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 Fort Point, CA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.
Description: Fort Point and Lime Point define respectively the southern and northern flanks of the narrow entrance to San Francisco Bay. Given its prime location, Fort Point has been a desired spot for several construction projects over the years. First was a cottage-style lighthouse to mark the entrance. Next was a fort positioned to protect the entrance, and finally came the graceful Golden Gate Bridge to span the entrance. Evidence of the three projects is still visible on the point today. A tiny lighthouse sits perched atop the massive brick fort, which is overarched by the towering bridge.

Fort Point Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The present, diminutive Fort Point Lighthouse is actually the third to stand at the point. Construction of the original lighthouse and its twin on Alcatraz Island, just inside the bay, began in 1852. The Fort Point Lighthouse was completed in 1853, shortly after the Alcatraz Light, but both sat empty and idle awaiting the arrival of their lighting apparatus from France. Just three months after it was completed and before its Fresnel lens ever arrived, the Fort Point Light was razed. The Army had decided that the strategic point was needed for the construction of a fort.

Construction on the fort began in 1854, when workers blasted the 90-foot cliff down to a mere fifteen feet, so the fort’s bottom row of cannons could skip cannonballs across the water’s surface to penetrate ships at their waterline. The three-story fort, constructed of red-brick and granite, took seven years to build and was the only such fort on the West Coast.

When the third-order Fresnel lens intended for the Fort Point Lighthouse finally arrived, it was diverted to Point Piños, where it remains in use today. The second lighthouse at Fort Point, a squat wooden tower with four sides that sloped up to a square watch room, was built on the narrow ledge between the fort and the water. In March of 1855, the light from a fourth-order Fresnel lens atop the thirty-six-foot tower was exhibited for the first time. The strong tidal currents that pass through the Golden Gate undermined the shore near the fort, and the lighthouse had to be removed to facilitate the construction of a protective, granite block seawall.

The wooden tower was replaced with Fort Point’s third and final lighthouse, a small iron skeleton tower positioned atop the fort. A circular staircase leads up into the nine-sided white tower, which is capped by a black lantern room. A seventy-pound weight, which required winding every two and a half hours, was used to revolve a fifth-order lens. The three keeper's quarters associated with the lighthouse were located south of the fort. Two were on the bluff just opposite the top of the fort, while the third was built at the base of the bluff. The keepers had to enter the fort and climb the granite spiral staircase to gain access to the lighthouse, until a bridge that spanned the gap between the bluff and the top of the fort was built in 1876. In 1902, the lens was upgraded to a fourth-order lens, which produced alternating red and white flashes.

Fort Point Lighthouse and keeper's dwellings
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
The fort was also outfitted with a bell, which served as a fog signal. The bell housing can be seen mounted to the ocean side of the fort in this photograph. Multiple wrecks in the bay were blamed on the inadequacy of the fog signal. Most notably, in 1901 the City of Rio de Janeiro struck a rock ledge just offshore from the fort and quickly sank, taking the lives of over one hundred people. Still, it was not until 1904 that the fog bell was replaced by a Daboll trumpet, which was installed on the fort near the lighthouse.

James Rankin was a keeper of the Fort Point Light from 1878 to 1919, an extremely long stay for a keeper at one lighthouse. The fort today is definitely considered a very picturesque setting, but it apparently wasn't so for Rankin, who around 1915 told the following to a reporter from The San Francisco Call: "There is nothing here to see. There is the ocean and the sand and the guns and the soldiers. That is all. It grows monotonous. Always the ocean and the sand and the guns and the soldiers. As for the ships, one grows tired of them, too. I have my family and my pleasures." Rankin’s “pleasures” included oil paintings, and he managed to produce several landscapes, consisting primarily of views from “monotonous” Fort Point.

Although Rankin never became famous for his painting, he did receive special commendation for saving the lives of eighteen people during his service at Fort Point. One such rescue occurred on a Sunday afternoon, when two couples, after consuming a lovely picnic and washing it down with several glasses of wine, cranked up a portable Victrola and started dancing. One of the couples decided the granite seawall would make for an exciting place to dance, and it did. After just a few turns, the couple lost their footing and plunged into the bay. A nearby fisherman, who had witnessed the fall, ran to find Rankin before the couple was swept too far seaward by the ebb tide.

Rankin soon appeared on the scene equipped with his lifesaving equipment, a wooden ladder for descending the seawall and a life ring for flotation. The woman’s full skirt had filled with air during her fall, helping to keep her afloat. Her partner, however, proved less buoyant and had to fight to keep his head above water. Keeper Rankin, assisted by his son, soon had the couple back on terra firma. Rankin's final two rescues came in December 1918 and January 1919, when on both occasions he rescued a boy who had fallen from the sea wall.

Work on the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933, and the Fort Point Lighthouse was soon obscured by its new neighbor. A fog signal and navigational light were placed at the base of the bridge’s south tower, and on September 1, 1934, the Fort Point Lighthouse ceased operation. Fort Point became a National Historic Site on October 16th, 1970, insuring that the fort and lighthouse, though both now obsolete, will remain as reminders of the point’s important role in the history of San Francisco.

Head Keepers: James Rogan (1853 – 1854), Charles Gilman (1854), Heman Doyle (1854 – 1855), B. F. Deane (1855 – 1858), J. C. Frackey (1858 – 1860), George D. Wise (1860), Henry Hickson (1860 – 1862), John D. Jenkins (1862 – 1863), George W. Omey (1863 – 1864), Lott Blanchard (1864 – 1866), R. S. Martin (1866 – 1869), Frank Thompson (1869 – 1871), John T. Huie (1871 – 1878), James Rankin (1878 – 1919), George Cobb (1919 - 1934).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

References

  1. Guardians of the Golden Gate, Ralph Shanks, 1990.
  2. Lighthouse Service Bulletin.
  3. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.
  4. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.

Location: Located under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge in Fort Point National Historic Site.
Latitude: 37.8108
Longitude: -122.47732

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


Travel Instructions: From north of San Francisco, take the Golden Gate Bridge south staying in the far right lane. After the toll booths, take the first exit to the right, and continue in a circle to the right, through an underpass, through the visitor parking lot, to a stop sign at Lincoln Boulevard. Turn left onto Lincoln and after about 1/4 mile turn left onto Long Avenue and drive until it dead ends at the fort.

From the south, take Highway 101 North towards the Golden Gate Bridge, staying in the far right lane. Take the "Last San Francisco Exit," and drive through the parking lot to your right until you reach the stop sign at Lincoln Boulevard. Turn left onto Lincoln and after about 1/4 mile turn left onto Long Avenue and drive until it dead ends at the fort.

The fort is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. You can access the top of the fort where the lighthouse is mounted, but visitors are not allowed inside the lighthouse. For more information, call (415) 556-1693.

The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service and is part of Fort Point National Historic Site. Grounds open, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Fort Point Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
I innocently asked a park ranger if we could climb up in the lighthouse. He said that was not allowed, and then added that he typically was only asked that question by children under ten.
Marilyn writes:
The light isn't much, but the fort is great and the view of the bay and surrounding points of interest is good.
Steve writes:
The lighthouse reminded me of the lunar lander, only more rusty.

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