As ships hugged the California coast traveling northward, it is understandable how several ran aground on Punta Gorda. A lighthouse was established on Cape Mendocino in 1868, and twenty years later the Lighthouse Board first requested funds for a light on Punta Gorda:
Between Shelter Cove and Punta Gorda there are several dangerous sunken rocks off the shore that add to the hazards of navigation. In ordinary dark nights the overhanging mountains keep the shore-line in dark shadow and confuse the best navigator as to his distance from shore, so that it is impossible to make out this high rounding point either from the south or from the north. Moreover, from reports made to the Coast and Geodetic Survey it appears that little is known as to the currents of this part of the coast. The conclusion is reached, therefore, that the interests of commerce and navigation require that a light and fog-signal be established at or near Punta Gorda, California.
Contractors were invited to submit sealed proposals for building Punta Gorda Light Station at the office of the Lighthouse Engineer in San Francisco before March 25, 1910, and later that year construction materials were landed at the point by schooner. After being highlined to shore, the materials were loaded onto horse-drawn sleds, and dragged less than a mile south to the construction site. Within a year, a frame fog signal building, a barn, three substantial dwellings with companion storage sheds, and a blacksmith/carpenter shop were completed.
The station’s first-class air siren, driven by gas engines, was placed in operation on June 22, 1911, but it would be approximately seven more months before the twenty-seven-foot-tall, reinforced-concrete lighthouse was completed. The light from the lighthouse’s fourth-order lens and oil-vapor lamp was first exhibited on January 15, 1912 by Head Keeper Frederick A. Harrington and his assistants Paschal Hunter and W.E. Greer. The fog signal produced a two-second blast every fifteen seconds as needed, while the bivalve lens emitted a double flash every fifteen seconds. The total cost for the station came to $59,814.51. Keeper Harrington had previously served as first assistant keeper at Table Bluff Lighthouse, and his father was currently serving as head keeper of Trinidad Head Lighthouse.
The isolated light station sits on a narrow bench bordered by hills rising abruptly to the east and the Pacific Ocean spreading out to the west. An eleven-mile journey by horseback or wagon was required to reach the small town of Petrolia, and this trip was only possible when weather and tides permitted. The first oil wells in California that produced crude to be refined and sold commercially were drilled near Petrolia, hence the name of the town.
At 1:08 a.m. on January 22, 1923, the sleepy residents at Punta Gorda were jolted awake by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, which had an epicenter off Cape Mendocino. The tremor cracked the foundation of the head keeper’s dwelling and opened up some old cracks in a second dwelling. In the lighthouse, some mercury on which the lens revolved escaped, and about thirty gallons of oil sloshed out of the oil tanks in the oil house. A landslide triggered by the earthquake leveled a telephone pole near the station.
For several decades, “Old Bill” served as the stations four-footed link to the outside world. Old Bill was well acquainted with life at a lighthouse. He was born at a light station, served at Point Reyes, and arrived at Punta Gorda aboard a lighthouse tender. Wayne Piland’s daughter Nancy described Old Bill as “mean and ornery.” The horse also had a quirk that made him difficult to ride. Whenever he approached a puddle, no matter the size, he would try to jump across it. Fortunately, Keeper Piland was experienced with horses, and after he braided a small whip, Piland and Old Bill got along just fine.
Like many other light stations along the California coast, Punta Gorda was used by the military during World War II. The station’s population increased for a few years as several Coast Guard recruits were sent to patrol the beach south of the station towards Shelter Cove, but the beach patrol was discontinued at the end of the war.
The government finally built a road from the Mattole River along the foot of the bluffs to Windy Point in 1935 and another section from Windy Point to the lighthouse. With a jeep and a tractor, life at the station seemed much easier, but then the winter storms arrived. After heavy rains, water would stream down the canyons, severing the road in several places, and powerful, storm-driven surf would deposit large logs and other debris on the roadway. It was a good thing Old Bill was still on hand for an occasional supply trek to civilization.
Ron Thomas, a 115-pound, seventeen-year-old from Los Angeles who had to wear platform shoes to meet the Coast Guard’s height requirement, was assigned to Punta Gorda Lighthouse in November 1949, when Samuel Mostovoy was serving as the Coast Guard Officer-in-Charge. A fellow coastguardsman named Blossfield picked Thomas up at Humboldt Bay and drove him to the Mattole River, where he first met the station’s three horses: Tom, Jerry, and Bill. Blossfield fastened Thomas’ sea bag on Bill’s pack saddle and set the horses free. After seeing the horses disappear over a hill, Thomas asked Blossfield how far it was to the lighthouse. “Seven miles,” responded Blossfield, and Thomas thought his sea bag was gone for good.
The station’s three single men would give their $67.50 monthly food allowance to the officer-in-charge’s wife, who would then cook all their meals. This was a good deal until Thomas found dog hair from the officer-in-charge’s Scotty in his food. Unable to tolerate the hair, Thomas was forced to cook his own food, and the other two bachelors soon wanted to join him when they saw the meals he prepared. Thomas put on sixty pounds with his diet of fresh abalone, trout, deer meat, and milk from the station’s cow.
Electricity eventually did reach Punta Gorda, but the power line was unreliable and multiple generators had to be kept on hand. The remoteness of the station made it one of the more costly to maintain, so when improvements in navigation lessened the need for a manned lighthouse in the area, the Coast Guard placed a lighted buoy offshore, removed the Fresnel lens, and boarded up the structures. After having spent more years at Punta Gorda than any keeper, Old Bill was sold to a lady in Ferndale.
When the Coast Guard left in 1951, control of the station passed to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A counter-culture group, described as long-haired hippies, took up residence in the dwellings during the 1960s. After chasing the squatters off several times, the BLM decided to burn down all of the wooden structures in 1970. All that remains of the station are the concrete lighthouse and oil house, and a few concrete pads where other structures once stood. The residences and storage sheds at Punta Gorda resembled those built just one year earlier at Point Cabrillo, and fortunately those at Point Cabrillo have survived and been restored.
The lighthouse and oil house were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and shortly thereafter the Honeydew volunteer fire department spent time at the station repairing cracks in the masonry, welding breaks in the lighthouse’s staircase and railings, and sandblasting and painting the structures. The station received further attention in 1989 when the California Conservancy Corps restored and painted the structures.
Hikers along California’s Lost Coast are a bit surprised to encounter a couple of rustic cabins near Fourmile Creek, but had all of the picturesque structures at Punta Gorda remained standing, one can only imagine what a contrast the craftsman-style buildings would be to what is otherwise very remote and unspoiled territory.