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 Point Bonita, CA    
A hike of some distance required.Interior open or museum on site.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: Guardian of the northern tip of the Golden Gate, the Point Bonita Lighthouse still uses its original second-order Fresnel lens to cast forth a guiding beacon for mariners.

In the 1850s, as lighthouses started popping up along the West Coast, mariners cried for a light to mark the entrance of the Golden Gate whose recalcitrant currents, dangerous shoals, and incessant clinging fog had strangled the journey of many a vessel.

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The Lighthouse Board originally designated Point Lobos, the south entrance of the Gate, as the location for a lighthouse, but local mariners fought the idea, arguing that the north side, Point Bonita, could be approached within 150 yards and would provide a safer entrance in rough weather.

The Board again showed its ignorance of the Gate when it selected the highest hill at Point Bonita for the site of the lighthouse. California fog is characteristically a high fog, leaving lower elevations clear. The original lighthouse was a 56-foot, conical brick tower, situated 260 feet above the sea. A one-and-a-half-story brick and stone cottage was built near the tower, and the first keeper, Edward Colson, lit the lamp inside the lighthouse’s 2nd-order Fresnel lens for the first time on May 2, 1855.

Quite often, the lighthouse was shrouded in fog, rendering it useless to seamen. To provide some sort of navigational aid in these conditions, an eight-foot-long cannon was acquired, and Edward Maloney, a retired army sergeant, was hired to fire it once every half-hour in times of fog starting on August 8, 1855. Just a few months later, Maloney sent the following complaint to the secretary of the Lighthouse Board. “I cannot go to town. I cannot find any person here to relieve me not 5 minutes, I have been up 3 days and nights had only 2 hours rest I asked Mr. Colson to relieve me for a little time, told me he could not I was nearly used up. All the rest I would require in the 24 hours is 2 if I only could get it.”

An assistant was soon hired to provide some relief for Sergeant Maloney, but all the effort to fire the cannon was in vain, as mariners reported it was inaudible from the water. Fed up, Maloney soon resigned, and by August 1856, the cannon, the west coast’s first fog signal, was replaced by a mechanically struck bell installed near the lighthouse.

By the 1870s, it was clear that the fog signal and lighthouse should be relocated to the southwestern tip of Point Bonita, where they would be at a lower elevation and better able to serve mariners. A narrow path was carved into the rocky point and a landing platform, with a boom for unloading supplies, was built in Bonita Cove. A railway with a 45-degree incline connected the platform to the path, and a steam-powered winch was employed to pull small cars filled with supplies and construction materials up the track. One section of the rocky face proved impenetrable, and a wooden walkway had to be constructed to skirt this portion of the cliff.

A fog signal commenced operation at the new site in 1872, but two years later, it was undermined by a landslide, and the point was further leveled to provide a more secure site for another signal.

Point Bonita Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Before building a new lighthouse, access to the point had to be improved. In 1876, Chinese workmen, responsible for the Sierra tunnels of the Transcontinental Railroad, were brought in to dig a 118-foot tunnel through the rock that had previously resisted cutting. The tunnel allowed a railway to be extended from the landing platform west to the area where the keepers resided. Around this time, additional accommodations were built for the keepers next to the original dwelling.

The new lighthouse went into operation on February 2, 1877. Everything from the lower balcony up is from the original 1855 tower, including the Fresnel lens and eagle-shaped rainspouts. At 124 feet above sea level, the new tower was 200 feet lower than its predecessor.

There have been three light signatures at Point Bonita. The first light shone steady, but later a mechanical eclipser was installed to produce an occulting light with a signature of 25 seconds on, 5 seconds off. Currently the light flashes once every three seconds.

On the day after Christmas in 1896, Keeper George D. Cobb was on duty amid rain squalls and a gale wind, when he saw a sailboat capsize off the point, sending its three occupants into turbulent water. Cobb reacted immediately and soon had successfully launched the station’s rowboat. Upon reaching the sailboat, he found two unconscious men in the water and managed to pull them aboard his vessel. The third victim, cut and bleeding profusely, was soon found amongst some nearby rocks, and Cobb succeeded in pulling him aboard as well. All three of the sailors survived the incident, and Keeper Cobb was awarded the Life-Saving Service’s silver medal for his heroic rescue. This accident further punctuated the need for a life-saving station on the northern side of the Golden Gate. Such a station was established on Point Bonita in 1899.

