At 11 p.m. on December 2, 1853, the side-wheel steamer Winfield Scott ran aground on Middle Anacapa Island in dense fog, jolting its passengers awake. En route to Panama from San Francisco, the vessel had a passenger list that included individuals who had struck it rich during the gold rush. Although everyone made it safely to shore in the ship’s lifeboats, the atmosphere immediately following the wreck was frenzied as “every one was for himself, with no thought of anything but saving his life and his (gold) dust.” The Winfield Scott was a total loss, and its remains still lie submerged just north of the island.
The notoriety of the grounding prompted President Franklin Pierce to issue an executive order reserving Anacapa Island for lighthouse purposes. The U.S. Coast Survey visited the island in 1854 and concluded that, although the island’s position at the southeast entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel was a natural choice for a lighthouse, “it is inconceivable for a lighthouse to be constructed on this mass of volcanic rock – perpendicular on every face, with an ascent inaccessible by any natural means.” James Whistler, who later became famous for his painting of his mother, was part of the survey team and produced an etching showing the profile of the eastern extremity of Anacapa Island.
On February 28, 1921, the steamer Liebre grounded on the east end of Anacapa Island directly under the light and sustained estimated damages of $40,000. The grounding must have happened in foggy conditions as inspectors noted that the whistling buoy had capsized and was not operational. As approximately nine-tenths of all vessels trading up and down the Pacific Coast passed inside the islands of the Santa Barbara Channel, the American Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots petitioned for a proper fog signal on Anacapa. Funds for what would be the last major light station to be built on the west coast were finally allocated in the late 1920s. At the time, there wasn’t a fog signal between Point Vicente and Point Conception, a distance of 112 miles.
The construction of the station was carried out in two phases and commenced in the spring of 1930. A landing dock, a hoisting crane, and roads were added first, and then work began on the various station buildings. A thirty-nine-foot, cylindrical tower and a fog signal were built near the highest point on the eastern end of the island. Four Spanish-style, white stucco houses with red tile roofs were provided for the keepers and their families. As the island had no source of fresh water, a large cement catchment basin, measuring 120 feet by 150 feet, was placed on the island to feed rainwater into two 50,000-gallon, redwood storage tanks located up the hill from the dwellings. The elevated location of the tanks provided sufficient water pressure for the dwellings, but a pump operated by compressed air was used to feed the fire hydrants. Unfortunately, the eight inches of annual rainfall typical for this arid climate only amounted to 30,000 gallons of water each year, and additional water had to be pumped up to the tanks from a tender that periodically called at the station’s cove. The tanks proved to be inviting targets to armed boaters, and a two-story cement building, known as the “church,” was later built to protect the precious water supply.
A powerhouse near the four dwellings sheltered three five-kilowatt, 115-volt, compound-wound, direct-current generators, individually driven by 10-horsepower 1,200 revolutions per minute gasoline engines, that provided electricity for the station. Gasoline for the engines was stored in an oil house located 125 feet from the powerhouse, and the oil house was on high enough ground to permit gravity flow to fuel tanks located in concrete pits near the powerhouse. Two gasoline engines that powered the compressors for sounding the station’s fog signal were also located in the powerhouse along with the radiobeacon equipment.
Living on an island ringed with cliffs could he hazardous. In November 1934, Catherine Coursey, wife of assistant keeper Charles R. Coursey, was critically injured in a fall, and the saving of her life was credited to the battleship California, which responded to an emergency call and rushed her to a hospital on shore. On June 5, 1948, Donald Thorne, a seventeen-year-old coastguardsman who had been serving on the island just over a week, was killed when he fell 150 feet from a cargo net being hoisted to the top off the landing. Stairs led up the cliff at the landing, but the men stationed on the island frequently caught a ride on the cargo net.
In March 1951, Roger Douke and Charles T. Collins, two coastguardsmen stationed at Anacapa Island Lighthouse, went out on a fishing trip near the island in a twelve-foot motorboat. When the men failed to return, a search was launched, and a plane soon spotted the men’s overturned motorboat in a kelp bed about a quarter-mile from the lighthouse. A Coast Guard cutter was dispatched to the scene and recovered the men's bodies the day after they were reported missing. Douke, who was in charge of the station, was living on the island with his mother, while Collins had his wife and a child at the station.
In March 1956, the Coast Guard personnel on the island consisted of three couples, who each had one of the residences, and five bachelors who occupied the fourth dwelling. Lois Boylan, wife of Officer in Charge Larry Boylan, claimed that life on the island wasn’t as lonely as you might think. The three Coast Guard wives “would gab over the phone just like the girls on the mainland” even though they lived close enough to each other to lean out their windows and talk back and forth. Living in isolation also seemed to have a health benefit, as neither of the two Boylan children had been sick one day since moving to the island.
In 1938, under the direction of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands became Channel Islands National Monument. A plan was proposed in 1962 to convert the Coast Guard’s Anacapa Island Station to unattended operation and remove all personnel. One of the major reasons for this change was the test firing of missiles from Point Mugu that required island residents to spend several hours each week in a shelter. The station remained staffed, but starting in 1962, families were no longer allowed on the island, and all coastguardsmen stationed on the island shared a single residence.
In 1980, Congress designated five of the eight Channel Islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands, and 50,500 hectares (125,000 acres) of submerged lands as Channel Islands National Park. Visitors to Anacapa Island today can see the lighthouse, fog signal building, one of the original keeper’s dwellings, the water storage building, the powerhouse, and the third-order Fresnel lens, which was removed from the tower in 1989 and placed on display in the Anacapa Island Visitor Center, formerly the station’s service building.
James W. Baker served on Anacapa Island for almost a year and a half starting in February 1956. After an absence of more than forty years, he returned to the island with his wife in 2001 to view the old station. Baker’s admiration and affection for the Fresnel lens used in Anacapa Lighthouse are evidenced in the following lines he composed after his visit. “The multifaceted crystal lenses, bound in polished brass, are still among man’s most beautiful creations. A static display of a lighthouse lens in a museum, however, is similar to viewing an animal in a zoo. Once removed from its natural habitat it’s never quite the same. I get chills remembering foggy nights when the sweep of the powerful light flashed through the mist, illuminating a small part of the sky.”