Lighthouse Friends Home Page
 Cape Mendocino, CA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Interior open or museum on site.
Description: Cape Mendocino is the westernmost point in California, just beating out Punta Gorda eleven miles to the south. Standing just offshore from the mountainous headland of Cape Mendocino is Sugar Loaf, a 326-foot sea stack. Several other large rocks protrude from the shallow waters along this stretch of coast, hinting that hidden ledges might lie just below the surface of the ocean waiting for a misguided vessel. That they do indeed exist is evidenced by dangerous Blunt's Reef located three miles off the cape.

On September 14, 1867 the lighthouse tender Shubrick was steaming towards Cape Mendocino loaded with men and supplies for construction of the station. Thirty miles south of Punta Gorda the side-wheeler tender struck a rock, puncturing her wooden hull. The ship's captain wisely chose to run her aground to save the vessel from sinking. The tender was salvaged, but all supplies were lost. A few months later, new supplies were successfully landed at the base of the headland at Cape Mendocino and hauled up the steep slope to the construction site.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Within a year, a two-story brick dwelling, a carpenter shop, a barn, and the lighthouse were completed. As the headland slopes steeply towards the ocean, level plateaus had to be carved out of the hill to provide suitable construction sites. The sixteen-sided, double-balconied Cape Mendocino Lighthouse was bolted to a concrete pad at a height of 422 feet above the sea, making it one of the highest lighthouses in the United States. The forty-three-foot iron tower with a double balcony is the older twin of the tower at Point Reyes, which soon would be built. The main difference between the two towers is the shape of the lantern room's roof. Cape Mendocinio's roof is rounded like an umbrella, while Point Reyes' resembles a Chinaman's hat. The first-order Fresnel lens, which had been landed at Eureka and transported overland to avoid the risky landing at the cape, started sending out its characteristic signal of one white flash every thirty seconds on December 1, 1868.

Living conditions on the exposed hillside were most difficult. Violent windstorms would break windows, and earthquakes frequently rattled the station causing significant damage to the structures. In just over forty years, housing for the keepers had to be completely rebuilt three times. The first dwelling didn't survive two years, being rendered uninhabitable by an earthquake in 1870.

Due to the steep terrain surrounding the station, the land frequently settled and slid during the wet season. As a result, floors warped and ceilings cracked. In the late 1890s, an assistant keeper and his family were forced to live in the oil house. Although the Lighthouse Board described the oil house as "almost uninhabitable on account of its bad and unsanitary conditions," it continued to be used as housing for several more years. It is not surprising that inspection reports during this time frequently listed the health of the occupants of the station as "poor" or "fair."

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The light station was serviced by lighthouse tender during its early years due to its remoteness. In 1881, the tender Manzanita arrived offshore and Inspector Charles McDougal boarded a boat to be rowed ashore. Large breakers capsized the vessel, tossing the occupants into the turbulent water. Three of the men aboard drowned, including McDougal, who was reportedly weighed down by a bag of gold coins fastened about his waist that was to be given as compensation to the keepers. A year later, McDougal’s widow was appointed keeper of the Mare Island Lighthouse near Vallejo, a position she would hold for thirty-five years.

In 1905, the Cape Mendocino station received neighbors when the Blunt's Reef Lightship was stationed offshore to more clearly mark that deadly hazard. The lightship would take on an unexpected role when the passenger steamer Bear ran aground nearby in 1916. Initially, the vessel’s lifeboats were used to row passengers ashore, however, after five people drowned in the surf, it was deemed safer to row towards the lightship. Somehow, one hundred and fifty survivors managed to squeeze aboard the lightship until they could be safely transported ashore.

New dwellings were constructed at Cape Mendocino in 1908. The head keeper’s dwelling was located three hundred feet southeast of the lighthouse and thirty-five feet higher on the slope. A duplex for the two assistants was built an additional fifty feet farther up the slope, on a terrace that was roughly one hundred fifty feet north of the head keeper’s dwelling.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Station was quite large, comprising 171 acres. Although much of the terrain was steep, the pastoral hills did provide good feed, and several keepers grazed cows at the station. An industrious assistant keeper named P. Hunter decided to raise ponies on the station for the stage line that ran past the lighthouse on its run between Ferndale and Petrolia. Given the undulating nature of the landscape near Cape Mendocino, a change of horses needed to be made just four miles northeast of the lighthouse in Capetown. Hunter provided horses for the stage until a gasoline vehicle was introduced on that line. Shortly after his supplemental income dried up, Hunter transferred to Punta Gorda to be closer to his hometown.

The elevated station proved an ideal lookout for vessel traffic. On an October day in 1926, Keeper M. M. Palmer observed that a passing steam schooner, the Everett, was afire. Using the station’s telephone, Palmer called for assistance. When a rescue vessel arrived at the Everett, it was discovered that the crew had been overcome by the fire’s fumes. The observant Keeper Palmer was credited with saving the lives of those aboard the Everett.

