The next March, Congress appropriated $15,000 for a fog signal at Point Montara, to be positioned atop a rocky bluff seventy feet above the ocean. A signal at Point Montara would cut roughly in half the gap between earlier signals installed to the south at Pigeon Point and to the north at Point Bonita.
Work at Point Montara began in October 1874. The station’s two-story keeper’s dwelling, built in the Victorian Gothic style common to the day and reminiscent of many New England keeper’s dwellings, was completed the following February, and the fog signal was placed in operation on March 1, 1875. Point Montara’s twelve-inch steam whistle emitted a five-second blast that could be heard up to fifteen miles away. The whistle didn’t come cheap—it took between 150,000 and 200,000 pounds of coal to fuel it every year, depending on the number of foggy days. A hydraulic ram was used to force the needed water from a creek that ran through the reservation into a 2,000-gallon reservoir in the signal-house.
The fog signal wasn’t enough to prevent continuing disasters along that stretch of coast. Four years to the day after the Aculeo was impaled on Colorado Reef, the three-masted Welsh ship Rydal Hall crashed in the fog onto Frenchman’s Reef. Only twenty-one members of the thirty-man crew survived, and the cargo was a total loss. Salvage was impossible—the broken ship languished almost a month on the rocks before cracking apart, meanwhile spilling tons of coal into the water and onto the beach. Further wrecks of ships carrying railroad iron and lumber littered the rocky coast as more vessels met their ends against the rocks. The captain of one schooner, the Ada May, mistook the Montara fog signal for the one at Point Bonita to the north, and thought he was entering the Golden Gate when he pummeled onto the rocks at Montara.
The fog signal building was enlarged in 1881 to house a duplicate fog-signal, and a barn and stable were added to the station in 1884. A twelve-foot-high sounding board that extended over three-quarters of the length of the signal-house’s roof was placed in back of the whistles in 1897 to focus the sound seaward.
The humble lens lantern was finally upgraded on June 15, 1912 to a fourth-order Fresnel lens set atop a white pyramidal skeletal iron tower. The illuminant was changed at this time from oil to incandescent oil vapor. The characteristic was changed from fixed red to a white light that was visible for two-and-a-half seconds and then eclipsed for the same amount of time, and the light’s power was increased from about 42 to 3,200 candlepower. The candlepower was increased to 25,000 in 1919, but the biggest change came in 1928 with the arrival of a new lighthouse tower. While its conical shape is similar to other California lighthouses, the bolted, metal-sided frame is unique in the state.
This metal tower first saw service from 1881 to 1922 at Mayo Beach on Cape Cod. For years, it was believed that the Mayo Beach tower had been destroyed after the light was discontinued in 1922, but while conducting research for a lighthouse book, Colleen MacNeney came across a 1928 photograph of a tower in Yerba Buena, California with the following inscription: “This tower formerly used at Mayo Beach, 2d District.” This discovery prompted MacNeney to dig deeper, and she eventually found correspondence in the National Archives proving that the Mayo Beach tower was sent from Massachusetts to Yerba Buena in 1925 and then eventually erected at Point Montara. Standing only thirty feet high, the lighthouse is short by most standards, but good for keeping the beam beneath the fog.
Not much is known about the lives of Point Montara’s head keepers and assistant keepers, and what little was captured in local newspapers isn’t flattering. Henry Hall, whose real name appears to have been Neils. H. Hald, served as head keeper from 1895 to 1908. A newspaper item in January 1909 explains what ended the forty-one-year-old keeper’s career: “Neils Hall, the light house keeper at Point Montara, who pleaded guilty to criminal assault in the superior court, today was sentenced to 10 years at San Quentin by Superior Judge Buck. When sentence was pronounced the prisoner broke down and wept like a child. The crime for which Hall was sentenced was committed upon his 15 year old stepdaughter.”
Point Montara saw some changes during World War II, when it was used to house military units, including the K-9 Corps and a mobile artillery unit, but the 1970s ushered in a new life for the lighthouse. In 1970, the foghorn was replaced by an off-shore horn buoy and the light was automated, and the original Fresnel lens was removed to the San Mateo County Historical Society Museum, where it is still on display. As lighthouses along the California coast were automated, the keeper’s cottages had little value and the Coast Guard decided to tear down most of the dwellings. Fortunately, the State of California developed a plan in 1975 to transform a few vacant lighthouses into youth hostels, with Point Montara as a prime candidate. Not surprisingly, red tape slowed down the project, with the Coast Guard offering only a short-term lease and the state hesitant to invest much money without a long-term lease. Eventually the two parties reached an agreement on a long-term lease, and in 1978 the California legislature appropriated $1.9 million for the creation of nine hostels.
The restoration and conversion of both Point Montara and nearby Pigeon Point Lighthouse were conducted simultaneously and ended up needing more funds than the state had allotted. Various organizations offered financial assistance: AYH staff and volunteers provided $45,000 worth of labor; the California Department of Parks and Recreation contributed more than $100,000; the California Coastal Conservancy donated money, and even local businesses and banks made contributions.
The finished product was worth the effort. The Victorian keeper’s dwelling at Point Montara was renovated and now houses the staff for Point Montara Hostel. Two kitchens, a dining room, and bedrooms for the guests are located in Coast Guard housing built adjacent to the original dwelling, and the fog signal building has been renovated to provide two dorm rooms and a large common room. The hostel opened for visitors on July 15, 1980.
Now, visitors to Point Montara can not only view the lighthouse, but also act out their fantasies of being lighthouse keepers by sleeping in the fog signal building. When the coast isn’t blanketed in fog, the view is spectacular, and the coastal setting is quite romantic.