In 1903, yet another fog signal building was built on Point Bonita just below and to the west of the lighthouse, and a new keeper’s residence was eventually built where the former fog signal had stood (at the eastern end of the suspension bridge). Although the keeper assigned to this dwelling no longer had to make a lengthy journey to reach the lighthouse, he was faced with other challenges. Keeper Alex Martin, who lived in the dwelling with his wife and young children, built harnesses to tether his children when they played outside. This foresight was prudent as a daughter, Dorothy, was once found dangling over the cliff in her harness. Unfortunately, no such restraint was provided for the family cat, and it fell to the water below.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse could be accessed by foot until 1940, when erosion cut a gap in the trail near the lighthouse. A breeches buoy was temporarily set up to permit access to the lighthouse until a wooden causeway was built. In 1954, the suspension bridge, which appropriately mirrors the style of the Golden Gate Bridge, was built over the chasm. After a Federal Highway Administration report concluded that the rusting bridge posed a danger to the visiting public, it was closed in 2010. Work on a new suspension bridge of a similar design began in September 2011, and the new bridge allowed public access to the lighthouse to resume in April 2012. The price tag for the work, which was built by Flatiron West of Benicia, was around $1 million.

The original keepers' dwelling was old and decrepit by the 20th century, but the residence would not be replaced until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake brought it crashing down in the early morning hours. Fortunately, the third assistant keeper and the family of keeper Hermann Engel escaped the crumbling building without injury. The original lighthouse, minus its lantern room, had been left standing atop Point Bonita as a daymark. It managed to survive the earthquake, but in 1907 the War Department demanded its removal, claiming it interfered with their purposes on the point.

On December 31, 1979, Point Bonita witnessed an unusual shipwreck. The tugboat Sentinel was pulling two barges through the gate: the Kona, carrying lumber, beer, and paper, and the Agattu, carrying deadly chlorine gas and a potentially explosive fertilizer component.

The tugboat hit unbelievable swells of 35-40 feet, and the towlines snapped setting both barges adrift near perilous rocks. If the Agattu lost its cargo, the ensuing vapor cloud would force the evacuation of the 700,000 residents of San Francisco.

The Kona hit the rocks sending logs and beer into the water. Miraculously, the Agattu landed further north in softer water. The canisters were safely airlifted from the Agattu, but Kona's beer was completely unsalvageable.

Point Bonita was the last manned lighthouse on the California coast. The last keeper, who by that time was living in Coast Guard housing constructed at the former life-saving station, left in April 1981. Point Bonita Lighthouse is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is run by the National Park Service. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the light and fog signal.

Head Keepers: Edward A. Colston (1854 – 1856), William Hanigan (1856), John Wolf (1856 – 1858), Jon H. Chapman (1858 – 1859), George D. W. Robinson (1859 – 1861), Thomas Unckless (1861 – 1865), Allen A. Unckless (1865 – 1869), Henry M. Place (1869), Cornelius Murphy (1869 – 1872), William Winfield Scott (1872 – 1874), John Bearcliff Brown (1874 – 1901), John F. Ingersoll (1901 – at least 1921), George Franklyn Watters (at least 1930 - at least 1940).

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. Guardians of the Golden Gate: Lighthouses and Lifeboat Stations of the San Francisco Bay, Ralph Shanks, 1998.
  2. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, Sept. 1999.

Location: Located in the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Latitude: 37.8155
Longitude: -122.5297

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


Travel Instructions: Take the first Highway 101 exit north of the Golden Gate Bridge and drive west on Conzelman Road for 4 miles, hugging the coast. Near the end of the road, you will find parking adjacent to Coast Guard housing. From the parking area, a 1/2-mile trail leads to the lighthouse. The trail passes through a tunnel, access to which is sealed by a metal door when the lighthouse is closed.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information on visiting the lighthouse or to make a reservation for a full-moon tour, call (415) 331-1540. The interior of the lighthouse is typically accessible, but not the tower.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard but scheduled for transfer to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Grounds open during tours, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Point Bonita Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Make sure your visit coincides with the visiting hours at the lighthouse, or you will not get the best possible views. A metal door, which is locked outside of visiting hours, restricts access to the narrow tunnel that passes through a rocky hill and leads to the lighthouse. After you pass through the tunnel, a suspension bridge connects the lighthouse to the mainland. Walking over the bridge to reach the lighthouse may be a bit unnerving to some, but the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the lens in the lighthouse are worth any feelings of vertigo.
Marilyn writes:
The fog cannon Click to view enlarged image(photograph kindly provided by Brian Leshak) originally used at the Point Bonita Lighthouse is now on display at Coast Guard Island in Alameda. A plaque mounted on the base of the cannon reads: "This 24 pounder siege gun, used in the Civil War, was first used as a fog signal on Point Bonita, California the entrance to San Francisco Bay. On 6 August 1855 an army sergeant was detailed to fire this gun every half hour whenever fog prevailed. Point Bonita averages 1,040 hours fog signal operation per year, which placed a considerable burden upon the sergeant. This procedure was discontinued in March 1858 due to the high cost of gun powder."

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