|Point Montara, CA|
Description: Many have heard of the following remark, attributed incorrectly to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” While the coast near San Francisco is not really subject to the arctic temperatures Twain complained of, the climate is conducive to heavy fog, and heavy fog, as every mariner knows, is conducive to shipwrecks. For years, vessels caught in the pea soup fog along the final approach to San Francisco Bay were forced to hug the coast, putting them in danger of the rocky outcroppings that provide beautiful vistas to sightseers, but prove deadly to boats. Although by the mid-1800s almost 90 vessels had met the business end of the jagged rocks off Montara, it wasn’t until two high profile incidents in 1868 and 1872 that Congress was finally propelled into action.
On November 9, 1868, the Colorado, a large Pacific Mail steamship carrying hundreds of passengers and the US mail, ran aground on the unseen shoals off Point Montara. Although the ship eventually floated free and all the passengers—and the mail—survived, the near disaster left its mark on public sentiment. The ledge where the ship had run aground, formerly called Uncle Sam, became known as “Colorado Reef”. Four years later another ship caught on Colorado Reef was not as lucky. On October 17, 1872, the British sailing ship Aculeo collided with the rocks after being lost for more than three days in blinding fog. As the ship cracked open and filled with water, the crew made its escape on lifeboats. For over a week, the abandoned ship was pounded by waves before a salvage crew could get to it.
However, 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, a three-masted Welsh ship, Rydal Hall, crashed in the fog onto Frenchman’s Reef. Only 21 members of the 30-man crew survived, and none of the cargo did. 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.
In 1900, the government installed a kerosene lantern on a post near the fog whistle, and the red beam could be seen for twelve miles. Two years later, the original fog signal was replaced by a one and a half story, wood-framed structure. Its design was typical of other fog-signal buildings of the period, and, except for a few minor cosmetic changes, it looks the same today as it did when it was built.
The Point Montara Lighthouse 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 that proved that in 1925 the Mayo Beach tower was sent from Massachusetts to Yerba Buena and then eventually to Point Montara. Standing only thirty feet high, the lighthouse is short by most standards, but good for keeping the beam beneath the fog.
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 fog horn was replaced by an off-shore horn buoy and the light was automated. 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 five 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 they reached an agreement on a long-term lease, and in 1978 the California legislature appropriated $1.9 million for renovation of abandoned lighthouses.
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 the 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.
Head Keepers: H. T. Holbrook (1875 – 1878), W. C. Price (1878 – 1880), George B. Koons (1880 – 1885), John C. Linne (1885 – 1889), David R. Splaine (1889 – 1895), Henry Hall (1895 – 1909), Patrick J. Dempsey (1909 – at least 1921), Herbert Luff (at least 1930), Frank W. Ritchie (at least 1940).
Located approximately 20 miles south of San Francisco off Highway 1. The tower is owned by the Coast Guard, and the grounds are managed by California State Parks. Grounds open, tower closed, fog signal building and Coast Guard dwelling open to guests.
The tower is owned by the Coast Guard, and the grounds are managed by California State Parks. Grounds open, tower closed, fog signal building and Coast Guard dwelling open to guests.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
It might be a bit odd to pay for accommodations when you have your own or a friend to stay with nearby, but we decided a stay at Point Montara might make for a memorable experience. We spent the night in the fog signal building, which besides the keeper's dwelling that is reserved for hostel staff, is the most historic structure on the premises. The fog signal building masquerades as a motel in the movie Bandits. The Sleepover Bandits and their housewife-accomplice spend the night at the "motel," and are shown lighting fireworks on the bluff just north of the fog signal building.
See our List of Lighthouses in California
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.