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 Humboldt Harbor, CA    
Lighthouse destroyed.
Description: Humboldt Bay is the largest bay in California north of San Francisco. Two long thin spits separate the bay from the ocean, and a narrow opening between them provides the bay’s only entrance from the ocean. The town of Eureka was established along the shores of the northern portion of the bay in 1850, and just one year later Humboldt Bay was chosen to receive one of the first eight lighthouses commissioned for the west coast.

The actual site selected for the light was a parcel of land on the spit just north of the bay’s entrance, where it could serve both as a harbor light and a seacoast light. The contract for the first west coast lighthouses was awarded to Gibbons and Kelly, and most of them were constructed using a design by Ammi B. Young that called for a one-and-a-half-story dwelling built around a central tower. While other similarly designed lighthouses were built atop high bluffs or hills, where a tall tower was not necessary, the Humboldt Bay Lighthouse was built on the beach. Old photographs of the lighthouse show a distinct circular ring at a height where the lantern room was placed on similar lighthouses, lending to speculation that at some point the tower of the Humboldt Bay Lighthouse was extended to increase its range. The Humboldt Bay Lighthouse was also unique in that trapezoidal panes were used in the lantern room, rather than the typical square panes.

On the evening of December 20th, 1856, Keeper J. Johnson climbed the winding stairs from the dwelling to the lantern room and lit the lamp in the fourth-order Fresnel lens for the first time, making the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse the last of the original eight west coast lights to become operational. Due to problems with contractors and difficulty in transporting supplies to the site, a couple of the second group of eight lighthouses commissioned for the west coast were actually completed before the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse.

Keeper reliably performed his duty for just over three years before his death on February 25, 1859. His wife, Sarah E. Johnson, took over the job of keeper, and remained at the station until 1863.

Cupola from Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse
The low-lying site selected for the lighthouse proved problematic and plans to relocate the light were soon formulated as noted in this excerpt from the 1867 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board.

The breakwater of logs which was constructed last year seems to have answered the purpose of protecting the foundation of the structure, although the sand on the spit is constantly changing, and it is not improbable that the breakwater may at some future time be washed away and the stability of the lighthouse endangered. In this view of the case the Board has under consideration the propriety of removing this light to a point about four miles south of the entrance to Humboldt Bay, known as Table Bluff.

Another reason noted for moving the light was the fog that frequently shrouded the spits and rendered the entrance light ineffective. In one year alone, over 1,100 hours of fog were noted. Funds for relocating the light were not provided, but Congress allocated $10,000 in 1874 for a steam fog whistle on the north spit. The additional keeper required to staff the station was temporarily housed in the woodshed until a new dwelling could be built.

Earthquakes in 1877 and 1882 caused considerable damage to the lighthouse. For reinforcement, iron anchors were installed inside the walls and timber braces were placed around the exterior to prop up the dwelling. The likely flooding of the station as foretold in an earlier annual report did eventually happen and was recorded in the report for 1885.

During an extraordinary high tide on November 24, 1885, a great quantity of driftwood swept across the north spit, upon which the lighthouse and fog signal stand, by which all the buildings were temporarily endangered. The cellar of the old dwelling and tower was filled with water, and a dangerous increase in its settlement and cracking of the walls was noted. Upon careful examination it was decided that the combined tower and dwelling was unsafe for occupancy. It was then decided in view of the proposed removal of the station to Humboldt (Table) Bluff, that a building should be put up for the temporary accommodation for the principal keeper, of such a character that it could be moved later across the bay to a new location and used as a fog signal shed, the existing one on the spit not being in good enough condition to warrant such removal.

The new residence was built for the principal keeper, and the light continued to be displayed from the tower. In 1891, Congress finally approved the appropriation for a lighthouse and fog signal at Table Bluff, and the new station was completed the following year. Lens lanterns mounted on wooden frames were placed to mark the entrance to the harbor, and the Fresnel lens was transferred from the spit to the Table Bluff Lighthouse on Halloween of 1892.

Though heavily damaged over the years, the abandoned Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse remained standing for several decades. In the late 1890s, the lighthouse was occupied by U.S. Ward Department employees making improvements to the harbor entrance. It was soon realized that a fog signal was still needed to mark the entrance to the bay, and a new fog signal station was established on the northern spit in 1908. A life-saving station established in 1878 was located just a few hundred feet north along the bay from the new fog signal station. The life-saving station is now home to the Coast Guard, but the only remaining signs of the second fog signal station is a cluster of trees near the entrance channel.

The roof of the old lighthouse eventually collapsed, but the circular tower and portions of the exterior walls of the dwelling remained standing into the 1930s. Around 1933, the tower came crashing down, but just how is not exactly known. Rumor has it that a few of the Coast Guardsmen stationed nearby toppled the tower as a prank. Amazingly, the ruins of the lighthouse were left pretty much intact, and in 1987, the cupola that graced the top of the lantern room was found buried in the sand. The outline of the dwelling and tower and even the front steps of the lighthouse remain at the site today, surrounded by scores of weathered bricks. The area would be a prime candidate for an archaeological study by a college or historical society.

Head Keepers: J. Johnson (1856 – 1859), Sarah E. Johnson (1859 – 1863), G. H. Nye (1863 – 1869), R. E. Foster (1869) A. P. Marble (1869 – 1874), George Sceva (1874 – 1875), Thomas J. Winship (1875 – 1877), William Daykin (1877 – 1883), William C. Price (1883 – 1891), Tony Schmoll (1891 – at least 1912).

References

  1. "Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse," George Worthylake, The Keeper's Log, Summer 1998.
  2. Lighthouses and Lifeboats of the Redwood Coast, Ralph Shanks, 1978.
  3. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.

Location: The remains of the Humboldt Bay Lighthouse are found on the north spit of Humboldt Bay.
Latitude: 40.7691
Longitude: -124.221

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


Travel Instructions: From Highway 101 in Eureka, take 255 north to Samoa. When the road tees, turn left and continue south on the spit. Near the Coast Guard station, you will enter a park area. Follow the signs to the OHV staging area, park, walk across the road you entered on and look for a sign marking the Wetlands Hiking Trail. Follow the trail for just a short distance, and you will find the ruins.

The lighthouse's cupola can be seen at the Humbolt Bay Maritime Museum located next to the Samoa Cookhouse. Phone: (707) 444-9440. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. in season.

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