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 Point Sur, CA    
A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Boo! Lighthouse haunted.
Description: Two tall coastal towers, Piedras Blancas and Pigeon Point, were constructed in the early 1870s to help light the California coast. However, between these two, distant towers, no major coastal light existed, leaving a good portion of the coast dark to mariners. The 1874 Report of the Lighthouse Board read in part: "Vessels leaving San Francisco for the south, having proceeded as far as Pigeon Point Light, take their departure for Point Sur, some 60 miles distant, the great indentation of Monterey Bay intervening. Vessels to the southward bound to San Francisco having arrived at Piedras Blancas, take their departure for Point Sur again about 60 miles distant; hence Point Sur is the most important point and should be the site of a lighthouse. In considering the various points on the California coast where lighthouses are still required Point Sur claims the place of greatest importance."

Point Sur Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Further punctuating the need for a lighthouse at Point Sur, the steamship Ventura ran aground on rocks just north of the point in April of 1875. After a decade of requests, Congress finally allocated $50,000 in 1886 and 1887 to construct the Point Sur Lighthouse.

Point Sur is a large, 361-foot-tall rock, which seems as if it has been broken off from the nearby mountains and pushed oceanward, leaving a low lying area of land in between. The low land connecting the rock to the mainland is known technically as a tombolo, and in the past, water has swept completely around the rock, cutting it off from the mainland.

Before construction could begin, various parts of the rock's ten to twelve foot wide summit had to be blasted to provide level areas large enough to accommodate the light station buildings. To transport materials to the summit, a tramway flanked by a wooden stairway was built on the eastern side of the rock. Logs and granite stones used in construction of the buildings were cut and quarried from the surrounding hills. The stations buildings are scattered over the rock at varying heights. The lighthouse was placed in a notch on the northwestern extreme of the rock, several feet below the summit so as to be located below the typical fog level. The northern wing of the granite lighthouse housed the boilers for powering the twelve-inch steam whistle, and the southern wing served as a watchroom and storage room for fuel.

A three-story, granite triplex, was built near the southern end of the rock and was designed to house three keepers and their families. As four keepers were assigned to the station, a building used to house the assistant engineer during construction of the station was left standing to accommodate the fourth keeper. A picket fence was placed around the dwelling area to prevent the keepers' children from falling off the rock. Next to the granite triplex, a one-story granite structure housed the steam engine for powering the tramway’s winch. A 53,000 gallon cistern was also built atop the rock to store water pumped from a well located in the flats near the base of the rock.

After two years of construction work, the station was ready to fulfill its purpose. A first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in 1887 by Barbier & Fenestre of Paris, was shipped around Cape Horn on a square-rigged sailing vessel. The 4,330-pound lens was then assembled in the lantern room, where a kerosene lantern illuminated it for the first time on August 1, 1889. The signature of the light was alternating white and red flashes spaced fifteen seconds apart. A 450-pound weight was suspended beneath the lens, and after being cranked up by the keeper, it would rotate the lens for four hours. The keepers were also kept busy feeding the steam-powered whistle that issued a five second blast every thirty-five seconds.

Fresnel lens from Point Sur Lighthouse
As Highway 1 was not completed until 1937, the keepers and their families lived an isolated life. Soil had been hauled to the top of the rock to permit the families to cultivate a small vegetable garden. Other food staples and most of the supplies for the station arrived aboard a lighthouse tender, which called at the rock about every four months. A second tramway was constructed on the southern side of the rock, where it led from the summit to a wharf perched above the water. Supplies were placed in cargo nets and then hoisted from the small skiffs to the wharf where they could be placed on the railcars and winched to the dwelling area. A combination carpenter/blacksmith shop was built on the rock to help the keepers be even more self-sufficient. A live-in teacher schooled the keepers children, until a one-room schoolhouse was built near Highway 1.

