have been about the same, the government accepted the offer, and a deed was drawn up.
The original plan for Point Reyes Lighthouse was a two-story dwelling with an integral tower, much like those built at Point Pinos and Old Point Loma, which would be located atop the bluff at Point Reyes. However, experience at Point Bonita Lighthouse had taught lighthouse officials that fog could obscure an elevated light, and the plan was revamped to place the light 275 feet lower. Two terraces were carved out of the cliffs: one at 100 feet above the sea for the fog signal building and a second one 150 feet higher for the light tower. A 300-step wooden stairway was built into the cliff to reach the tower from the top of the bluff, and 338 more steps were required to reach the fog building.
A two-story, spacious dwelling was originally built for the keepers atop the bluff where the present park service housing is located, and two additional cottages were added in 1885. Nearby, a 100,000-gallon cistern and associated concrete rain catchment basin were constructed to provide water for the keepers and the thirsty steam fog signal. The collected rainwater was not always sufficient for the stations needs, and one year a local rancher had to haul over twenty thousand gallons to the station to help Mother Nature fill the cistern.
A galvanized iron pipe fed water down the cliff to the fog signal, which was completed during the summer of 1871 but was not placed into operation until after the rains of the next winter had sufficiently filled the cistern. On April 28, 1872, fire destroyed the new fog signal, prompting Congress to quickly allocate $10,000 for a replacement twelve-inch steam whistle.
Mariners complained of the inefficiency of the fog signal at Point Reyes, and the district inspector agreed, stating: I have frequently investigated complaints made by masters of vessels, of not hearing the signal when passing within a mile of it in thick weather; and I am convinced that the fault does not lie in the way the signal is run, but something in the signal itself or its location. Point Reyes is one of the most important points on the coast, and the needs of navigation require that its fog-signal should be in efficiency second to none. I would therefore respectfully suggest to the Board the desirability and importance of substituting at this place, in place of the whistles now in use, duplicate sirens, the experience gained at Point Bonita proving that sirens are far more efficient than whistles.
The inspectors recommendation was promptly followed, and a first-class steam siren went into service on June 1, 1881. One of the old boilers was stripped of everything of value and then pushed over the bluff into the sea. The steam sirens apparently didnt solve the problem, as twelve-inch steam whistles were reinstalled at the station in 1890. An air diaphone was placed in the fog signal house in 1915, and it seemed to finally solve the audibility issue, as shipmasters reported hearing the horn from seven miles to the south and four to five miles to the north.
Point Reyes was not an envied lightkeeper assignment. Forty-mph winds are common, and gusts have been reported as high as 133 mph. In 1878, the roof of the keepers dwelling was blown off, and its chimneys and fences were blown down. Fog is also a frequent guest on the point. In 1912, the Lighthouse Service noted that Point Reyes held the record not only for the maximum number of hours of fog in a year, 2,070 in 1887, but also for the highest annual average, 1,350 hours per year, equivalent to about fifteen percent of the time. One time, the keepers recorded 176 hours of continuous fog (seven days, eight hours). 24,640 pounds of coal were used in that week alone to keep the fog signal blowing. In 1887, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, When the storms are their worst, spray dashes up two hundred feet [the keepers] only safety is in crawling on hands and knees up and down the stairs.
The earthquake that devastated San Francisco in April 1906 was also felt at Point Reyes, where it bent the upper and lower guides for the Fresnel lens and displaced the lamp stand. The chimneys on the keepers dwellings were also thrown down and two masonry cisterns were cracked.
In 1927, Keeper Fred Kreth attempted to save three fishermen whose boat had hit the rocks at the point and left them stranded at the bottom of the cliff. Kreth rappelled 200 feet down the cliff, and when he could go no further, he untied the rope around his waist, braced himself on a thin ledge, then threw the rope down 50 more yards and somehow pulled all three to safety. The Coast Guard had also responded to the incident, but the surf proved too high for a sea rescue. Frustrated, the coastguardsmen returned to their station and tried to reach the stranded fishermen by land. One coastguardsman descended down the rocky face to the beach where the fishermen were stranded only to find it deserted. The three missing fishermen were soon found at the lighthouse receiving care from Keeper Kreth.
Numerous keepers served at Point Reyes Lighthouse since it was typically staffed by a head keeper and three assistants. The first head keeper was John C. Bull, and the last keeper serving under the Lighthouse Service was Gustave Zetterquist, who arrived in 1930 as an assistant keeper and remained until 1951. This wasnt the longest tenure at the station as Paulus Nilsson signed on as first assistant in 1897, became head keeper in 1909, and served until he suffered a fall on February 18, 1921 and died three days later. Tom Smith was the last officer-in-charge for the Coast Guard at Point Reyes.
By 1934, the fog signal had been relocated from the lower terrace to a new structure built just below the lighthouse. Electricity came to the lighthouse in 1938, and concrete steps were built into the cliff in 1939. The original keepers dwelling was razed in 1960, and a four-unit apartment was built in its place. The station was automated on June 12, 1975, ending 105 years of manned operation, but the lighthouse, clockwork mechanism, and original Fresnel lens were left intact. A new structure was erected just below the lighthouse to house the light and fog signal. All of the stations eighty-two acres save the tower and keepers residence were turned over to the National Park Service to become part of Point Reyes National Seashore. The park service opened the station to the public on August 15, 1977.
In 2003, major renovation work was done at the station. Costing $1.2 million and taking six months to complete, the project included repairing the existing buildings and replacing the 300-plus steps leading to the tower.
Spring finds Point Reyes wrapped in a beautiful green Scottish landscape. If you come between January and April, chances are youll see a few grey whales spouting away in their annual Alaska-Mexico migration.