Modern Light - discontinued May 29, 2013
The Coast Guard took control of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in 1939, by which time the new caretakers were able to drive vehicles to their remote residences. Following World War II, the lighthouse was automated when the Fresnel lens was removed and a rotating aerobeacon was placed in the lantern room. The lens was taken to Ferndale, where in 1948 it was installed in a replica of the tower, constructed on the Humboldt County Fairgrounds. During each night of the fair, the lens was lit and sent forth its sixteen beams of glorious light, but then in 2008, the Coast Guard visited the lens to assess its condition and the manner in which it was housed. In April of 2010, the Ferndale City Manager received a letter from the Coast Guard explaining that "the continued deterioration of the lens, due to a lack of a controlled environment, and the potential for further damage must be addressed." A Save Our Lens group was established and successfully raised $100,000 to build a new home for the lens at the Ferndale Museum. The lens was removed from the replica lighthouse in September 2012 early and placed in storage at the fair grounds. The City of Ferndale has four years to build a climate-controlled exhibit space for the lens.

In July 1960, the two wooden keeper's dwellings along with the power house , oil house, and store house at Cape Mendocino were put up for sale to the highest bidder with the stipulation that the they be removed from the station. When no takers came forward, the wooden structures were burned in January 1962 and the remains were pushed over the cliff. The rotating beacon was removed from the tower in 1971 and placed on a pole farther up the hill.

The abandoned lighthouse was slowly inching down the hillside and gradually succumbing to rust until a movement was initiated to save the tower and relocate it thirty-five miles south to Shelter Cove. During the first week of November 1998, a helicopter from the Army National Guard lifted the lantern room off the tower at its old home and carried it south to Shelter Cove. The remaining pieces of the lighthouse were numbered, dismantled, and trucked to a nearby construction yard for renovation. In the summer of 1999, the lighthouse, restored, painted, and fitted with new glass by the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society, was reassembled at its new home at Point Delgada in Mel Coombs Park. The lighthouse was dedicated in September 2000 and opened to the public on Memorial Day 2001.

Head Keepers: Alfred May (1869), Joseph Corbett (1869 – 1871), Seth Chism (1871 – 1874), A. P. Marble (1874 – 1891), William C. Price (1891 – 1893), Robert Watson (1893 – 1894), David L. Spencer (1894 – 1895), William H. Otto (1895 – 1897), Peter Jensen (1897 – at least 1921), Morton M. Palmer (1924 - at least 1940).

References

  1. Lighthouses and Lifeboats of the Redwood Coast, Ralph Shanks, 1978.
  2. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.
  3. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.

Location: Formerly located on a high headland southwest of Ferndale, the lighthouse can now be seen at Mel Coombs Park in Shelter Cove, California.
Latitude: 40.02236
Longitude: -124.06946

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


Travel Instructions: To reach the lighthouse's old location, follow Mattole road southwest from Ferndale until you reach the ocean. Cape Mendocino Lighthouse was located on the headland just north of there, where you can see Sugar Loaf just offshore.

To see the lighthouse in its new home, take the Redwood Drive Exit from Highway 101 just north of Garberville and drive west for 23 miles to Shelter Cove. When you approach Shelter Cove, you will be on Shelter Cove Road. When that road tees, turn left onto Upper Pacific Road, and then right on Machi Road to reach the lighthouse. Cape Mendocino Lighthouse is open to the public Memorial Day to Labor Day, seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (subject to availability of docents). For the passport stamp after hours, call Roger Boedecker at (707) 986-1611.

A replica of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, which formerly housed the tower's original first-order Fresnel lens, can be seen at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds.

The lighthouse is owned by the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society. Grounds open, tower open in season.

Find the closest hotels to Cape Mendocino Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
We fortunately visited the tower at its original home, just a year before it was moved. The old lighthouse was neglected, rusted, scarred by graffiti, and leaned to the west, but those blemishes just made it more endearing and testified to the area's harsh conditions and the fortitude of the lighthouse. Reluctant to leave the lighthouse, we decided to linger until dark and were blessed with a glorious sunset behind the tower.

Although there was never an official lighthouse at Shelter Cove, it was home to a mighty, 3,340-pound fog bell. The bell was cast at the Navy Yard on Mare Island in 1883 and had served at Alcatraz Island, Los Angeles Harbor, and Carquinez Strait before arriving at Shelter Cove. After the bell was discontinued, the Coast Guard donated it to the Humboldt County Historical Society, who in turn gave the bell to the College of the Redwoods, near Eureka, where it is on display.

Marilyn writes:
In its new location it can be enjoyed by more people and preserved to last longer, but I miss the solitude of the lone sentinel in its old location.

See our List of Lighthouses in California

The lighthouses The Maps Our friends Lighthouse Resources Lighthouse Events Lighthouse Store Lighthouse Posters
Copyright © 2001- Lighthousefriends.com
Send us an e-mail - please note that lighthousefriends.com is not affiliated with any lighthouse

Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, L. LeFevre, Russell Barber, used by permission.