In 1900, the road that snakes around the seaward side of the rock was built for transporting supplies. Shortly thereafter, the building that housed the tramway hoist engine, which was no longer needed, was converted into a dwelling for the head keeper, while the three assistants used the triplex. Around this same time, the barn that was located near the base of the rock was razed and replaced with a new one on top of the rock. At one time, Keeper Thomas Henderson kept a cow in the barn and sold its milk to the other keepers. It seems Assistant Keeper Bill Owens did not get along too well with Henderson. After a quarrel between the two, Henderson refused to sell any milk to Owens, so Owens arranged for milk to be delivered to the station's gate on Highway 1 each day. When Henderson lifted his restriction, Owens declined the offer and continued to receive the deliveries. Not surprisingly, Owens soon requested and received a transfer to Point Arena.

Though various shipwrecks occurred near this stretch of coast, perhaps the most famous wreck was that of the USS Macon, a rigid airship which went down in a squall on February 12, 1935, not far from the lighthouse. The helium-filled dirigible was 785 feet in length and housed four biplanes used for reconnaissance. Keeper Henderson witnessed the event and at a Naval Board of Inquiry gave the following testimony: “When it was just abreast of the Point the fin seemed to go to pieces very suddenly. The fabric drifted back, some of it caught on the rudder. I know that there was a portion of the frame remaining but I cannot say whether any of the frame carried away. The failure seemed to start at the forward end of the fin. The front part (of the Macon) rose up, then crumbled up swiftly. I could see a hole at the top of the hull.” The Naval ships, which the airship was accompanying, were able to rescue all but two of the 83-man crew.

The light station was automated in 1972, and the support buildings were boarded up. Fearing vandalism, the lens was loaned to the Maritime Museum of Monterey where it is currently on exhibit. A rotating aero beacon now shines from the lantern room. The California Department of Parks and Recreation along with the Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers have done a great job restoring the light station. Most of the structures built on the rock still stand, making it one of the most complete light stations in California. The blacksmith/carpenter shop, the barn, and the lantern room of the tower have all been restored, and a water tower, which doubles as a cellular tower, has been reconstructed. Before its restoration, the base of the lantern room was white, but it has now been returned to its historic black coloring. The visitor's center at the station has an exhibit on the USS Macon containing artifacts recovered from the airship by a joint Naval and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute expedition, which visited and photographed the wreck in 1990.

On April 23, 2004, the Point Sur Lighthouse was officially transferred from the Coast Guard to California State Parks, under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

Head Keepers: James Nightwine (1889 – 1890), John F. Ingersoll (1890 – 1908), John W. Astrom (1908 – 1927), William Mollering (1927 – at least 1930), Thomas Henderson (1930s), Charles R. Cursey (at least 1940).

References

  1. "Point Sur," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log Summer 1989.

Location: Located just off Highway 1, roughly 23 miles south of Monterey and 1/4 mile north of the Point Sur Naval Facility.
Latitude: 36.30632
Longitude: -121.90149

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


Travel Instructions: Docent-led three-hour tours of Point Sur State Historic Park are offered Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays throughout the year. For a list of specific tour times and more information on the ongoing restoration work, see the Point Sur Light Station website. You can also contact the lighthouse at (831) 625-4419.

The meeting place for tours is along the west side of Highway 1, roughly 23 miles south of Monterey. Tours are first-come, first-served. The lighthouse is located on the far side of the large rock formation west of the highway. Visitors get the chance to climb the lighthouse and tour one of the keeper's dwellings. A distant view of the station is possible from Highway 1.

The lighthouse is owned by California State Parks and is part of Point Sur State Historic Park. Grounds/dwelling/tower open during tours.

Find the closest hotels to Point Sur Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Gerald Salyer contributed this photograph of his receiving a re-enlistment oath at the Point Sur Lighthouse on November 12, 1976. At the time, he was living at the Naval facility at Big Sur. The photograph shows that the lens was still in the lantern room but its function had been replaced by a modern aero beacon mounted on the roof of the fog signal building.
Marilyn writes:
Tour and lighthouse are both wonderful and a "must see." It would be spectacular with the original lens back in place. A visit to see the lens in Monterey is worth the drive up the coast from the light. The lens is amazing!

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